Chasing a hockey dream together: How Luke and Sophia Kunin make the first NHL-PWHL marriage work

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

She was a shoulder to lean on when things got tough in Minnesota. Moved to Nashville when he was traded there. Was a constant during the toughest season of his pro career — last year with the San Jose Sharks, when he tore his ACL.

So Kunin can’t wait to walk into Xcel Energy Center — the arena where he began his NHL career as a Minnesota Wild rookie seven years ago — on Saturday with the shoe on the other foot. The 1 p.m. CDT game will be his first time watching Sophia play at the highest level in person, as she’ll take the ice with Minnesota’s Professional Women’s Hockey League team to face Boston in its regular-season home finale ahead of next month’s playoffs.

“I’ll get to see what it’s all about,” Luke said. “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 through so much to arrive at this point. Meeting as teenagers. Watching each other excel in hockey. Becoming college sweethearts. And Luke being Sophia’s “rock every step of the way” after the most traumatic event of her life, the death of her younger brother, Drake, at the start of her sophomore year.

Luke, 26, is a hard-nosed, hard-working forward for the Sharks who hails from suburban St. Louis. Sophia, 27, who grew up in Wayzata, Minn., and is now one of PWHL Minnesota’s fastest, most reliable forwards, was known as Sophia Shaver until the Kunins were married last summer in the Twin Cities.

They are the only husband and wife professional hockey players in their respective top leagues in North America.

For now.

“I think the more our league’s around, the more we’re going to start to see it,” said U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer Natalie Darwitz, GM of PWHL Minnesota and a two-time NCAA champion with the University 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 University of Wisconsin before their freshman years. Luke was an incoming men’s hockey player for a Badgers team he’d ultimately captain as a sophomore. Sophia was an incoming women’s hockey player for a Badgers team she’d ultimately captain and help lead to an NCAA championship with the winning goal in the title game.

At Wisconsin, athletes usually come to Madison for summer training before the school year starts.

“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 began as Badgers. (Courtesy of Sophia Kunin)

They’ve been together since, although because Luke plays for San Jose and Sophia was part of the Minnesota team in the inaugural PWHL season, they were newlyweds who rarely got to see each other during this first year as husband and wife.

Wild winger Marcus Foligno may be six years older than Luke, but the two hit it off right away when Luke arrived in Minnesota as a rookie, becoming such good pals that Foligno was a groomsman in the Kunins’ wedding, along with Luke’s former Nashville Predators teammate Colton Sissons and childhood best friend Matthew Tkachuk.

In early March, when the Sharks came to Minnesota for their first visit of 2023-24, Foligno was so excited to see his old friend that he asked if he wanted to have dinner the night before the game. He forgot, of course, that Luke would probably rather spend some time with his wife.

“He’s like, ‘Dude, I haven’t seen Sophia in two months,’” Foligno said, 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.”

But as tough as it is, the Kunins have done the long-distance thing often in their relationship since Kunin left Wisconsin after his sophomore year to turn pro.

“It’s tough, but we’re kind of used to it,” Sophia said. “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 just played a weekend series against St. Cloud State when she got the devastating call from her parents, Cristen and Tom, on Oct. 2, 2016, that Drake had taken his own life. A high school hockey and lacrosse player, an avid outdoorsman who loved hunting and fishing, Drake was only 17.

“He was a very happy, normal, popular guy,” Sophia said. “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.”

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

Sophia returned home but came back to school a week later. She buried herself in as much schoolwork and hockey as she could, but she was not doing OK.

Luke was one of her continuous means of support.

“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 said. “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 only 18 at the time and was heartbroken for Sophia and her family. He had started to become close with her parents and siblings, including Sophia’s sister, Crosby, who went to the Air Force Academy, was a pilot who flew refueler jets and now has an independent 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 said. “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 is very close with Sophia’s family, especially her dad, Tom, who takes him to their cabin in Crosslake to go fishing and hunting.

“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 said. “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.”

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

As tough of a year as the Sharks had, winning only 19 games, Luke scored 11 goals, got into a team-leading nine fights, led the team’s forwards with 165 hits and wore a letter on his chest. General manager Mike Grier said he epitomized what the team is looking for in San Jose, someone willing to battle every night.

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

And Sophia, who scored a goal in Minnesota’s first game at Boston, is a player Darwitz feels will prove quite valuable once the playoffs begin. Every team has high-end skill, but Darwitz believes the teams that separate themselves will be the ones with high-end depth provided by players like Sophia, who has scored two goals and an assist in 21 games.

“In any playoff run, it’s your depth,” Darwitz said. “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.”

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

Luke and Sophia don’t do a lot of offseason training together. In Nashville, when Sophia was a commercial real estate broker, she skated with the Junior Preds high schoolers to keep in shape and keep playing. But in the summertime now, even though they’re both pros, Luke does his own thing and she does her thing with a group of women who play professionally.

“She’s worked crazy hard to get to where she is,” Luke said. “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 got to read the starting lineup in the locker room for PWHL Minnesota’s first-ever home game. Two of his young daughters were by his side, and he hoped it would make an impression long into the future that women were about to play a professional hockey game.

“And my girls know who Sophia is for sure,” Foligno said. “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.”

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

Kunin is back in Minnesota for now, but he will head to Czechia next month with the U.S. national team to take part in the world championships. In 2017, he captained the U.S. to world juniors gold.

He’s just excited that during this short stay he’ll get to take in one of Sophia’s games.

And to hang out with his best friend, their spunky 4-year-old French Bulldog, Rocco.

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

“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 long, long year for the Kunins being separated. On their wedding day last July, Luke stole the show 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.

Several NHLers were there, including Matthew and Brady Tkachuk, Sissons, Dante Fabbro, Ryan Hartman, Jordan Greenway and Foligno.

Several of Sophia’s former teammates were bridesmaids, including Abby Roque, who plays 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 said, laughing.

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

This is life as an NHL-PWHL couple. Enjoying the moments they get together and appreciating each other’s careers as they try to fulfill the same dreams.

Even Grier said, “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 said. “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.”

(Top photos courtesy of Sophia Kunin)