Down on the Farm: Prospects on Similar Journey to the State of Hockey
To say that Minnesota Wild prospects Daemon Hunt and Ryan O’Rourke have taken similar hockey trips would be an understatement. The two rookie defenders have a great deal in common, but possess their own uniqueness that makes each of them a high-end prospect within the organization.
It all started in May 2002 when they were born 24 hours apart. Hunt arrived in Brandon, Manitoba on May 15 and O’Rourke arrived in Pickering, Ontario on May 16. You could say it’s a track, but that set the stage for what was to come. Both shared the Canadian dream of one day playing in the NHL. The two grew up to be good defenders, each with a left-footed shot and the ability to play a two-way game.
At 17, you were among the best defenders (for your age) in Canada. Hunt and O’Rourke began playing internationally for Team Canada, each earning a place on the U-17, U-18 and U-20 teams.
“We sort of rose through the ranks together,” Hunt explained. “We were on many of the same teams, so we got to know each other well. He’s a great person and a great player. We’re both very competitive, but I think it’s a good competition. We feed each other.”
“We probably did three World Junior Camps together and got to know each other pretty well over the years,” O’Rourke added. “We have developed a very good relationship.”
The Minnesota Wild thought highly of the defenders and made sure their time together will be extended in 2020. Minnesota drafted O’Rourke in the second round (#39 overall) of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft and went on to pick Hunt in the third round (#65 overall).
“We’ve probably been together for four years,” O’Rourke said. “I think we probably had two or three training camps together. We’re down here together (in Des Moines). We just follow each other.”
Even as COVID forced the closure of Canada’s junior system, the two gained valuable experience with the AHL’s Iowa Wild during the 2020-21 season. At the ripe old age of 18, both have lost their teeth at the professional level. O’Rourke recorded 33 games in Iowa and Hunt oversaw six. Hunt and O’Rourke returned to their junior teams in 2021–22 and turned pro in 2022–23.
“I think I’ll come back this year just to have that experience of what to know and what to expect,” O’Rourke said. “I think changing my game here and making progress has really helped me.”
“The time I’ve been here and the six games I’ve been in have been great,” said the 20-year-old Hunt. “I’ve experienced the professional lifestyle. I’ve played a few games, which helped me get a feel for it.”
Her development has been praised by her coaches and teammates alike. Iowa Wild assistant coach Nolan Yonkman, who played 76 games in the NHL in his 18-year career, explained that the mental aspect of the professional game is really where young players thrive the most.
“The hardest part is the mental part of the game and learning the American League,” Yonkman said. “Just knowing that everyone is a good player. Once they realize that, they develop their game and find their identity.”
Advancement usually requires the support of experienced teammates. Daemon Hunt was paired with Joe Hicketts this season while O’Rourke was partnered with Dakota Mermis.
“I remember playing with him (Mermis) in St. Louis for Minnesota last year preseason,” O’Rourke explained. “Just for us I think it was an easy game. Just the chemistry we had and the connection. I think that working together in this way was very beneficial for me at the beginning of my career. I think that continues here.”
“He (Hicketts) is a good mentor,” added Hunt. “I learn from him every day. He’s a good character guy. I love the guy. He gives me tips here and there. I think we eat well on the ice. He’s very vocal, which really helps.”
Hunt and O’Rourke shared success as members of Team Canada’s U-20 squad, which won a gold medal at the World Junior Championships in August. O’Rourke, Hunt and fellow Minnesota native Carson Lambos (R1-#26 MN 2021) have each been awarded a gold medal and will soon receive a ring from Team Canada. Unfortunately, Hunt was unable to play due to a broken finger but stayed with the team throughout the tournament to cherish a memory he will never forget when he received his gold medal.
“It’s so hard to describe,” explained Hunt. “Growing up just watching this tournament and then being a part of it and getting your name out there. Then they put the gold medal around your neck. It’s hard to put into words.”
“It was definitely something I’ve been looking at for a while and something I’ve wanted for a while,” added O’Rourke. “It’s kind of indescribable. I think my heart was probably just pounding and it seemed like the whole arena, the whole city, the whole country, you know, was kind of all over us on our backs, you know, cheering us on.”
World Juniors is back in its usual place as the tournament begins December 26th and runs through January 5th in Halifax, Nova Scotia and Moncton, NB. As always, the tournament will be filled with NHL prospects including Lambos and forward Caedan Bankier (R3-#86 MN 2021) for Team Canada. Defender Jack Peart (R2-#54 MN 2021) plays for Team USA and Liam Ohgren (R1-#19 MN 2022) plays for Sweden.
Hunt and O’Rourke will likely catch a few games of the tournament while cheering on Canada’s renewed gold medal performance. More importantly, the 20-year-old continues their development at Des Moines and aims for the next step in their careers.
Minnesota Wild fans should almost expect to see one after the other. The same pattern that began during a 24 hour period in May 2002.