It’s been a dismal year for Michigan fans. The football team and the men’s basketball team both failed to make it to the post-season, and together they lost to Michigan State three times.
The men’s hockey team was supposed to be the saving grace. Entering this season, the Wolverines had made it to the NCAA tournament a record 19-straight seasons. That streak started in 1991, before many of the current players were even born.
The Wolverines were picked to finish first in their league – but they finished seventh, unheard of in Ann Arbor. The only chance they had to keep their streak alive was to win four straight rounds of their conference playoffs. Nothing else could save their season.
It was a tall order. No team had ever come from that far down to win the league playoffs. And it got a lot taller when the Wolverines lost their starting goalie, Bryan Hogan, leaving them with the shortest goalie in the league, a five-foot-six backup named Shawn Hunwick. In his three seasons at Michigan, Hunwick had not started a single game.
Hunwick isn’t even the best player in his family. His older brother Matt had captained the Wolverines, and now plays for the NHL’s Boston Bruins.
They grew up in Sterling Heights, where Matt beat Shawn in just about everything, including daily fights. But Shawn was feisty, and always came back for more. When Shawn wanted to play hockey, Matt shoved him in net – like older brothers do – and made him play goalie.
But Shawn took to it immediately, and tried to convince his parents – a grocery store manager and a school maintenance man – to buy the expensive equipment needed to play the position. They initially refused, but Shawn persisted until they couldn’t say no. Shawn’s like that.
It’s not fair to say he looks like your paperboy – because he looks like your paperboy’s baby brother. When Hunwick’s in his stance, he barely reaches the cross bar, and looks like he has to jump for the high shots.
He paid his dues in places like Alpena, and Petrolia, Ontario, before he became Michigan’s “practice goalie.” These guys pay full tuition – brother Matt pays Shawn’s – and they don’t even dress for the games. All for the honor of having future pros fire slapshots at their heads two hours a day. There’s a reason why practice goalies are called “targets.”
In almost three years at Michigan, Hunwick played exactly 18 minutes of college hockey. But he never complained, he never skipped, and he never badgered his coaches for playing time. He just kept his mouth shut, and did his job, day in and day out.
In his first start, four weeks ago against Notre Dame, he got shelled for four goals in ten minutes, and Michigan lost. But the next weekend, the first round of the do-or-die playoffs against Lake Superior State, he gave up only two goals the first night, and none the next, to earn his first shut out.
The Wolverines then faced second-place Michigan State, which had already beaten Michigan three times. But with Hunwick in net, the Wolverines swept their arch-rivals, 5-1 and 5-3. Head coach Red Berenson realized he had pulled out a plum.
Next up: the Miami Redhawks, which finished first in the league, and second in the nation. But they were no match for Shawn Hunwick, who led Michigan to a 5-2 victory. The next night, with Michigan’s 19-year NCAA tournament streak on the line, Hunwick held off Northern Michigan, 2-1. Their season, and their streak, had been saved.
When the game ended, the Wolverines threw their gloves and sticks into the air and raced to hug their hero, like they’d won the Stanley Cup. Hunwick’s parents cried. Even Berenson, who’s about as expressive behind the bench as Mt. Rushmore, was caught smiling, on camera – twice. And when they called up his surprising savior to receive the MVP award, Berenson actually got a little choked up.
Back on the team bus, Shawn made his first call to brother Matt, and tried to give him the credit, but Matt wouldn’t hear it. “You made the saves,” he said.
And that’s how little brother earned one trophy big brother never did.
About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami of Ohio, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.