Two years ago, Michigan’s hockey team was in danger of snapping its record 19-straight NCAA tournament bids. They finished seventh in their league – unheard of, for Michigan. So, the only way to keep the streak alive was to win six straight league playoff games to get an automatic NCAA bid.
Oh, and they had to do it with a back-up goalie named Shawn Hunwick, a 5-foot-6 walk-on who had never started a college game until that week.
It didn’t look good.
But the kid caught fire. Michigan won all six games, stretched its streak to 20 straight NCAA tournaments, and Hunwick won the league tournament MVP.
This never happens.
The next season, head coach Red Berenson alternated goalies until he had to pick one to play in the Big Chill game at Michigan’s football stadium – which was going to be the largest crowd ever to watch a hockey game, anywhere. He picked Bryan Hogan, but in warm ups, Hogan pulled a muscle, so Berenson put Hunwick in the net at the last minute. The kid beat Michigan State, 5-0, and a star was re-born.
Hunwick took his team on another wild ride, finishing with eight straight wins to steal the conference crown on the last night. Michigan made it all the way to the NCAA finals – where the Wolverines lost in overtime, once again. Hunwick finished with the best statistics of any goalie in the league – but the league voters inexplicably left him off the first and second All-Star teams. That never happens, either.
His coaches and teammates were smarter. They knew, going into this season, Hunwick was the key. The Wolverines won just one game in November, then won 80% of the rest, to earn the NCAA’s second overall seed.
There was no Cinderella talk anymore. Hunwick set school records for goals-against-average and save percentage, the two most important measures of goaltending. Most jobs in sports are hard to measure, but not this one. Who’s the best free-throw shooter? The guy who makes the most free throws – doesn’t matter how tall he is or what his form looks like. Who’s the best goalie? The guy who keeps the puck out of the net. And that’s how you’d think they’d measure goaltending. But the league once again snubbed Hunwick, keeping him off the first All-Star team.
A year before Bo Schembechler died, he said the best player he ever coached was not one of his dozens of All-Americans, but a 5-9 walk-on named Donnie Warner, who rose to become a starting defensive lineman. Bo said the kid took what God gave him – “which, frankly, wasn’t very much” – and used it to cover everything He didn’t. Warner simply would not let anyone – not even Bo Schembechler – talk him out of his dreams.
Using Bo’s yardstick, you’d have to conclude Shawn Hunwick might just be the greatest hockey player in Michigan history.
Yet, last Friday night, Michigan got knocked out of the NCAA tournament in overtime for the third straight year, ending Hunwick’s college career. When he saw the puck in the back of his net, he told me, “two years ago I would have pulled it out and shot it into the crowd.” Instead, as first reported by the Michigan Daily’s Zach Helfand, Hunwick picked up the puck, and skated it over to the other team’s bench. The head coach called Hunwick’s gesture the “classiest thing I’ve seen in 25 years of coaching.”
On Tuesday night, I interviewed Hunwick about his plans. He hadn’t been drafted by anyone – which also never happens for a player of his caliber – and thought he might play a year or two in the minors or Europe, “then move on.”
But a funny thing happened. The very next morning, the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets’ starting goalie injured himself in practice, so they called to see if little Shawn Hunwick could be their back-up goalie that night – against the Red Wings. Hunwick decided to skip his astronomy class, and drive to Columbus.
This never happens.
Another impossible dream had come true. Still more could follow.
Care to bet against him?
About the author: John U. Bacon is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” He also co-authored “A Legacy of Champions,” and provided commentary for “Black and Blue: The Story of Gerald Ford, Willis Ward, and the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech Football Game,” which has been airing on various stations in Michigan and nationally.
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