Nine practices and three games into training camp, the biggest surprise so far for the Wild is a very raw defenseman many die-hards probably haven’t heard of yet.
Hunter Warner grew up on a farm with three bothers in Pine City, Minn., and played two years of high school hockey at Eden Prairie.
Two years ago, Warner, undrafted in the NHL, was committed to Minnesota State Mankato. But he decided to give up his college eligibility because the Wild offered him … a tryout … to its prospect tournament in Traverse City, Mich.
“I want to be a pro, and I just felt the opportunity was high risk, high reward,” said Warner, who added with a chuckle, “Sometimes you’ve got to risk it to get the biscuit.”
It’s way premature, but so far the 21-year-old, soon-to-be-Iowa-bound Warner has the Wild brass beaming with pride at how far he has come. In fact, Warner has put himself on the radar to be a Wild callup this season.
Named the most improved prospect at this past July’s development camp, Warner has picked up where he left off and has impressed coach Bruce Boudreau every step of the way.
“He’s the best feel-good story [of training camp],” Boudreau said. “You’re always hoping, whether it’s summer camp or main camp, that some guy comes out and makes you notice him.”
The Wild had no expectations of Warner and didn’t even have Warner penciled in to play any preseason games. But Warner earned two and played with shocking poise.
“It’s still a process, but it just feels really good to be recognized for the hard work that I’m putting in behind the scenes,” Warner said after Boudreau pulled him aside for a praise-filled talk Friday. “They told me what to do, and I’m just doing it. It’s all hard work.
“I’m thankful to them for the opportunity. I didn’t take it lightly. I want to make it and do what they ask, so I went home and behind the scenes did all that work. It’s paying off.”
The son of co-pastors Jeff and Jennifer Warner of the Rock Church in Bloomington, Warner is the second-oldest of four gigantic boys.
In fact, at 6-4 and 220 pounds, Hunter is the runt of the family. Younger football-playing brothers Dillon and Bronson are immense, and his 25-year-old brother, Colton, is deciding whether to follow Dad’s footsteps by becoming a pro boxer. Jeff Warner forged a successful boxing career after a pro wrestling career.
Jeff Warner was known as J.W. Storm in the WCW (World Championship Wrestling) and part of the tag team Maximum Overdrive. His specialty? The neckbreaker drop.
These days, Warner has been in ministry for nearly 20 years and travels the world entertaining through “Jeff Warner’s Ultimate Strength.” He and his team perform feats of strength such as crushing bricks and busting baseball bats, with the ultimate message being the power of positive choices, confidence building and self-esteem and achieving against all odds.
After Eden Prairie High, Hunter Warner played a year of junior in the United States Hockey League, then two years for Western Hockey League Prince Albert, where his billet mom was the same one Mike Modano once had. Warner’s first year there, his season was cut short by shoulder surgery.
“He was a big, competitive, tough kid, so we signed him,” Wild assistant GM Brent Flahr said. “He was raw even last year, but he really worked at his game and improved. Since Day 1, he has just showed drastic improvement. His bread and butter will be physical play, but he can handle the puck. It’s exciting to see a young guy step up like this.”
Warner reminds Boudreau of Josh Manson, the 24-year-old late-round pick by the Anaheim Ducks who played 71 games last season for Boudreau as a shut-down defenseman.
Warner is realistic, saying he knows he’s “still a big project.” But the Wild doesn’t have a run of big, physical defensemen, and Warner hopes to develop into that.
“I just have to study that playing style more and perfect that technique because I think I can provide a very hard-nosed, gritty, defensive game,” he said. “You know, break pucks out, simple play, fight once in a while, make that big hit, block that shot.”