ST. PAUL, Minn. — For years, Luke Kunin watched as his girlfriend, then fiancée, then spouse, Sophia, supported his profession.

She was a shoulder to lean on when issues acquired robust in Minnesota. Moved to Nashville when he was traded there. Was a fixed throughout the hardest season of his professional profession — final yr with the San Jose Sharks, when he tore his ACL.

So Kunin can’t wait to stroll into Xcel Power Middle — the enviornment the place he started his NHL profession as a Minnesota Wild rookie seven years in the past — on Saturday with the shoe on the different foot. The 1 p.m. CDT recreation will likely be his first time watching Sophia play at the highest stage in individual, as she’ll take the ice with Minnesota’s Skilled Ladies’s Hockey League group to face Boston in its regular-season house finale forward of subsequent month’s playoffs.

“I’ll get to see what it’s all about,” Luke stated. “I’ve watched her games on the internet all year — as much as I can with our schedule — but I think of all the things she’s sacrificed for me over the years so I can live out my dream. I can’t wait to be there to support her and watch her live her dream.”

Luke and Sophia Kunin’s relationship has helped them come by way of a lot to reach at this level. Assembly as youngsters. Watching one another excel in hockey. Turning into faculty sweethearts. And Luke being Sophia’s “rock every step of the way” after the most traumatic occasion of her life, the dying of her youthful brother, Drake, at the begin of her sophomore yr.

Luke, 26, is a hard-nosed, hard-working ahead for the Sharks who hails from suburban St. Louis. Sophia, 27, who grew up in Wayzata, Minn., and is now one in every of PWHL Minnesota’s quickest, most dependable forwards, was often called Sophia Shaver till the Kunins have been married final summer time in the Twin Cities.

They’re the solely husband and spouse skilled hockey gamers of their respective high leagues in North America.

For now.

“I think the more our league’s around, the more we’re going to start to see it,” stated U.S. Hockey Corridor of Famer Natalie Darwitz, GM of PWHL Minnesota and a two-time NCAA champion with the College of Minnesota. “Not to say that romances are going to happen left and right at the rink, but as more franchises start to share facilities and we’re around, it only makes sense because who better to understand the other’s schedule and commitment than another professional hockey player.

“To me, Luke and Sophia is such a cool story. It’d be even cooler if Luke still played for the Wild.”

Luke and Sophia met at the College of Wisconsin earlier than their freshman years. Luke was an incoming males’s hockey participant for a Badgers group he’d finally captain as a sophomore. Sophia was an incoming girls’s hockey participant for a Badgers group she’d finally captain and assist result in an NCAA championship with the profitable purpose in the title recreation.

At Wisconsin, athletes often come to Madison for summer time coaching earlier than the faculty yr begins.

“We actually were both in the same dorm,” Sophia recalled. “It was a small dorm with us — women’s hockey — men’s hockey, both basketballs and then some track people. We had a lot of time on our hands so we would hang out all the time. We’d see each other at the rink. Started off as friends and then really quickly just started dating in the fall of our freshman year.”

Sophia and Luke Kunin’s relationship started as Badgers. (Courtesy of Sophia Kunin)

They’ve been collectively since, though as a result of Luke performs for San Jose and Sophia was a part of the Minnesota group in the inaugural PWHL season, they have been newlyweds who hardly ever acquired to see one another throughout this first yr as husband and spouse.

Wild winger Marcus Foligno could also be six years older than Luke, however the two hit it off instantly when Luke arrived in Minnesota as a rookie, changing into such good buddies that Foligno was a groomsman in the Kunins’ wedding ceremony, together with Luke’s former Nashville Predators teammate Colton Sissons and childhood finest pal Matthew Tkachuk.

In early March, when the Sharks got here to Minnesota for his or her first go to of 2023-24, Foligno was so excited to see his previous pal that he requested if he needed to have dinner the night time earlier than the recreation. He forgot, after all, that Luke would in all probability reasonably spend a while along with his spouse.

“He’s like, ‘Dude, I haven’t seen Sophia in two months,’” Foligno stated, laughing. “I’m like, ‘Oh my God, that’s right. You guys have a crazy lifestyle.’ I don’t know how they do it. I’d go insane if I didn’t see my wife all the time, especially the first year of our marriage.”

However as robust as it’s, the Kunins have carried out the long-distance factor typically of their relationship since Kunin left Wisconsin after his sophomore yr to show professional.

“It’s tough, but we’re kind of used to it,” Sophia stated. “We’ve been apart a lot of our lives. And with both of our schedules, we kind of have the same schedule. So we’re both unavailable to each other throughout the day. We’re here at the rink and then we get to catch up at night.”

Added Luke, “We both love playing and both love what we’re doing and just want to enjoy it as long as we can or as long as both of us want to do it, I guess. Yeah, it’s tough being separated. You want to see each other. But it’s cool to see everything that she’s been doing and the way the league’s going, how much fun she’s having.”

Sophia had simply performed a weekend sequence towards St. Cloud State when she acquired the devastating name from her mother and father, Cristen and Tom, on Oct. 2, 2016, that Drake had taken his personal life. A highschool hockey and lacrosse participant, an avid outdoorsman who cherished searching and fishing, Drake was solely 17.

“He was a very happy, normal, popular guy,” Sophia stated. “That’s why it came as such a shock to all of us because we would’ve never seen the signs. He seemed to have everything together, but he was struggling on the inside and didn’t want to open up.”

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Sophia together with her brother, Drake. (Courtesy of Sophia Kunin)

Sophia returned house however got here again to highschool a week later. She buried herself in as a lot schoolwork and hockey as she may, however she was not doing OK.

Luke was one in every of her steady technique of assist.

“This is probably one of the reasons why we’re so strong together because we would only have been dating for a year at that point,” Sophia stated. “I had to lean on him a ton that year because it was obviously the hardest year of my life. That year and even years past, just having him there for me — and he was so good about just checking in and making sure I was doing OK, it’s probably how I got through it. And remember, he’s going through a year where he’s trying to make it to the NHL, too, so he had a tough time with it as well, and I’ll just forever be grateful for him for that.”

Luke was solely 18 at the time and was heartbroken for Sophia and her household. He had began to grow to be shut together with her mother and father and siblings, together with Sophia’s sister, Crosby, who went to the Air Power Academy, was a pilot who flew refueler jets and now has an unbiased contracting job in Washington, D.C.

“I still can’t imagine what she was going through and her family, and I just wanted to be there for her and her family,” Luke stated. “Yeah, it was tough. Drake was such a good kid, and I think the way she handled everything and continues to handle everything, she is crazy strong mentally, just to get through that. She kind of keeps everything moving forward and in the right direction.

“The way she had to handle herself when it happened has really helped turn her into the person she is today. Every day, she just goes about her business and is good and decent to everyone she meets. I know she says I helped her through that time, but she’s the toughest person I’ve ever met. Still is, and we still talk about Drake all the time when the families are together, and he’s still a big part of our family for sure.”

Luke may be very shut with Sophia’s household, particularly her dad, Tom, who takes him to their cabin in Crosslake to go fishing and searching.

“Luke was never into it because he just didn’t grow up with it, but now he’s got a real passion for the outdoors and loves hanging with my dad,” Sophia stated. “They’ve known him since he was 17, so my dad loves teaching Luke things about fishing and hunting. They’ve kind of grown together through that, and they really do think of him as a son.”

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Luke Kunin has performed for the Wild, Predators and Sharks. (Ezra Shaw / Getty Photos)

As robust of a yr as the Sharks had, profitable solely 19 video games, Luke scored 11 targets, acquired into a team-leading 9 fights, led the group’s forwards with 165 hits and wore a letter on his chest. Basic supervisor Mike Grier stated he epitomized what the group is in search of in San Jose, somebody keen to battle each night time.

A restricted free agent, Luke hopes to signal a long-term deal there this offseason.

And Sophia, who scored a purpose in Minnesota’s first recreation at Boston, is a participant Darwitz feels will show fairly worthwhile as soon as the playoffs start. Each group has high-end ability, however Darwitz believes the groups that separate themselves will likely be the ones with high-end depth supplied by gamers like Sophia, who has scored two targets and an help in 21 video games.

“In any playoff run, it’s your depth,” Darwitz stated. “Sophia’s a big part of our secondary scoring because of her speed. She’s got good hockey IQ. She makes stuff happen. Usually, a lot of her play is without the puck — how well she angles, creates a turnover. Does she want to be on this stat sheet more? Absolutely. Should she be? She could be. She has the potential and the skill. But she’s doing exactly what we need from her right now.”

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Sophia Kunin is a good depth ahead for PWHL Minnesota (Courtesy of PWHL Minnesota)

Luke and Sophia don’t do a lot of offseason coaching collectively. In Nashville, when Sophia was a business actual property dealer, she skated with the Junior Preds excessive schoolers to maintain in form and maintain enjoying. However in the summertime now, although they’re each professionals, Luke does his personal factor and she does her factor with a group of girls who play professionally.

“She’s worked crazy hard to get to where she is,” Luke stated. “And I think it’s awesome for the players to have something to look forward to post-college. It’s been great to see how well the turnouts have been in terms of attendance and how well the league’s going. Obviously, it’s real young, but hopefully good things to come for both her and the league.

“Sophia does a little bit of everything. I’ve seen her play in college, and similar to me, just seeing the transition from her college game to pro is really cool. She’s very well-rounded. I’m just having a blast watching her have fun and just hope her and her team does well.”

Foligno acquired to learn the beginning lineup in the locker room for PWHL Minnesota’s first-ever house recreation. Two of his younger daughters have been by his aspect, and he hoped it might make an impression lengthy into the future that girls have been about to play a skilled hockey recreation.

“And my girls know who Sophia is for sure,” Foligno stated. “Luke and Sophia are two great people who come from great families. The whole long-distance relationship after getting married is wild in itself, but they’re two people that are passionate about what they do and support each other, which is pretty cool. It’s why they’ve been together for so long. Not to be sappy, but Luke really loves his girl, so it’s cool to see them playing professionally and having success while doing it, too.”

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Sophia and Luke Kunin proudly sport their USA Hockey garb. (Courtesy of Sophia Kunin)

Kunin is again in Minnesota for now, however he’ll head to Czechia subsequent month with the U.S. nationwide group to participate in the world championships. In 2017, he captained the U.S. to world juniors gold.

He’s simply excited that in this quick keep he’ll get to soak up one in every of Sophia’s video games.

And to hang around along with his finest pal, their spunky 4-year-old French Bulldog, Rocco.

“Luke misses Rocco more than me when he’s away,” Sophia stated.

“He’s my favorite,” Luke joked. “But Sophia might take a little better care of him than I could in San Jose, so he stays here. It’s always tough leaving him, especially because when I come back, he pouts at first because he’s so mad I was gone. He gets over it, but the cycle always repeats itself.”

This has been a lengthy, lengthy yr for the Kunins being separated. On their wedding ceremony day final July, Luke stole the present at the reception by grabbing the mic and singing rock n’ roll songs like Fall Out Boy’s “Sugar, We’re Goin Down.”

“He’s not a good singer at all, by the way,” Sophia cracked.

A number of NHLers have been there, together with Matthew and Brady Tkachuk, Sissons, Dante Fabbro, Ryan Hartman, Jordan Greenway and Foligno.

A number of of Sophia’s former teammates have been bridesmaids, together with Abby Roque, who performs for PWHL New York.

“Abby is kind of the Matthew Tkachuk of our league: talks smack, kind of a rat, so naturally we paired them together as bridesmaid and groomsman and they walked down the aisle together,” Sophia stated, laughing.

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Nick Kunin, Austin Haglund, Matthew Tkachuk, Luke Kunin, Matthew Freytag, Colton Sissons and Marcus Foligno with Sophia Kunin in entrance on wedding ceremony day. (Courtesy of Sophia Kunin)

That is life as an NHL-PWHL couple. Having fun with the moments they get collectively and appreciating one another’s careers as they attempt to fulfill the identical goals.

Even Grier stated, “I hear it in Luke’s voice when he talks about the league and talks about Sophia. He’s so proud of her and gets such enjoyment watching her play hockey.”

“I think we’re both super grateful that we, one, met in college and got to play college hockey, but then to continue our careers both professionally,” Sophia stated. “It’s a super unique experience. It’s really nice to just have someone else that’s going through the exact same thing as you. Our seasons are going on at the same time. We get to talk about the highs and lows.

“To have someone like that as your partner is really special for us.”

(Prime pictures courtesy of Sophia Kunin)