Official word arrived a day later, a diagnosis that ended Luke Kunin’s season less than a week after he was ushered to the NHL to enhance the Wild’s playoff push, but the forward knew immediately after his skate hit a rut in the ice last Sunday night that he wasn’t OK.
He felt a pop, his left knee collapsed and his weight shifted.
“Something wasn’t right,” Kunin said.
An MRI Monday confirmed his intuition. He tore an anterior cruciate ligament and would embark on an approximately seven-month process to heal.
It was an unfortunate detour for a prized prospect in the midst of his first full-length professional season — and another dollop of adversity the Wild would have to stomach.
But Kunin is determined to downgrade this setback to a blimp on his career radar — just like NHLers before him have done.
“I want to be skating in training camp and be suiting up at the start of the season obviously with Minnesota,” he said. “That’s the goal. That’s where I want to be, and that’s always been the goal. We’ll put in the work and do what I need to do and just [take] one step at a time to get there.”
Surgery to fix his knee is expected to happen in the coming weeks, but Kunin has already started his recovery. He’s doing “prehab” — moving his knee and icing it while he waits for the swelling to subside. This helps limit the chance of recurrence while strengthening the knee for surgery.
And once that procedure happens, Kunin said he’ll begin rehab a day or so later.
The 20-year-old anticipates splitting his time this summer between Madison, where he played collegiately for the University of Wisconsin, and the Twin Cities, depending on his treatment schedule.
Taking care of his physical health, however, isn’t his only priority. Kunin also wants to focus on his mind-set. Already, he and his agent, Pete Rutili, have discussed going to the Center for Sports and the Mind in Golden Valley.
“We’re just going to try to take advantage of every resource,” Rutili said.
Kunin also plans to reach out to other athletes who have experienced this injury.
Defenseman Michael Stone underwent surgery to repair his ACL and MCL in 2016 and, following a trade from the Coyotes, he’s now a regular on the Flames blue line after signing a three-year, $10.5 million contract. Sharks veteran Joe Thornton bounced back nicely this season after knee surgery last April. He posted 36 points in 47 games before a different issue in his other knee sidelined him.
And Hurricanes winger Justin Williams, known as “Mr. Game 7” for his success in win-or-go-home situations, is a three-time Stanley Cup champion who has torn an ACL not once but twice.
“You just have to believe that they’re accidents and freak things, and it happens,” Williams said. “It’s nothing you did, and you just need to go forward with that — not be, ‘Oh, I don’t know what I’m doing out there.’ It’s just accidents happen. Injuries happen. They happen to most people. And then you can put that behind you and look forward. That’s big.”
Williams, eager to move on to the next step, looked at his recovery as a race. He also embraced targets and benchmarks, and the attitude appears to have helped. He returned to the ice less than three months following his first injury in 2003 when he was with the Flyers and missed less than four months of the Hurricanes’ 2007-08 season after he suffered the second tear.
When he looks in the mirror, Williams sees the player he was before the injuries.
“But reality is you’re not,” he said. “The trick is to get yourself to 100 percent of what you are now.”
After what he went through this season, Kunin says he believes he can skate in the NHL.
Although he was disappointed he didn’t make the team’s roster out of training camp, he was excited to join the Wild’s playoff effort once he was recalled Feb. 27.
Overall, the experience he received from the two games before he was injured and the 17 games he logged with the Wild earlier in the season helped him grow. So did the time he spent in the American Hockey League.
And while his season wrapped early, Kunin played enough to feel confident in his abilities.
“I definitely feel good about my game,” he said, “and definitely feel like I belong in this league.”
NHL short takes
• Front-office makeovers tend to occur in the offseason, but the Hurricanes bucked that trend by removing General Manager Ron Francis from his post Wednesday. The change comes early in new owner Tom Dundon’s tenure, with Dundon on the lookout for a new GM who will report directly to him. Francis was shifted to the role of president of hockey operations. The timing of the decision was certainly unique, especially with the team still very much mathematically in contention for a playoff spot, but a new boss making personnel tweaks isn’t entirely surprising.
• Devils winger Taylor Hall’s eye-popping point streak came to an end Thursday at 26 games. During that streak, which started Jan. 2, he amassed 18 goals and 20 assists. Not only did his contributions help New Jersey stay in the mix for a playoff berth, but they also morphed him into a Hart Trophy candidate. And if the Devils hang on to an invite, Hall’s case probably only gets stronger.
• The Stars have been without Martin Hanzal in recent weeks, and now they’ll finish out the season without their 6-6 center. Hanzal will undergo spinal fusion surgery and be sidelined for at least six months. This injury prematurely concludes Hanzal’s first season in Dallas after he signed with the team last summer as a free agent. The 31-year-old has battled back problems throughout his career, but the Stars expect the surgery to go well and they don’t believe the issue will threaten Hanzal’s career.
Wild's week ahead
Tuesday: 7:30 p.m. vs. Colorado
Friday: 9:30 p.m. at Vegas
Saturday: 8 p.m. at Arizona
Tue. NBCSN, Fri. and Sat. FSN
Player to watch: Marc-Andre Fleury, Golden Knights
The goaltender has helped Vegas achieve the most successful season in league history for an expansion team by ranking among the league leaders in save percentage and goals-against average.
“That was old school, and I had a front-row seat for it. The sounds that were coming out of that thing, it was nasty. It was a great scrap.”
– Winger Zach Parise on defenseman Nick Seeler’s first NHL fight, against Detroit’s Luke Witkowski