Column: Michigan Hockey’s Cinderella

Goalie Shawn Hunwick shines on and off the ice
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Last year, Michigan’s men’s hockey team was in danger of breaking its record 19-straight appearances in the NCAA tournament – a streak that started before many of the current players were even born. They were picked to finish first in the league – but they finished a disastrous seventh, unheard of in Ann Arbor.

The only way they could keep their streak alive was to win six league playoff games to get an automatic bid. Oh, and they’d have to do it with a back-up goalie named Shawn Hunwick, a 5-foot-6 walk-on who had never started a college game. Things looked bleak, to say the least.

But the kid caught fire. The Wolverines actually won all six games, they stretched their streak to 20 straight NCAA tournaments, and Hunwick won the league tournament MVP award. He was like Rudy – with talent.

But there are no sequels for Cinderella. One run is all you get.

This fall, Hunwick alternated games with the original starting goalie, Bryan Hogan, who was healthy again. They both played well, but Hogan won more games. Luck was not on the little Hunwick’s side.

So, when Red Berenson had to pick a goalie to play in the Big Chill game at Michigan Stadium – in front of the largest crowd ever to watch a hockey game – he picked Hogan. Hunwick was disappointed – but not surprised.

But in warm-ups, Hogan pulled a muscle, so they had to throw Hunwick in net, with no preparation – and the kid shuts out Michigan State, 5-0. A star was re-born. Once again, Hunwick took his team on an incredible run, finishing the regular season with an eight-game winning streak to steal the conference crown from Notre Dame on the last night.

Michigan went on to win the NCAA West Region, thanks to Hunwick’s MVP performance, and the team advanced to hockey’s final four. But that meant they had to face the best team in college hockey, North Dakota. Michigan got ahead, 1-0, then counted on Hunwick to do the rest – and he did, knocking back 40 shots, including a few simply spectacular saves, without letting in a single goal.

Against the best players in college hockey, many of whom were days away from signing big NHL contracts, the best player on the ice was the 5-foot-6 walk-on goalie who didn’t even have a full scholarship. But he was the one who made it to the championship game last Saturday, not the future NHLers.

Against Minnesota-Duluth, for all the marbles, Hunwick was fantastic again, making 35 saves and being named the Frozen Four’s best goalie. But three minutes into overtime, Duluth scored a good goal. Hunwick didn’t have a chance. The dream ended one goal short.

But the best thing Hunwick did this season happened a few weeks earlier, on Senior Night, when he had a shut-out going against Northern Michigan. Finishing the shut-out could only help his chances for winning league awards, but Hunwick told the coaches he wanted to come out, and let Bryan Hogan, the man who’s job he had taken, finish the game.

“Hey, we’re friends,” Hunwick told me. “And I didn’t win his job. He just got hurt.” If anyone knew how it felt to be the back-up, waiting for a chance that might not ever come, it was Shawn Hunwick. “I’ve been on the bench, and I’ve been in the spotlight. This is definitely a better view.”

Amazingly, Hunwick didn’t get elected to the league’s first or second all-star teams – in a ridiculous oversight – and the NHL scouts continue to ignore him. But I’ve never seen any athlete get two chances to play Cinderella – and Hunwick nailed it, both times.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the Wall Street Journal, and ESPN Magazine, among others. He is the author of “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller, and “Third and Long: Three Years with Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines,” due out this fall through FSG. Bacon teaches at 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.