MIKE KNUBLE grew up in Kentwood, Mich., played hockey for the University of Michigan, held the Stanley Cup in his hands at the end of his first two NHL seasons with Detroit. "The passion it brings out in the city and the fans is something you never forget," he said after the Flyers' practice yesterday. "In Detroit they had all those flags hanging on the cars . . .

"You got tired of it almost after 2 years in a row. It sounds crazy but . . . It was like, 'There's that damn Cup again.' "

Ten long years later, after stops in Detroit, with the New York Rangers and Boston, after his midcareer transformation from NHL grinder to goal-scorer, Knuble, 35, sometimes drives home from the rink conjuring up that image, sometimes imagines what that skate around the ice

after the NHL's final game would feel like again. He tries not to, he said, because the Flyers have won only eight of the

16 games necessary for that dream to be a reality. But it doesn't always work, and it does not make him tired.

"It's only natural," he said. "You're thinking about the next few weeks and what could happen here."

There would be flags out car windows for sure. There would be people dancing on their cars, people dancing in various stages of undress, a Flyers jersey on old William Penn. And there would be that parade with millions lining Broad Street on a sun-splashed day, the parade that people a few years younger than Knuble have never seen but have dreamed of at least as many times as Knuble has dreamed of holding that damn Cup again.

"The run," he said. "You forget how it can consume a city. And consume everybody. People I don't even know. I go to put my trash out and people honk the horn going by. People I've never seen before.

"I don't know if it's good that they know where I'm living all the time."

The truth is, Knuble has not made that a secret. He lives on a well-used street near a well-used building in one of those South Jersey towns where, on a warm summer night, you know what your neighbor is watching on television.

It always has been part of the Flyers' charm, that one of them might live in the next town over, the next block over, or even the next door down. It's part of why their fan base is so devout, to the point of being protective. Unlike so many athletes who become millionaires here, many, many, many Flyers have embraced the community rather than stiff-armed it.

Especially the ones who have experienced success here.

Ron Hextall is beloved, especially now that he's not allowing any more soft goals. Chris Therien is feeling it these days, too.

At some point, and probably sooner rather than later, some kid will ask:

"Wait . . . Keith Primeau didn't win a Cup?"

These Flyers are entering that territory. Knuble can feel it when he takes out the garbage. Marty Biron can feel it when he is mobbed at a store. Already they have taken out the hottest team in hockey via a sweat-drenched, seventh-game overtime victory and they have run through the top team in their conference in five games.

And now they get to play a team that hates to play them.

Because of that hamstring injury suffered in Game 5 against Washington, Knuble has played in seven of the 12 games so far. His three goals and four assists place him among the team leaders anyway, and he is plus-5, among the team's best.

He is an established star these days, a far cry from that young guy who mostly sat the bench and watched the big names win back-to-back Cups 10 years ago, including a four-game sweep over the favored Flyers.

"That team had six Hall of Famers on it," he said. "But you couldn't tell. They just went about their business and did what they did all year. I remember Steve Yzerman blocking shots and little things like that. I mean, there's your captain getting hit with pucks all the time."

Now, it's him. His chance. His time. He knows now he shouldn't assume there will be another chance for him or his team to etch his name into that damn Cup, to stitch his team permanently into the fabric of this city, to consume us.

"The whole atmosphere of the whole thing has been tremendous," he said. "I mean, it's 24 hours . . . You want to remember this time. You want to cherish it. You don't want to run from it. You want to take it in, breathe it in and be ready to play." *

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