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Kunin aims to make most of eventful journey to World Championship

Team USA veteran is representing his country for the first time since turning pro two years ago

by Aaron Vickers / Special to

KOSICE, Slovakia -- The anticipation of getting to join Team USA?

Great, obviously.

The execution of getting there?

Not so much.

While it's a dream scenario to get the chance to tug on the Red, White and Blue of the Team USA jersey once again, Luke Kunin's journey to get to Slovakia to suit up for the 2019 IIHF World Championship was nothing short of a nightmare.

"In Amsterdam and missed my connector to wherever I was going," said Kunin, whose journey began with an eight-hour flight out of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. "I had to add a flight so I went Amsterdam…Amsterdam to Warsaw.

"Warsaw was supposed to go to Vienna, but that flight, five minutes in, emergency landing. Pretty scary stuff there. I just got in a car and just did the six-hour car service. I didn't want to be on a plane after that."

Not hard to imagine why the Wild forward would feel that way. 

Tweet from @usahockey: 🎥 | The highlights from today���s 3-1 win over Germany to clinch a spot in the quarterfinals. #MensWorldsFull recap ������

But there was Kunin, placed on a line with Luke Glendening of the Detroit Red Wings and Frank Vatrano of the Florida Panthers in Team USA's 3-1 win against Germany at Steel Arena in Kosice -- a quarterfinal-clinching victory that ensures Kunin will be present for at least two more games on the international stage.

The Chesterfield, Missouri product's appearance comes after a lengthy journey in his own right.

Kunin, the No. 15 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, bounced between Iowa of the American Hockey League and the big club nearly a half-dozen times in 2018-19. He slipped in 49 skates with Minnesota after a 19-game audition a season prior.

He added 28 contests down on the farm, and was assigned to the minors to help aid in Iowa's playoff push to the Calder Cup. He suited up 11 times, netting eight points, including six goals.

Iowa was eliminated from Calder Cup contention Monday night with a 3-1 loss to the Chicago Wolves at Allstate Arena.

"It was a good experience," said Kunin, who had 17 points (six goals, 11 assists) with the big Wild this season. "Being hurt last year I didn't get the playoff experience with Minnesota. Some sort of playoff experience is great. You just get to play a little more hockey and help that team make a run."

More hockey was heading his way.

Kunin, who captained Team USA to gold at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship after doing the same at the 2015 IIHF World Under-18 Championship, found himself on the big ice in Slovakia with the likes of Patrick Kane, Jack Eichel, Dylan Larkin and Minnesota teammate Ryan Suter, less than a week later.

"He's played for USA Hockey before and he's had a lot of success," Suter said. "He's a good, young player. It's important for the U.S. to keep cycling young guys through the tournament here."

Age isn't the only idea behind the invite, though.

"I've talked to four guys who have coached him at different times," said Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill, also serving as head coach for Team USA at the tournament. "Certainly, he's a super competitor from everything I've heard. Super competitor. Guy that's very willing to block shots and very willing to do some of those dirty, grinding things you have to do to win.

"We've got a large amount of talent on our team, but they're not all used to doing some of the dirty work. He's a talented kid as well, but also somebody who is super competitive. I think having winners around is an important thing."

Kunin had enough left in the tank to not say no. There was no passing for the 21-year-old. 

"Whenever you have the opportunity to play for your country it's a no-brainer," said Kunin, who skated six shifts -- more than the number of hours of sleep he managed to get in the night before. "It's a great opportunity and a huge honor to wear this jersey. You look at some of the guys on this team. World-class players. You just try to learn from them and just enjoy the experience.

"Some of the guys that are on this team in that locker room are world-class players. You don't always to get the opportunity to play with. You've got your team, but guys around the league like this…it's a pretty cool opportunity."

Even after what it took to get there, he suggested.

Planes. Questionable.

No trains.

But an automobile.

"Absolutely," Kunin said. "I'm happy to be here in one piece. And just excited to get started with this group."

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