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USA's Captain, Obvious

'A born leader,' Wild prospect Luke Kunin will captain Team USA at upcoming World Junior Championships

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers / Wild.com

Kunin on earning captain patch

Kunin on captaining the U.S. National Junior Team

Wisconsin forward and Wild prospect Luke Kunin discusses being named captain of the U.S Junior Team for the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship

  • 01:15 •

Luke Kunin is old school. 

At least that's how his coach at the University of Wisconsin, long-time NHLer Tony Granato, describes him.  

"The kid is driven to win," Granato said. "It kills him to lose -- it kills him. He doesn't forget about a game and go out and have fun. He's one of the old-timers where a loss bothers him until the next chance he gets to get on the ice and turn it into a win."

That will to win has made Kunin, 19, a natural leader on almost every team he's played on in recent seasons. The Wild's first-round draft pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, Kunin is the first sophomore captain at Wisconsin in 41 years. 

Two years ago, he captained the U.S. Under-18 team to a world championship. The group featured the first overall pick in last summer's NHL Draft, Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

This week, Kunin was named the captain of Team USA for the upcoming World Junior Championships, which get underway in Toronto and Montreal the day after Christmas. The United States opens the tournament Dec. 26 against Latvia at Air Canada Centre. 

"It's a great honor," Kunin said. "We have a lot of great leaders in that locker room so to be able to share it with those guys and be able to help lead this team in the right direction is really special."

Kunin is the fifth Badger to captain Team USA in this tournament over the past 11 years. The list includes current Wild defenseman Ryan Suter, who led the United States in 2005.

Two of the past three Wisconsin captains have led the U.S. to the gold medal (Derek Stepan in 2010, Jake McCabe in 2013) and the Americans will be in search of their fourth gold medal at the World Junior Championships.

"That's our expectation and that's what we're going to do," Kunin said. "We have a great group of guys, we're very close and we're going to play a high and fast-paced game with a lot of speed and energy. Hopefully our skill will take over."

The United States, which finished third in last year's tournament, is considered one of the favorites at this year's event, as well. Finland, which won gold on home ice a year ago, along with Russia and Sweden (fourth place last year) are also considered medal contenders. 

And you can never discount Canada, especially with the tournament being on their home ice.

"We have a lot of great talent in our locker room," Kunin said. 

Kunin is considered one of the most talented forwards on the roster. He's scored 11 goals in 16 games with Wisconsin this season, ahead of his pace as a freshman when he potted 19 goals in 34 games. 

That pace includes a slow start to the year, when the freshly-minted first-round pick was feeling the burden of expectations coming off a season in which the Badgers won just eight games and dismissed previous coach Mike Eaves.

"I think he's gaining confidence. There was so much pressure on him at the start of the year, he wanted to get off to such a good start out of the gate, he might have tried too hard," Granato said. "But he's settling into what we need as a team, the consistency in his game keeps getting better." 

Granato, one of the biggest names in Wisconsin hockey history, was charged with bringing back a program that has won six National Championships but had fallen on hard times in recent seasons.

So far, the results have been promising. 

Wisconsin has already matched last year's win total before Christmas, thanks in large part to Kunin and his leadership. 

"I've gotta keep reminding myself, he's 19 years old," Granato said. "I just think he represents everything you want in a player, in a leader as as someone who is a part of your program. He cares, he's a competitor, he's not afraid to say what's on his mind. He stands up for his teammates."

Coming in as a new coach, Granato said it would have been easier to lay those expectations on an older player, someone who had been through the grind of a collegiate hockey season several times. 

But he wouldn't have it any other way than with Kunin, who has proven himself since day one of Granato's return to the UW campus.

"Sometimes you make a decision and a guy is a captain for this reason or that reason, he's the captain because of every reason you can possibly think of. He just does everything you want as a coach," Granato said. "I don't want to say it was a no-brainer, but when you have a kid who is a sophomore, and you look at him every day and go, 'Wow.' ... First one in the gym, does everything that's asked of him, stands up for his teammates. He's a born leader."

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