“He’s more gritty. He wants to go in the corner and win those battles,” teammate Henry Nelson said. “We’ve gotten in a few scrums during 1-on-1 drills. He’s there to get better and make you better.”
Photo: Jerry Holt * email@example.com
Maple Grove senior Ryan Reid knows Kyle Kukkonen from their youth hockey days and several classes freshman year.
Concussions ended Reid’s hockey career before high school and he switched to tennis. But he never completely left hockey. One of four Crimson varsity hockey student managers, Reid routinely packs extra gloves, socks and jerseys, such as Kukkonen’s No. 9, for away games.
“I was a second-year squirt with Kyle; he was first line and I was third.” Reid said. “He was a little better than me.”
On the ice, sure. But Reid witnessed Kukkonen’s humility last season. A severe injury ended Kukkonen’s junior campaign in the seventh game. Like Reid, Kukkonen found other ways to hang around the game.
“Last year, he helped us clean the locker room at times,” Reid said. “I appreciated it. But that’s just the type of guy he is. Always respectful, humble and appreciative.”
Reid would text Kukkonen supportive messages throughout the latter’s rehabilitation, telling him, “Don’t worry. You’ll be back and be better than ever.”
And how. Kukkonen’s 72 points ranks second in the state as Maple Grove (20-1) readies for Wednesday’s Class 2A state tournament quarterfinal against Andover.
Kukkonen, a hellacious competitor and humble servant leader, is the Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year.
“You can see him lead by example with his intensity at practice every day,” Reid said. “Everyone follows him.”
Kukkonen in action earlier this year (Photo courtesy Loren Nelson)
Kukkonen was averaging three points per game last season before a collision with the Andover Community Center boards caused a broken fibula and tibia and tore every ankle ligament. He recalled doctors saying he would recover but added, “Good thing you’re not a track runner.”
Two surgeries, the second one unexpected, resulted in about 15 weeks of non-weight bearing activities.
“I didn’t feel the best some days,” said Kukkonen, who relied on his teammates, friends, family and youth pastor for support. Reid joined the hope brigade with positive messages via text or Snapchat.
Maple Grove reached the state tournament and lost to Blake in the quarterfinals. Kukkonen met teammates in the locker room and returned their support by encouraging them to start working toward the 2020-21 season. But he wasn’t sure about his own return.
Summer hockey outings, the first strides of on-ice action, were more about patience than performance.
“I wondered, ‘Will I be the player I was?’ ” Kukkonen said. “I had to prove I could be where I wanted to be.”
Doubts fell like autumn leaves last fall as Kukkonen led the Upper Midwest High School Elite League in scoring. The twice-delayed varsity season opened Jan. 14, which marked 391 days since his last varsity game.
“I didn’t realize how special and important these moments are, and what is great about hockey in Minnesota,” Kukkonen said.
Teammates are raving about Kukkonen 2.0, named a Mr. Hockey Award finalist.
“He’s more gritty. He wants to go in the corner and win those battles,” said Crimson senior defenseman Henry Nelson, a fellow Mr. Hockey finalist. “We’ve gotten in a few scrums during 1-on-1 drills. He’s there to get better and make you better.”
Reid called Kukkonen, who is committed to Michigan Tech, “Mr. Hockey sometimes last year to keep him motivated.”
Tearing through the season thus far, Kukkonen tallied 10 games with two or more goals and seven games with three or more assists. The most personal of those big nights came March 4, Kukkonen’s return to Andover. He scored the game’s first two goals, letting go what Reid called “an emotional howl” each time.
“It was cool to see,” Reid said. “He came all the way back from his worst day.”
Maple Grove’s Kyle Kukkonen, holding the Class 2A, Section 5 championship trophy aloft, celebrated with his team. Photo: Jeff Wheeler * firstname.lastname@example.org