Apr 1, 2017

by Tom Witsky

How Iowa Wild forward Luke Kunin plays hockey became crystal clear to Coach Derek Lalonde when he watched how the rookie scored his third and final goal of his first professional hat trick.

Lalonde put the Minnesota Wild’s 2016 top draft pick on the ice for the final minute of Iowa’s recent shutout of the Rockford IceHogs hoping Kunin would get an open shot on an empty net. Kunin, in only his third professional game after a two-year career at the University of Wisconsin, had scored two goals in the first period, but missed his third several times throughout the rest of the game.

About halfway through the shift, Kunin gained control of the puck near the boards in the Iowa zone and immediately the crowd began yelling for him to shoot.

“We had him out there for the open net and the puck came to him,” Lalonde said.  “Luke had plenty of room to send it 200 feet but he worked really hard to get to the red line and scored from there.  That is why Luke is Luke.”

But Kunin described how he approached the shot a bit differently. It wasn’t about scoring a goal, he said. He worked for a good shot because he didn’t want to force a face-off in the Iowa zone if he missed.  After all, Wild goalie Alex Stalock had a shutout going and the last thing the goalie needed was a faceoff off an icing call, he said.

“Al was playing an unbelievable game and I didn’t want to ice it. I wanted to do all I could to make sure he got the shutout,” the Chesterfield, MO native said.

As the puck glided into the net, Kunin was swarmed by his teammates that he’d just met the week before and put himself in the Iowa Wild record book as the third player to ever record a hat trick for the AHL club. Not a bad start for a professional career for a player already beginning to exceed expectations after just three games.

Kunin is among a group of rookie players who are arriving in Des Moines to test themselves in the AHL as their college careers have ended either through graduation or by choice.  Other rookies already on Iowa’s roster include forward Gerald Mayhew, who play collegiately at Ferris State, and Justin Kloos, who played for the Waterloo Blackhawks in the USHL and just finished a four-year career with the Minnesota Gophers.

The challenge of going to the next level for a rookie is exciting, but also unnerving.

 “Way back when, I was one of them so I know how they feel,” veteran Jeff Hogan, who began his professional career on an ATO with the Houston Aeros, said. “You are walking into a situation where everyone else has played nearly 70 games together and have their routines pretty settled.”

Hoggan said that young players are dealing with different surroundings, different teammates and are expected to show their ability all at the same time.

“There is a lot of anxiety because of the challenge,” Hoggan said.  “You are probably living alone in a hotel and the other guys are in their routines. What’s really important is focusing on your game and how to make it work so you contribute.”

Lalonde said Kunin’s adjustment to the AHL in such a brief time has been remarkable, but not that surprising.

““t’s too early to know for sure, but everyone I talked with whose coached him described him as something special” Lalonde said. “I thought there would be a bit longer length in the adjustment period to our level, but Luke already has exceeded those expectations.”

For Kunin, this year has been a mixture of great success and disappointment, but has put him on the brink of achieving his childhood dream – playing in the National Hockey League.  The success came when he helped to lead the USA U-20 juniors to the IIHF Junior World Championship as the team captain. Disappointment came with a rejuvenated Wisconsin hockey team, which he also captained, losing in the Big Ten tournament in overtime and missing the NCAA Frozen Four playoffs.

“It’s been a crazy year for me,” Kunin said, adding that the response in the Iowa locker room to his arrival has made it easier for him. “The guys have really been great with helping me. Coming in here I’ve had to learn a new system and they have been helping me out by taking me under their wing. It’s been a pretty easy transition so far.

Kunin’s maturity as a hockey player has been a hallmark of his career. At 15, he began his journey toward the NHL by making the U.S. U-17 national team, then the U-18 team the next year where he played for Don Granato, who would become an assistant at Wisconsin when his brother, Tony, became head coach.

At 17, he entered college after accelerating his high school program to graduate in three years. By choosing Wisconsin, Kunin had decided on a traditionally successful program that had hit the skids hard.

Kunin said that the program’s woes didn’t bother him. He had played in a youth development tournament with a team from St. Louis at an early age and fell in love with the Wisconsin campus and hockey program.

“Obviously, they hadn’t had a good season the year before I got there. I decided I wanted to be an impact guy and help turn the program around,” he said.

In his two years, Kunin was one of the Badgers leading scorers with 22 goals and 16 assists in 35 games.

Justin Kloos, who played against Kunin four times this year in the heated Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry, said Kunin’s strength is in his ability to be “in the right place all the time.”

“He is in the right spot all the time. He is smart and dangerous,” Kloos said. “You have to make sure you are on the right side of the puck because you have to limit his chances. We had a bunch of good battles in the years we played against each other. “

Kunin credited his parents, Mark and Sheri, for his uncommon maturity and instilling in him a work ethic and drive to play in the NHL.

“It comes a lot from my parents who brought me up the right way and helped me get ready,” Kunin said. “They prepared me well for all the things you need to do when you are going to be away from home at that young age and what was to come.”

Kunin also credited his friendship with Matt Tkachuk, the son of veteran hockey player Keith Tkachuk, who finished his career playing in St. Louis.

“Matt was my best friends and we would be running around the Blues locker room all the time.” Kunin said. “I saw how his Dad handled himself.  He was unbelievable.”

Kunin said that the major lesson he learned was “to be the hardest working guy, the most competitive guy when I step on the ice and just be a good teammate.”

When the Wild season ends, Kunin said he will return to the UW campus where he intends to finish his semester and begin training for the next hockey season either in Minnesota or Iowa.

 “Every kid dreams about playing professional sports and I dream about playing in the NHL,” he said. “I made it a goal of mine and will as hard as I can to achieve it.” 

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