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Growing Into the Spotlight: The inconceivable rise of Shawn Hunwick

By Everett Cook, Daily Sports Writer
Published October 21, 2011

STERLING HEIGHTS, Mich. — Inside the home of Rich and Robin Hunwick, tickets from the Big Chill at the Big House and Michigan jerseys line the living room walls, set alongside childhood snapshots of their two boys, Matt and Shawn.

Tucked away in the corner of the room is a picture of Shawn, no older than seven, posing in a goalie squat in the net, his equipment swallowing his small frame.

Nothing about this picture is striking. Just a relic from a picture day many years ago.

Today, Shawn simulates that same squat in net for the No.1 Michigan hockey team, and that’s when it hits you.

In relation to the crossbar, he doesn’t look much taller.

Michigan coach Red Berenson has always liked his goalies big. Why put someone in goal who covers less if you can have someone who covers more? Simple math.

Then you have Shawn, Michigan’s current starting goaltender, who is generously listed at 5-foot-7. He’s probably closer to 5-foot-6.

In theory, Shawn shouldn’t even be in Ann Arbor. He should have graduated from Division III Adrian College last year, finishing up a successful career as the four-year starter.

All he asked for was a chance. That’s all he needed to write a storybook narrative that no one could have predicted, not even Shawn.

***

When Shawn was six years old, Rich took him to sign-ups for spring hockey. Shawn had originally shown no interest in the sport, but after seeing Matt play that winter Rich and Robin convinced Shawn to give it a shot.

At the sign-ups, Shawn saw these little goalie pads in the corner of the room, and that was it. Rich did his best to talk him into another position, but Shawn was having none of it. He wanted to be a goalie.

This whole journey — this story — it all started because a little boy saw some oversized goalie pads and thought they looked cool.

As kids cycled through positions while experimenting with the sport, Shawn was in net. He played without those oversized pads in the offensive zone a few times and hated it. Out there, you have to return to the bench every once in a while. Shawn didn’t like coming out. He was content with never taking a breather.

It didn’t hurt that he had an older brother who was willing to shoot on him for hours and hours, either. Shots to the head didn’t faze him — they were just part of the game. He wasn’t scared of anything.

Shawn enjoyed the pressure, too. He liked that the team relied on him and that not everyone could do his job. Goalie might be the most important position in any team of any sport. Something about that drew Shawn in.

“If you are a forward, you can probably take a night off without anyone noticing that you didn’t play that well,” Shawn said. “When you are a goalie you can't really do that. If I take a night off we are going to lose the game.”

He could have switched positions when he stopped growing, but he knew he was a goalie. Tall, short, or in between, no one could take that away from him. They tried, but the little kid who had been blocking shots his whole life just blocked that one too.

Nobody doubted the kid was a hell of a goalie. He had a knack for knowing where the puck was going, even at an early age.

In one youth tournament he played in, the most valuable player of each game received the puck. Shawn received a puck almost every game, even though his team didn’t win a single time.

“The pucks just kept coming in,” Robin said. “Every time he turned around they were giving Shawn the puck.”

By then, the Hunwick boys were devoting every waking moment to hockey. They played every sport and joined every group, but all other activities fell into place around hockey.

“We would have a day off and he would be like, ‘I’m bored, we don’t do anything,’ ” Rich said. “I would always say, ‘What the hell are you talking about? We’ve been going 21 days in a row!’ ”

***

The United States Developmental Team showed no interest in Shawn, even after Matt played on the team two years before. The team is a Michigan hockey pipeline, and sends players to other top schools as well. Undeterred, Shawn finished high school and started playing junior hockey.

He played for the Petrolia Jets of the Western Ontario Junior Hockey League (WOJHL) at age 18, where he won the WOJHL Rookie Goalie of the year award. The team finished in ninth place the year before he joined and the year after he left. When Shawn was there, the Jets finished fourth.

He still didn’t warrant significant interest from colleges, so he joined the Alpena IceDiggers of the North American Hockey League (NAHL). The IceDiggers were in Alpena for five years, and when Shawn was on the team in 2007, they finished with their best record in team history.

Yes, he was short, but he was also talented with an impressive track record. Success followed him anywhere he went. Still, colleges didn’t care.

“He didn’t come up the easy way,” Berenson said.

Shawn committed to Adrian College in the summer of 2007; his parents even sent money to the school for Shawn’s housing. But everything changed when Steve Jakiel decided to leave Michigan for Curry College.

All of a sudden, Berenson needed a third goalie.

Then-Wolverines Chad Kolarik and Kevin Porter approached the coach about bringing Shawn aboard, and Berenson eventually agreed. He knew the Hunwick family because of Matt and had seen Shawn at a few tournaments, so he knew he was getting an undersized, but quality individual in Shawn.

For comparison’s sake, Jakiel is 6-foot-4 — the Berenson prototype.

There isn’t much risk with a third goalie. He sits on the end of the bench, doesn’t get much time at practice and isn’t expected to do much. Shawn wasn’t going to play, so if Berenson didn’t like him he could get rid of him easily.

“I told him if he were to come here he would have to be a great teammate, work hard at practice and push the other goalies,” Berenson said. “Being the third goalie is a very difficult role to play.”

It wasn’t even a decision for Shawn. He accepted the offer immediately.

“I think Shawn would have wanted to go to Michigan even if he wasn’t on the team,” Robin said. “He just wanted to be there. Even if he didn’t get to play, he still thought it was a good experience for him, a good fit.”

He would have been one of Adrian’s best players immediately, but he wanted nothing more than to become a Wolverine. He would be a glorified practice player, but he would be a Michigan practice player. That was the only thing that mattered.

“I think a lot of people that we knew didn’t necessarily like the decision,” Matt said.

***
Shawn’s first two years at Michigan played out exactly how they were supposed to. He sat on the bench and did everything he could to be a good teammate. Berenson loved him in the locker room, but Shawn never got a shot at playing time.

He played in one game his freshman year, tallying two saves in three minutes in a 10-1 Michigan victory.

During his sophomore season, he didn’t appear in a single game.

“There were days and weeks where I thought I could play, and there were days and weeks and months where I didn’t think I would play,” Shawn said. “I was improving in practice, but it was hard to be consistent when you aren’t geared up to play. It’s easy to take days off and all that stuff, especially when you get into January and February and you still aren’t playing. In the back of my mind, I just wanted to work hard.”

He would go on the ice 45 minutes before practice everyday for an individual workout with goalie coach Josh Blackburn. Billy Sauer and Bryan Hogan were splitting time during games and practices, so Shawn didn’t see much time in the net during practice.

There was no imminent reward of playing time. But Shawn never called home and complained. Not once.

The thought of leaving the team never even crossed his mind. Ask him about giving up, and you get a look of pure, unrestrained confusion. Quitting? What’s that?

“I never grew tired of the program,” Shawn said. “I couldn’t really be disappointed because I came in knowing this is what I was going to be, the third goalie.”

But third goalie turned to second when Sauer graduated. And second became first on senior night against Notre Dame.

The night before the Notre Dame game, Shawn told himself he was never going to start a game in a Michigan uniform. Hogan would be returning for his senior season, which would essentially eliminate Shawn’s shot.

For Shawn, one day made all the difference.

***

If you wanted to map out the early career of Shawn Hunwick and then do the exact opposite, Bryan Hogan would be your prototype. Heavily recruited and 6-foot-1, Hogan played significant minutes in his first two years at Michigan in front of Shawn. By the start of his junior year in 2009, Hogan had won the starting job outright.

But the season was not going well for the Wolverines. Entering the final series of the year against Notre Dame, the Wolverines were 18-16-1 and in 7th place in the CCHA. For the first time in 20 years, Michigan was not going to make the NCAA tournament.

Eleven minutes into senior night, Hogan suffered a groin injury and had to leave the game. Making just his second appearance of the season, the important game was put into the hands of the goalie nobody wanted.

Shawn stepped in and made 14 saves en route to a 4-0 shutout of the Fighting Irish.

“My only thought was that I don’t want to ruin senior night for these guys,” Shawn said. “You only get one senior night, and I don’t want to be the reason we lose to Notre Dame.”

Shawn started the next night against Notre Dame and lost the first start of his career, 5-3. He figured he’d be right back on the bench when Hogan returned for the CCHA tournament.

But it turns out Hogan’s injury was more serious than expected. When you spend the whole game crouching and diving and stretching, the groin needs to be fully functional.

And after almost three years, the kid that never gave up finally got his shot.

In order to keep the NCAA tournament streak alive, Michigan would have to win the CCHA tournament as a No. 7 seed. No team in the history of the conference had ever done that.

And the last time Michigan didn’t make the tournament, Ice Ice Baby was a No. 1 single and Space Jam was making its debut.

Berenson was placing his record-breaking legacy on the shoulders on a 5-foot-6 walk-on that wasn’t recruited by any Division-I program.

Want to make Berenson smile? Bring up the 2010 tournament run.

In a storyline that Disney would throw out for being far too unrealistic, Shawn and the Wolverines kept the playoff streak alive by winning the CCHA tournament. This was no cupcake schedule.

They swept No. 11 Michigan State in East Lansing, beat No. 2 Miami (Ohio) at Joe Louis Arena, and then capped it off with a 2-1 win over No. 12 Northern Michigan in the final.

After losing Shawn’s first start to Notre Dame, Michigan reeled off seven victories in a row.

Shawn allowed just seven goals in four games.

“I can't tell you whether it was because of goalkeeping or luck or chemistry or what it was, but I can tell you when Hogan got hurt and our captain Chris Summers got hurt, our team took off after that,” Berenson said. “I think everyone got on the right page at the right time, and this team took off. We were as good as anyone at the end.”

The team got within a goal of the Frozen Four, but lost to the RedHawks 3-2 in double overtime of the NCAA tournament regional final in Fort Wayne, Ind.

***

During spring meetings after the season, Berenson told Hogan and Shawn they were going to split time in the 2010-11 season. Shawn would go on Fridays and Hogan would go on Saturdays.

“It was the first time in my career that knowing, working out in the summertime, that I was going to get a chance to play in games,” Shawn said. “It was a huge motivation each day to go work out and run, skate and all that stuff knowing that you will get a chance to play, instead of just hoping to play.”

He also worked out with Matt and other former Wolverines that summer. Matt had just finished up his third season with the Boston Bruins, and Shawn was able to pick up a lot from his brother. They were back on the pond, one brother trying to score on another.

“It helped him not only physically but mentally knowing that his confidence grew, becoming better and better,” Matt said. “He saw he could compete against some of the top players in college hockey.”

There was much debate as to who should start, but Berenson wanted to give both his netminders a chance and have someone emerge as the starter before Christmas. After 19 games, it wasn’t Shawn.

The last game before Christmas was the Big Chill at the Big House. The Wolverines had struggled in Friday night games all year, maybe because of Shawn but maybe because of the team. Shawn was by no means running away with the job.

“I definitely was way too nervous and worried about Hogan way too much, how the team was playing in front of him and how they were playing in front of me,” Shawn said. “It was hard for me just to concentrate on the game at hand. It was tough because I put too much pressure on myself.”

The Big Chill was scheduled to be Shawn’s start, but Berenson decided to skip it and start Hogan in one of the biggest games in the history of Michigan hockey. The numbers didn’t lie — Hogan was 7-2-1 going into the game, and Shawn was 2-3-4.

The dream was beginning to come to a close.

“When you get skipped over to go with the other guy, the writing is pretty much on the wall,” Shawn said. “The biggest game of the year, you are going to go with your best goalie or who you think your best goalie is.”

Shawn had about 40 family members come to the game, and because he wasn’t starting, he was able to enjoy himself — at least for a little while.

“I just got this feeling, like I got nervous,” Shawn said. “I was just like, ‘Oh crap, if Hogan gets hurt I am going to have to play, I better start getting ready.’ I started getting ready like I was going to play, and I think that actually helped me prepare. There was no excuse for not being ready.”

Still, Hogan was starting and went through most of the warmups ready to play.

But then one wrong twist changed Shawn’s fate — Hogan had pulled his other groin during warmups. The presumed starter hobbled off the ice once again, putting Shawn in front of the largest crowd ever to watch a hockey game.

The walk-on third goalie was starting in the biggest stage on the history of college hockey. No one knew until the puck dropped.

“We got there and someone told us Shawn was in net and we were like, ‘Yeah right, OK, go have another beer,’ ” Robin said. “All of a sudden you look down and there he was, between the pipes.”

Shawn sat in the locker room after warmups, trying not to think too hard about the task ahead. He led the team out of the tunnel and became the first Michigan hockey player to slap the famed ‘Go Blue’ banner.

Shawn then proceeded to shut out Michigan State 5-0 amid the fireworks, music and thunderous noise that 113,411 people can make.

He recorded 34 saves with the wind whipping in his face, including 14 in the final period. The puck was simply not going to get past him.

He went from expecting to never play in a single game to shutting out one of Michigan’s biggest rivals in a highly anticipated spectacle of a match-up.

“It was literally one of the best days of my life,” Shawn said. “Its hard to put it in words how much it means.”

Again, Shawn expected Hogan to come back the next week and claim the starting spot. But again, Hogan’s injury was more serious than expected. He would miss almost two months, and by that time, Shawn had entrenched himself in the starting role.

With Shawn at the helm, the Wolverines finished the season on a 16-4 run en route to a 21st consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament. On paper, they weren’t one of the best teams in the country, but they sure as hell played like it.

Shawn made Berenson look like the smartest coach on the planet.

After breezing through the NCAA West Regional Final in St. Louis, Michigan headed to the Frozen Four in St. Paul, Minn.

Shawn played arguably the best game of his career against No. 1 North Dakota in the national semifinal, recording 40 saves in a shutout of the potent Fighting Sioux. The next day, five North Dakota players joined professional teams.

This goalie could pass as a high school student. But instead, he was playing the most important position on the Michigan hockey team.

And he recorded 40 saves against the best team in the country.

“I wouldn’t have dreamt it,” Berenson said. “I remember we were talking before the national championship game, and I was saying, ‘Who would have thought that we just beat maybe the best team in the country, North Dakota, essentially in a road game, and Shawn Hunwick was the reason?’

“It’s the real deal because he played and took our team right to the National Championship by saving 40 shots. It wasn’t like we had a powerhouse of a team.”

***

April 9, 2011 was the biggest day of Shawn Hunwick’s life.

He was starting the National Championship game against Minnesota-Duluth that night. It was the only one of Shawn’s collegiate games that Matt attended.

And it was Shawn’s birthday.

The contest was tied at the end of regulation, 2-2, with both teams battling for their lives. But for Michigan, the extra period had a feeling of destiny — the last two Michigan championship teams both won 3-2.

Sometimes you have to be reminded Shawn’s story isn’t a fairy tale.

Early in the extra period, Bulldog forward Kyle Schmidt slashed through a tired Michigan defense, picked up a feed in front of the net and beat Shawn glove-side.

Game, season, storybook ending all gone in an instant.

“It would have been a fairy tale.” Shawn said. “Not expecting to play at all and then playing in the national championship on your birthday.

“It would have been unbelievable.”

He still doesn’t like talking about it.

“I still think about it all the time,” Shawn said. “Every time you lace up your skates, you think, ‘I could be a national champion,’ but you’re not. It’s hard to get over.

“It definitely had the fairy-tale story, it had the beginning and the middle, it just didn’t have the end.”

But every so often, he lets himself remember what could have been.

“If you watch the YouTube video of that last goal, it probably has 500 views and 450 are probably from me,” he said. “I try not to watch it anymore now that we are in season, but in the summertime, I watched it countless times.

“It’s difficult. You don’t really expect a run like that, and when you get there … once you get there and you are that close, when you are one shot away, when you are one bounce away from winning … you never know if you are going to get back. So that’s your motivation. Eventually you have to move on.”

***

This season, for the first time in his Michigan career, Shawn is the guy. No more splitting time, no more looking behind his shoulder, no more worrying about the competition. Shawn is now the grizzled veteran in the net, trying to deliver the fairy tale for Michigan.

You would think that the most important position on the current top-ranked team in the country would be filled by a highly touted player, or at least someone who was recruited heavily. Some sort of a plan for the position, at the very least.

You’d be wrong.

The special thing about Shawn’s journey is that no one predicted it. Not Berenson, not Rich and Robin, not Matt.

Even Shawn didn’t imagine things working out this way. You can only dream so big.

This happening at a storied program with some of the best recruiting in the nation is inexplicable. How does a player who stumbles onto the team land himself atop Michigan’s all-time goals against average and save percentage?

“As a coach, it just shows you — we don’t know everything,” Berenson said. “You don’t know everything about your players, you don’t know what’s inside a kid and you don’t know what the possibilities are.”

Shawn is one of the players who lights the old coach’s eyes up. Berenson could seemingly go on for hours on end about him.

Shawn went to Ecuador this summer, building a school for children for more than a week. He played soccer with the kids, not hockey, and didn’t even bring a puck.

He didn’t go for the publicity or for Michigan; he went because that’s what a kid who is not changed one bit by success does. He isn’t concerned about going to the NHL, and he understands Michigan might be his career highlight.

He’s never felt entitled. So he lets backup goaltender Adam Janecyk get minutes because he knows how it feels to never get in a game. He credits everybody but himself for shutouts, no matter how many saves he had.

And perhaps most importantly, he understands how unbelievable his journey has been. When you watch Shawn’s ESPN documentary in 10 years, just remember his passion. He cares about Michigan hockey, even if Michigan hockey originally didn’t care about him.

“You just need to prepare yourself to get to a threshold, that if you are given the opportunity then you can succeed,” Shawn said. “You just have to wait for a break.”

When Berenson sat down with Shawn at the beginning of his Michigan career, he said that the door for playing time wasn’t closed, but it was cracked just an inch.

Five years later, Shawn has busted that door down.

“Thank God Shawn is small so he can fit through that crack,” Robin said. “He snuck through.”

Shawn Hunwick arrived at Michigan with zero fanfare. A few diehards on the message boards thought he was a wasted roster spot, but besides that, nobody cared.

He might just leave as the most memorable goalie in Michigan history.


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