Warner hosts in-ring challenges

June 30, 2022

By: Mitchell Courtney

You’ve almost certainly heard stories of athletes unexpectedly retiring at a young age to pursue other passions in life or in the work they do. The list includes iconic names such as Michael Jordan, Barry Sanders and Björn Borg. Jordan pursued a career in baseball after his father’s death, Sanders noted that his desire to leave the game was greater than his desire to stay in it, and Borg simply said the sport of tennis no longer felt like the game for him. same. As unconventional as it sounds, former Iowa Wild defenseman Hunter Warner wanted to pursue a career as a professional boxer.

After playing six seasons in the Wild organization from 2015-21, Warner announced his retirement from professional hockey. While the news surprised those unfamiliar with his upbringing and family life, the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Warner was simply following in his father’s footsteps.

His father, Jeff, was a professional boxer himself and even had a stint in the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), wrestling under the ring name “JW Storm”. From 1989 to 2000, the elder Warner went 22-2 in the ring as a professional boxer, earning each of his 22 victories by knockout and later training under legendary boxing figure Emmanuel Steward. Steward has been dubbed the “godfather of Detroit boxing” and also trained Thomas Hearns, Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko.

“We grew up always watching boxing. We didn’t watch hockey because my parents weren’t really interested,” Hunter said. “I first had an interest in boxing before my first attempt at junior hockey. I told my dad that I wanted to learn how to fight to show the teams that I was ready. It’s not really a big part of the game anymore, but when I was coming up through the ranks, scouts and coaches loved that a player was ready to step in and defend his teammates.

Although he grew up in a family of boxers, the Warner family’s move to Minnesota allowed Hunter to explore other avenues athletically.

“My dad grew up in a very tough neighborhood, and he was a boxer and a wrestler,” Hunter said. “He wanted us to focus on family, so he moved us to a small town in Minnesota. My dad didn’t play hockey, but my older brother, Colt, started playing with his friends on the outdoor rink and, honestly, I just wanted to do what he was doing.

The Warner children were drawn to hockey and they soon realized that they had each inherited their father’s athleticism.

“I don’t want to sound arrogant, but my brother and I were both athletically gifted,” Hunter said. “With hockey at the start, I was pretty raw, but I still got by with my instincts and my God-given ability. It wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school that I switched to defense and began to be trained and honed.

As Hunter grew older, more and more people began to notice his skills on the ice and it became apparent that he would have the opportunity to play at a higher level. Receiving a scholarship offer was something that boosted his self-confidence.

“When I was around 16 or 17, I started getting attention and got a scholarship offer,” Hunter said. “That alone was like coming to the NHL for me. It definitely boosted my confidence. I started thinking that I could really do something with hockey.

Although he decided not to play college hockey, Hunter played with the Waterloo Black Hawks and the Fargo Force of the United States Hockey League (USHL). After his time in the USHL, he spent two seasons with the Prince Albert Raiders of the Western Hockey League (WHL). After not being selected in the NHL draft, Warner signed a contract with the Wild organization before the 2015–16 season and began his professional career in Iowa, finding some success in the process.

“Hockey has always been my dream and I had a great start to my professional career, especially in NHL training camp,” Hunter said. “There were huge peaks, but eventually I started to cross a small valley. When Tim Army became a coach in Iowa, he kind of rejuvenated me and gave me a huge opportunity that I ran with.

Even with a vote of confidence from Iowa Wild head coach Tim Army, Hunter battled some injuries and began to think about his future in the sport. He wanted to reach NHL level but had yet to earn his first call-up. Ultimately, he retired from professional hockey without ever playing an NHL game, but noted that he did not regret his decision.

“I had always boxed with my family back home and my brothers and dad were involved,” Hunter said. “I was offered a contract in boxing and at the time my contract was up in Iowa. It was always something I wanted to try and I had to come home and be with my family and train with my father and my brother.

Throughout his career in professional hockey, Hunter used boxing to stay in shape and prepare for the physique of the game. During the offseason, he trained as if he was preparing for a fight.

“Honestly, it’s the best workout you can have,” Hunter said. “It did me well during the summer, and it was a bit addicting. Many people embrace boxing as a fitness class because it helps you stay in top shape. The skill set also translated well on the ice because I had to be able to handle myself in tough situations.

However, after his retirement from hockey, there was a period of adjustment and he developed a new level of respect for professional fighters and their training methods.

“Anyone who plays hockey for a living will be in pretty good shape,” Hunter said. “When I started training more and realizing what kind of gas tank you need in the ring, I was a bit confused. I was hitting a wall in my training and I remember having I thought, “I’m in great shape. I don’t understand why it’s so difficult. I certainly plateaued at some point, but my brother and my father explained to me the importance of the mental side of sport. You you can be in great shape, but it’s the mental fatigue that makes it so difficult.

Even for a player who recorded 211 penalty minutes in 193 AHL career games, mental warfare inside a boxing ring was another thing Hunter had to get used to as part of his coaching.

“It sounds a little barbaric, but for three minutes straight you try not to get punched in the face by someone and try to hit them back,” Hunter said. “It can be intimidating and it drains you mentally. There’s a lot of pressure on you to be on your game because if you mess up you get punched in the face.

Conversely, Hunter believes his time as a professional hockey player prepared him for the show and promotion side of boxing.

“I think playing hockey professionally gives me an edge in the ring,” Hunter said. “For some people, fighting in front of large crowds can be nerve wracking. Being comfortable playing in front of a lot of people was something I was already used to. Experiences like the one I had in Iowa are invaluable in this regard.

Although he put his hockey career behind him, the memories he made with the Iowa Wild organization are still dear to him.

“My favorite memories revolve around my ability to play playoff hockey professionally in Iowa,” Hunter said. “It wasn’t until my third full year, but we made the playoffs for the first time in the 2018-19 season. Not only making the playoffs, but winning our first series against Milwaukee was special. Everyone did their part, we trusted each other and made history as the first team in Iowa Wild history to make the playoffs and win a series.

In a team sport, especially at the professional level, camaraderie is something many former players refer to when discussing their careers. Hunter said he felt a sense of pride and accomplishment when the Minnesota Wild staff joined in the celebration.

“The Minnesota Wild staff came out to support us and they were in the locker room celebrating with us,” Hunter said. “They were proud of the next wave of talent for having succeeded. Obviously, they see the players from Iowa as players who could potentially come and have an impact in Minnesota.

Summing up his time with the Wild, Hunter recalled his hunger for success at a young age and expressed his gratitude for everyone who helped make his time in the Wild organization so special.

“When I came to Iowa, I was a young boy eager to work hard and be the best person I could be,” Hunter said. “It took every member of the organization to do their part to be successful and that was great. I didn’t make it to the top, but I had a great opportunity.