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Kunin Has Built A Reputation On International Stage

by Evan Sporer / Minnesota Wild

Luke Kunin said he assumes there are people out there who don’t like him, " … but that might be a good thing," at least if they’re playing against him.

What is clear is those who know Kunin, present or former teammates, coaches, or miscellaneous hockey people, all laud the 18-year-old for his leadership skills and maturity.

And while those intangibles are a bonus, the 19 goals Kunin scored as freshman at the University of Wisconsin and his two-way prowess built enough of a resume for the Minnesota Wild to select Kunin at 15 in the 2016 NHL Draft.

Kunin offers a bit of everything, and the Wild reciprocated by making him a mid-first-round pick. But how Kunin got to be an established leader before ever stepping foot on a college campus requires diving into his past.

"If something needs to be said, I'm going to say it," Kunin said, describing his leadership style. "Doing the right things every day whether it’s on the ice, off the ice, that's one thing I've always tried to do, and just kind of have guys feed off that."

It probably helped that Kunin was playing in an uber-competitive hockey environment in St. Louis; his best friend, Matthew Tkachuk (son of Keith), would let him tag along to St. Blues games, youngsters soaking in an NHL locker room.

In all, five Missourians were selected in the first round of the 2016 Draft. Prior to 2016, no through-and-through Missouri-raised hockey player had been selected in round one. Kunin learned to lead, but said he had help along the way.

"Learning a lot from guys like Keith Tkachuk when I was young, and looking up to him, and seeing how he carried himself on and off the ice, that was very helpful to me to see how he handles himself at that next level," Kunin said. "He's one of the best players to have every played. To have that influence in your life at such a young age was very special, and that’s one guy I really look up to. He fed that down to me."

But there also came a time to leave the nest, and Kunin decided to head to Ann Arbor to join the United States National Development Team Program.

It's there where he met Minnesota Wild prospects Jordan Greenway and Nicholas Boka, whom Kunin just spent time with back in Michigan at the United States National Junior Evaluation Camp.

Both Boka and Greenway raved about Kunin separately; Boka called him his best friend and a fantastic leader, while Greenway said Kunin is an excellent hockey player.

It's a trend that seems more like a pattern: Those who have experienced Kunin at some level only have good-to-glowing things to say.

"The reason we were such good friends is because he’s a guy I looked up to," said Boka, about three months the elder of Kunin. "He's a role model whether it was on the ice, or off the ice. Everybody talks about how great of a leader he is, and he shows it every day. The way he goes about his day-to-day things, it's something that you can learn a lot from being around a guy like that, and something that I definitely took advantage of was learning what he does day-in and day-out. It's something that I take with me, and he’s a great kid."

As for how else he became a leader, Kunin credits much of it to his parents, Mark and Sheri, whom he said raised him the right way.

Kunin also said he was forced to grow up quickly after being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. The day-to-day responsibilities that come with that, he said, and what it takes to be a professional athlete, mean no detail can go unnoticed.

"Whenever you get some kind of adversity thrown at you like that pretty early in life, you kind of just have to take it and run with it and just be mature about it," said Kunin, who learned he had the disease in sixth grade. "Being diagnosed at a young age made me have to grow up a little bit quicker than other kids, and maybe be a little more responsible."

His leadership skills were affirmed in 2015 when Kunin captained the United States Under-18 team to a gold medal at its World Championships. On the ice, Kunin scored six goals in seven games.

There were plenty of candidates to wear a letter, from 2016 number one pick Auston Matthews, to Kunin's best friend, Tkachuk. Boka and Greenway were also on that team.

"First off, it was a pretty special group," Kunin said. "It was an honor to be selected as captain, but a lot of guys on that team were leaders and could have been captain."

Now back in a USA Hockey sweater, at junior evaluation camp, Kunin has a new challenge on his mind: making the 2017 World Junior team.

"It's my first time being here so you just try to show what you’re all about, how you play and how you carry yourself, and you do all the things that got you to this point and the rest will take care of itself," Kunin said.

Though he is a newcomer when it comes to this level of amateur juniors, Kunin said he's naturally slid into a leadership role.

"I'm a leader whenever I step into a locker room," Kunin said. "That's just one of my character traits — it’s something about me — so I don’t really change my game, or change who I am.

"If I'm playing in Wisconsin, or playing in Minnesota, or if I'm at this USA camp, I definitely take on a leadership role here just being around guys I've played with in the program, and some of the younger guys."

And again, while these are intangible qualities that are to Kunin and his team’s benefit, he said he knows the on-ice, tangible hockey elements, of which he's been proficient at in the past, come first and foremost.

"I want to get close to these guys, and have a good camp here, and hopefully I have a good start to the year, and as a result, make the team, and win a gold medal," he said. "That's my goal, and I know that’s the team’s goal, so that’s what we’re going to do."

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