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Luke Kunin photo

Badgers forward Luke Kunin

Chances are Luke Kunin has a long, productive hockey career ahead of him.

But even if that doesn’t happen, he won’t blame it on his type 1 diabetes. Indeed, the disease he was diagnosed with as a sixth-grader is part of what has made Kunin one of the top players in his class for years.

Certainly, it hasn’t stopped him from becoming a force for the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team. After 18 games, the freshman forward from Chesterfield, Missouri, has a team-high seven goals and is second in total points to linemate Grant Besse with 15.

Even though he’s the youngest player on the team — he just turned 18 in December — Kunin has wowed coach Mike Eaves with his maturity.

“The thing that impresses you the most when you speak to him is his maturity,” Eaves said. “He’s an 18 year-old going on 25.”

Kunin’s maturing process accelerated with a visit to the doctor’s office when he was in sixth grade.

“I knew something was wrong,” he said.

“I was up all night. I couldn’t sleep. I was going to the bathroom three or four times a night and was drinking so much water.”

The diagnosis was type 1 diabetes, which is usually identified in children and young adults and accounts for about 5 percent of those who have the disease. With type 1 diabetes the body doesn’t produce insulin, a hormone needed to get glucose from the bloodstream into the cells. There is no cure but it can be managed with insulin therapy.

At the time, of course, Kunin understood none of that.

“To be honest, I had no idea,” Kunin said. “I’d never really heard of it before. I was at the doctor with my mom and I was just asking if I could still play hockey. I was just a young kid and I didn’t know what was going on.

“They told me everything was going to be fine and my mom said everything was going to be OK. After I heard that I wasn’t too worried. They took me to the hospital and taught me everything I had to know.”

Kunin has been managing the disease ever since.

“I test it 8 to 10 times a day, maybe more on game days,” he said. “I’m always keeping it under control, counting my carbs, taking my shots before I eat.”

He received some early encouragement when hockey buddy Matthew Tkachuk, son of then-St. Louis Blues star Keith Tkachuk, helped arrange for Kunin to meet with another Blues player, B.J. Crombeen, who also has diabetes.

“That was pretty cool to talk to a guy that was in the NHL about it right away,” Kunin said. “It’s something I’ve learned a lot from and it’s helped me grow up and mature a lot faster than most kids my age. I think it’s helped me a lot.”

Eaves believes that matter-of-fact kind of mindset has helped Kunin become an immediate impact player for the Badgers (4-8-6, 1-3-2-1 Big Ten).

“He is just about getting it done and getting it done the right way,” Eaves said.

“He knows what his goals are in his life, and he just gets it done. He needs to get to a puck, he gets the puck. He does a lot of the little things but also he’s got the flare to put the puck in the net and make plays.

“And he’s done that in the classroom, too. I don’t think going to class is his favorite thing but he gets a 3.13 (grade-point average). He just gets it done.”

Kunin is coming off perhaps his best game as a Badger, contributing a goal and three assists in a 4-4 tie with Ohio State on Saturday. He hopes to keep that production going this weekend when the Badgers travel to Penn State (13-4-3, 3-1-0) for games tonight and Saturday.

“These are games we need to go out and grab,” Kunin said. “We’ve gotten punched in the face a couple times and I think easily we could be .500 now and even have seven or eight more wins, to be honest.

“But that’s what it is and we’ve just got to deal with it and get better.”

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Dennis Punzel covers Wisconsin Badgers volleyball, women's basketball for the Wisconsin State Journal.