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Badgers men’s hockey: World Juniors dreams about to become reality for Luke Kunin

December 21, 2016 GMT

It doesn’t take Luke Kunin much searching through long-term memory to grab a moment to describe what the World Junior Championship means to him.

The 13-year-old version of Kunin raced home from hockey practice to watch the championship game of the 2010 tournament, seeing fellow St. Louis-area native John Ramage lead a 3-on-1 rush that gave the Americans an overtime victory over rival Canada in Saskatchewan.

Six years later, it’s his turn.

“I’ve always dreamt about it,” said Kunin, the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey captain who’ll serve in the same capacity for the Americans. “And it’s pretty exciting now.”

Kunin and the U.S. play the first of four preliminary-round games in Toronto on Monday against Latvia. The Americans also play Slovakia, Russia and Canada; the top four teams in each of two groups advance to the quarterfinals.

The 10-team, 11-day tournament features some of the world’s best players in the under-20 age group, and Kunin is the first UW player to appear in it in the past three seasons.

He has followed in Ramage’s footsteps in a few different ways since watching that game in January 2010, first by heading to the University of Wisconsin and then by becoming the Badgers’ captain.

Now, he’s the fifth American World Junior captain from UW in the past 13 years, joining Ramage (2011), Jake McCabe (2013), Derek Stepan (2010) and Ryan Suter (2005).

Kunin is no stranger to being a captain of an American team. When the U.S. won the Under-18 World Championship in 2015, it was Kunin to whom the trophy was presented.

He had six goals in seven games in that tournament, adding scoring punch to a U.S. team that featured current NHL players Auston Matthews and Matthew Tkachuk.

The weight of that experience, with scouts watching and the added element of playing for your country, made Kunin stand out, Badgers associate head coach Don Granato said.

“He’s one of those rare guys that as the pressure mounts, he gets better,” said Granato, who coached Kunin and the Under-18 team that year.

The majority of that team was part of the 27-player preliminary roster for this season’s World Junior team that will be cut to 23 by next week. The U.S. plays pre-tournament games against Switzerland on Wednesday and the Czech Republic on Friday.

Kunin set a high bar in an interview broadcast on NHL Network this week, saying anything less than a gold medal for the U.S. “is not going to sit well.”

Speaking to reporters in Madison last week before he left for the USA Hockey training camp in Buffalo, New York, he said the Americans had the look of a team that could put up a lot of goals.

“It’s going to be a real fast, high-energy, high-paced team with a lot of skill,” he said. “That’s how I like to play and I’m looking forward to that.”

Kunin, a first-round draft pick of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild last June, ended the first half of the Badgers’ season on an offensive upswing. He had three two-point games in his last five, including two-goal games against Omaha and Michigan.

“I’m feeling real good right now,” he said. “I just hope it keeps going as the season goes on. I definitely feel like I’m getting more complete.”

Nine Badgers players have returned from the World Juniors with a gold medal since 2004, seven of them for the U.S. and two for Canada.

Kunin wants to put himself in the next set of memories for young players watching on TV.

“It’ll be fun to play against the best and showcase myself and play for the U.S. again. That’s always special,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to putting that jersey on again.”