Chesterfield’s Luke Kunin is about to take his first steps toward a professional hockey career.
Kunin takes part in his first NHL camp with the Minnesota Wild when the team’s prospect development camp begins Sunday (July 10) at the at the Xcel Energy Center.
“I’ve been there to a game before. I played in the rink in the Big 10 tournament,” Kunin said. “I can’t wait to get there.
Kunin, 18, was taken with the 15th overall pick in the first round by Minnesota in the recent NHL Draft at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, N.Y.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Kunin said in a telephone interview in between summer class at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “I know some of the guys who will there. It will be easy to be comfortable. I couldn’t be more excited.”
The 6-foot, 195-pound Kunin was a force for Wisconsin last season, scoring 19 goals and 32 points on a team that managed just eight wins. The 19 goals was third-most among freshman in the NCAA this past season.
Kunin plays center or wing. He went to Whitfield School for one year and then spent time with the U.S National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., prior to joining the Badgers, captaining the U.S. to a gold medal at the 2015 U18 World Championships.
“I love scoring goals,” Kunin said. “I love shutting the other team down as well, too. I’m an all-around player, and that’s where I’m going to be at the NHL level.”
Kunin is a product of the United States National Development Team. He said he could have gone north to play junior hockey, but wanted the challenge of playing against grown men, one he would get in the NCAA.
“I wanted the challenge of being a 17-year-old against men,” said Kunin, who turned 18 in December in the middle of the college hockey season. “I did pretty well for myself. That’s what I’m going to do at the NHL level. It really helped my development.”
Kunin said he had a good meeting with the Wild before the draft, and said he had a feeling that if he was available with the 15th pick, he would end up in Minnesota.
“At the combine, I met with 29 out of the 30 teams,” Kunin said. “I had some good conversations with Minnesota. We meshed pretty good together. I had a good idea that if I fell to 15, that’s where I’d go.”
And he did.
With him at the draft were his parents Sheri and Mark. Also, his brother Nick was three.
“I’m very happy, and honored to be selected by such a great organization,” Kunin said. “Words can’t describe it, to be there and share it with my family who has given up so much for me to do what I love. For them to be here is pretty special. They all had to give up a lot for me to do what I love to do.
“I was on Cloud 9 there for a while. I’m getting back to the reality of it. I’ve been working out.”
It all began playing with the AAA Blues at the Hardee’s Iceplex in Chesterfield for Kunin.
“I played with them since I can remember,” Kunin said. “Jordan Janes was one of my coaches and he had a big influence on my career. He helped make me the player I am today. Keith Tkachuk helped me. He’s like a second dad to me. I look up to him. He taught me how to act on and off the ice. Jeff Brown, Al MacInnis and Jamie Rivers also were coaches for me.
“Having those kinds of coaches makes a difference. They were all great people to learn from. It was a big time in my development as a player.”
Kunin was one of five local hockey players drafted. Matt Tkachuk, Keith’s oldest son, was taken sixth overall by Calgary. Clayton Keller, of Swansea, Ill., was selected seventh by the Arizona Coyotes. Anther second-generation player, Logan Brown, who is son of former Blue Jeff Brown, went to Ottawa with the 11th pick. Trent Frederic was taken 29th by the Boston Bruins.
“I can’t thank guys enough like Keith Tkachuk, Jeff Brown, Al MacInnis, Jamie Rivers, guys like that who stuck around and made hockey in St. Louis what it is today,” Kunin said. “That’s why we’re so successful (at the draft). Four guys in the top 15 is unbelievable. Youth hockey in St. Louis is turning into something special.”
Kunin spent one year at Whitfield. He played for the Warriors.
“It was fun,” Kunin said about Whitfield. “I was having some fun with the game there.”
Then came the opportunity to play for the National Development Program in Michigan in 2013.
“That was a goal of mine to be selected to go there,” Kunin said. “Luckily, I got to go there and win a gold medal. I learned so much there.
“I learned to play the game the right way. That helped me get into college as a young guy and play.”
Kunin finished high school in three years and then went to Wisconsin.
“I did fast track through high school,” Kunin said.
He spent his final prep year playing for the U.S. national development program’s under-18 team. Kunin recorded 27 goals and 42 assists in 61 games.
More importantly, he captained the U.S U18 team to a gold medal at the world championships in 2015 in Lucerne, Switzerland. He also helped win a title at the Four Nations Tournament in 2014 while with the under-17 team. Kunin had 20 goals and 19 assists in 52 game for the U17s in 2013-14.
“I was pretty honored and humbled to be selected as the captain for our team,” Kunin said. “We had a lot of great leaders and players on that team. A lot of guys bought in and that’s why we came out on top. It was an experience I’ll never forget.”
Kunin made the transition to Division I college hockey with ease.
“It was a tough season obviously for the team,” Kunin said. “I wanted to come here and help turn the program around. I thought I had a pretty good start here. I’m more comfortable. I love the school and I love the people. Everything about Wisconsin is good. Once a Badger, always a Badger.”
Frederic will be joining the Badgers this season.
“Trent is enrolled and I’m looking forward to playing with him,” Kunin said. “He’s a great kid and a great player. To be on a team with him again will be special. I’m really excited for him to be here.”
Kunin most likely will play in Wisconsin for two more years before moving to the AHL. He could elect to move to the AHL after next season.
“The plan for now is to stay at Wisconsin,” Kunin said. “We’ll see what everyone thinks is best. Playing here for coach Tony (Granato) will do wonders for my development.”