Luke Kunin dreamed of being an NHL hockey player. When he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D) at age 12, he worried he wouldn’t be able to keep playing the sport he loved. But, there was no need to worry. Luke didn’t let T1D hold him back from his dreams. The Minnesota Wild selected Luke in the first round of the 2016 draft, and this season he played in his first NHL game. We had a chance to sit down with Luke and talk hockey and T1D.
You were drafted by the Wild in the first round of the 2016 draft. What was going through your mind when you heard your name called?
Luke: Not much! I was just so excited. So many emotions. I worked hard, and to have this experience to share with family and friends is pretty special.
Tell us a bit about your NHL experience so far this year, playing with the Iowa Wild and being called up to play for the Minnesota Wild.
Luke: I’m from St. Louis and started my hockey career there. When I was 15 years old, I moved away from home to Ann Arbor, Michigan and went into the National Team Development Program. For two years, I played on a team with kids from across the country. Those were some of the best years of hockey for me. Playing for your country is very special. Then I went right to college, and played for two years at Wisconsin. I went to Iowa and got a great taste of pro hockey playing about 12 games for the Iowa Wild. I was really excited for the summer, trained hard, showed well at camp, and am working hard to make the team this year.
You scored your first goal against the New York Islanders last month. That had to be an awesome feeling – can you put that moment into a few words?
Luke: Every hockey kid dreams about playing and scoring in the NHL. I saw Staalzie (Eric Staal) and a chance to get up the ice with him. My eyes just shot open, he made a great play and I tried to get it [the shot] off quick. It’s one I’ll always remember.
When you were in 6th grade, you were diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. You had a chance to meet then St. Louis Blues player B.J. Crombeen, who was also T1D. How did that experience impact you?
Luke: I didn’t know anything about diabetes when I was diagnosed. That was the scariest part. I remember being at the doctor with my mom and tearing up. The first thing I asked was, “can I still play hockey?” When the doctor said yes, that calmed me down. Keith Tkachuk played for the Blues, and his son Matthew was my best friend. He introduced me to B.J., and when I talked with him, he made me feel really comfortable and said to call him if I ever needed anything. He has diabetes and is doing what I dreamed to do. So from then on, I never looked back and never said I couldn’t do it.
How do you manage T1D while playing hockey at such a competitive level?
Luke: I’m always on top of it. I’m checking my blood sugar numerous times throughout day, especially game days. When I get to the rink, I usually eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, banana, coffee and water. I test 3-4 times before warms-ups, again after warm-ups, and in between periods. I like my blood sugar at a certain spot so I always want to know where I’m at. This has just become part of my routine. For me, it’s also about staying hydrated and putting the right things in your body leading up to game day. Not just on game day.
Have you always been open with your teammates and coaches about having T1D?
Luke: When I first got diagnosed, not a lot of my teammates knew about diabetes, and kids hadn’t been around it. I was still learning, too, so I think I would go to the bathroom to take a shot. But, now, it’s just part of me, part of my hockey routine.
Is there anything you would say T1D has taught you about yourself?
Luke: For me, getting T1D at a young age made me mature pretty quickly. You learn you need to take care of yourself. My friends would say they couldn’t do what I had to do every day, but you have to if you want to be healthy. I didn’t want my parents to do everything for me, so I taught myself and matured quickly. So now, it’s a lot like tying your shoes. It’s what I do every day and just part of who I am.
What advice would you give to young T1D athletes?
Luke: Don’t let T1D hold you back. It’s part of you. You can be down and sad and let it affect you, or choose to take it the way it is and move forward. You hear a lot about professional athletes overcoming adversity to be successful. T1D can be that adversity thrown in the way, but you need to get past it and keep going.