Karson Kuhlman may be most well known for captaining UMD to an NCAA Championship and a breakout performance in the Stanley Cup Final, but for the people who’ve met him, he’s Minnesota Nice.
And in the Esko native’s mind, there’s really no other way.
“Growing up in a small town in northern Minnesota, everybody kind of knows everybody, so I guess you learn to be on your best behavior at a young age, otherwise the whole town knows about it,” Kuhlman said with a laugh. “Growing up I was pretty fortunate, my parents did a great job with myself and my younger brother, and also just fortunate with the people around me. I think my friend group was great, we all had a great time together and they’re all doing awesome things now, and also the adults in my life were pretty good role models too, so I was pretty fortunate.”
Kuhlman may have blistering speed and a blue-collar work ethic, but it’s the word character that truly defines him.
The words ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ were not optional growing up – they were required by mom and dad. During Kuhlman’s time at UMD, it was the little things he did, like showing appreciation for those around him, that left a lasting impression on three-time NCAA championship coach Scott Sandelin.
“He was one of my favorite players for sure. I know you’re not supposed to say that, but he was,” Sandelin said. “You wish you could have more (Karsons) or all of them really. He made our coaching job easier. He was just very disciplined, real good team guy, and you knew what he was going to bring every day.”
Sandelin said there was more than one occasion he’d catch Kuhlman shaking hands with the team bus driver or joking around with a rink operator.
“I think everybody sees us on the ice and kind of sees us as the hockey team, but really there’s so much that goes into it, from our equipment guys to our medical staff to the guys that run the rink,” said Kuhlman. “Everybody that’s involved, it’s a long list of names that if they weren’t doing their job we couldn’t be on the ice and playing hockey, so it’s a pretty special group of people that make it work.”
Those Who Left an Impact
Coaches and teammates have helped show him that being able to snipe a puck in the corner won’t mean much if you don’t show your teammates, officials, volunteers and fans respect.
“I just remember that we had a coach that really harped on doing things the right way both on and off the ice,” recalled Kuhlman, who grew up in the Cloquet Amateur Hockey Association. “I think the way you treated people off the ice kind of reflected and brought in to your game on the ice. That coach was Scott Pionk. I vividly remember him being hard on us about off the ice as well as on, and to always treat people the right way.”
His character was only strengthened at UMD.
“(Coach Sandelin has) done such a great job with the culture, with those teams,” said Kuhlman, who amassed 80 points in four years at UMD. “Playing in Duluth is special to begin with, but then also just the way that the city interacted with us as a hockey team.
“They treat you with respect because you treat the city with respect. I think it’s great, all the community service and events that Coach Sandelin puts together for us to do in college. It’s really great to give back to the community because they do a lot for us as well.”
There are a number of teammates that left lasting impressions on Kuhlman, but one in particular is current UMD assistant coach and Hermantown native Adam Krause.
“He was my captain my freshman year in college,” Kuhlman said. “Just being around him and seeing how he interacted and treated everyone, whether you were the assistant equipment manager, all the way up to the head coach and president of the school; whatever your title was, the way he interacted and really responded to other people, I think I learned a lot being around him.”
When Kuhlman was honored with the ‘C’ his senior season in 2017-18, Sandelin said there has never been a player more deserving. A team full of youth, Kuhlman’s leadership buoyed the Bulldogs to an eventual NCAA title that season.
“You need those guys, your best players, your leaders to really step up and he ends up having a great year and better end of year,” Sandelin said. “His will and determination and our whole team saw it and it was a pretty big inspiration for all of us.”
“Whether you’re playing 25 minutes per night or not playing in many games at all, everybody’s valuable and that’s the way you got to go about the culture on the team,” Kuhlman added.
Kuhlman said he gets a thrill out of hopping on the ice back home with younger players. This past summer he teamed up with fellow former Bulldog and current Winnipeg Jets defenseman Neal Pionk for a weeklong hockey camp.
“I think back to when I was a little kid, playing Mini Mite and Mite hockey on an outdoor rink in Esko, and the high schoolers would come and they would play shinny hockey outside, and you would watch the way they interact with us,” Kuhlman said. “They were the role models in the beginning, so to think about going back there and having little kids look up to you and really respond to different things that you do, it does, it means a lot to me that my actions and the way I treat people can really affect both kids and hockey players and non-hockey players as well.”
Born and Raised
At the end of the day, in Kuhlman’s mind, it’s all about being Minnesota Nice.
“We are lucky being born and raised in Minnesota,” he said. “We’re pretty fortunate that you get to play with your best buddies growing up and against and with great competition. I think there’s a lot of people behind the scenes, even with Minnesota Hockey, that continue to make it a strong youth program and you see how many college and professional players Minnesota kicks out every year, it’s pretty awesome to be a part of that group.”