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Ryan Kartje: Hunwick, an improbable starter, responsible for Michigan's most improbable NCAA Tournament berth

Ariel Bond/Daily
Wolverines rush goaltender Shawn Hunwick (#31) after their victory over Northern Michigan to win the CCHA championship title on Saturday, March 20, 2010 at Joe Louis Arena. Buy this photo

BY RYAN KARTJE
Daily Sports Editor
Published March 21, 2010

DETROIT — Just over five months ago, with the hockey season about to get underway, I sat directly across from Michigan hockey captain Chris Summers, all set to interview him about starting goalie Bryan Hogan.

“I got pretty emotional. I saw everyone hanging over the boards, I knew they were coming to get me. I was just trying to keep it together.” — Michigan goaltender Shawn Hunwick

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Hogan was the clear-cut starter for the first time in his career, and for 10 minutes, I adamantly prodded Summers to attest to Hogan’s job security.

But Summers wouldn’t budge. There was a walk-on goalie, standing at just 5-feet-7 inches (on a good day) who Summers insisted was challenging Hogan for his job every day.

So I shrugged it off as captain-speak and moved on. Shawn Hunwick would see his time in practice, he would be everyone’s favorite backup goalie and that was it. Everyone loves the walk-on warrior. That was it.

If Bryan Hogan was out of the lineup, the Wolverines were doomed. I was sure of it.

And then against Notre Dame on Feb. 25, with the season already in turmoil, Hogan went for a kick save and didn’t get up.

It’s over, I thought to myself.

Hunwick skated apprehensively onto the ice, and even he admitted he was nervous. And who wouldn’t be? The walk-on had seen just 20 minutes of action — his entire career.

So when Hunwick shut out the Fighting Irish in that first game, it was a nice story — one of those that made you feel warm inside.

Berenson, like myself, remained skeptical.

“We’re still not convinced he’s a starting goalie,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said after the Wolverines’ split with Notre Dame. “He’s been a backup that really hasn’t had the chance to be a backup.”

It was already the Wolverines’ most disappointing season in Berenson’s 26-year tenure. The fuzzy story was more like a band-aid, trying to keep the dam from bursting.

But the band-aid, a tiny goalie who joined the team just before almost quitting the sport forever, the afterthought who found himself winning impossible game after impossible game for the Wolverines, was still holding back the flood as Michigan came to the Joe last weekend.

Every scoring opportunity, I found myself waiting for Hunwick to prove my initial hesitation right.

He’s going to give up a soft goal. He’s still a backup. I couldn’t help but think it. Over and over.

I looked across the ice to the other teams' goalies in fear.

Cody Reichard, Miami’s netminder, had just been named CCHA Player of the Year. His 1.79 goals against average was second best in the nation. He was the epitome of a brickwall.

He gave up five goals and was benched.

Against Northern Michigan in the CCHA Championship, 25-year-old Brian Stewart — the tallest goalie in the CCHA — towered over the opposite net, an imposing nine inches taller than Hunwick.

So as time ticked away as slowly as it had all season with the Wolverines leading 2-1, I started to believe.

I started to forget the season sweep at the hands of Miami, the .500 record 20 games into the season, the three losses to Michigan State. And more than anything, I started to realize that Shawn Hunwick was a starting goalie.

A starting goalie who had just led the most frustrating Michigan team in the Berenson era to a conference championship when everyone, including myself, said it would never happen.

Three and a half seconds remained on the clock Saturday and the Wolverines still led. The faceoff was at the other end. It was over.

So Hunwick, with the weight of college hockey’s most illustrious program on his narrow shoulders, kicked back.

Arms laid atop the crossbar, Hunwick watched as his team won the CCHA Championship in the most improbable way. But he was used to improbable at this point.

Hunwick could only watch as his incredible story reached its climax.

“I got pretty emotional,” Hunwick said after the game. “I saw everyone hanging over the boards, I knew they were coming to get me. I was just trying to keep it together.”

But the walk-on was used to keeping it all together — he’d been keeping Michigan together for weeks now.

And as he received honors as CCHA Tournament MVP, he was the only doubter left in the building.

“I don’t even know if I deserve to be MVP,” Hunwick said. “I don’t even know if I deserve to be the starter of the game … Six weeks ago if you would have said I’d be sitting here, I would have said you were crazy.”

And so would I. But as the Wolverines roll into their NCAA first round matchup against Bemidji State next weekend, they come in as the hottest team in the nation. With Hunwick, the walk-on warrior, the nation’s hottest goalie.

It’s a story that seems too far-fetched to believe. But there’s no ignoring it anymore. None of us saw Shawn Hunwick, but he was there all along. Just waiting for his shot.

“I don’t think any of us thought he could do it night after night,” Berenson said. “But good for him. You never know. That’s one thing I’ve learned as a coach, you never know about a player, you never know what’s inside him, until he really gets a chance.”

Now, a walk-on, who should’ve never been there, whose teammates were maybe the only ones who believed in him, is Michigan’s best shot at a national championship.

-Kartje will be in Fort Wayne next weekend for the Wolverines' first round NCAA matchup with Bemidji State. He can be reached at rkartje@umich.edu


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