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SportsMonday Column: Hunwick showing he's not just a run-of-the-mill underdog story

Max Collins/Daily
Goaltender Shawn Hunwick (31) in the 5-0 victory over Michigan State in "The Big Chill" held at Michigan Stadium on December 11, 2010. Buy this photo

BY RYAN KARTJE
Daily Sports Editor
Published January 23, 2011

There’s an awfully large distinction that often goes unnoticed when it comes to underdog stories in sports.

You know the general gist of the story: An unlikely character goes against the odds, whether it be physically or mentally, works extremely hard and makes the best of his or her one chance.

Last season, that guy was Shawn Hunwick. A 5-foot, 7-inch goaltender on the Michigan hockey team who looked like he had no business standing between the pipes at Yost Ice Arena. At times, I swore the net would just envelop the pint-size goalie — a hockey player who was on the team simply because his brother Matt had suggested he could fill Michigan’s final goalie spot.

Hunwick who barely reached the height requirement for riding all the roller coasters at Cedar Point, had almost singlehandedly jumpstarted a bottom-feeding CCHA team all the way to the NCAA regional finals. Michigan coach Red Berenson, a man not known to overstate anything, called him “Rudy” on more than one occasion.

The fact of the matter is that after the charming, delightful story ends, the tale of the underdog just isn’t as cute anymore.

Underdogs tend to have a limited shelf life. Take the basketball team a few years ago. With Manny Harris playing his best basketball of his career and DeShawn Sims doing nearly the same, the Wolverines were a few buckets away from the Sweet 16. It was a feel-good story … until they stumbled the next season to a sub.-500 record.

The NCAA is riddled with underdogs-gone-wrong the following season. Take everyone’s favorite college basketball story: George Mason's 2005-2006 season. The Patriots made it all the way to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed — the first time that’s ever happened. But the Patriots faltered the next season, barely finishing over .500 and missing the tournament.

The story is not all that uncommon, and this year, I expected nothing more than that same underdog-turned-hero, second-year slump from Hunwick.

But Hunwick has proved, ever since his emergency start in The Big Chill at the Big House, that he is capable of breaking that underdog mold.

The senior goalie was the unheralded hero of the event — tallying his first shutout of the season, on 34 shots faced. It was easily one of the most nerve-wracking starts of his career, and Hunwick's performance was strikingly similar to his level of play when Michigan caught fire late last season.

Since then, Hunwick has been the nation’s hottest goalie — sounds familiar, eh? — winning eight of his last nine starts, with his only loss coming in overtime to Michigan State.

And with Michigan’s history of backup goalies outperforming starting goalies, it has to be a breath of fresh air for Berenson to see the guy performing up to expectations.

When Billy Sauer couldn’t perform in net two years ago, it was Bryan Hogan who the Wolverines rallied around. The next season, Hogan faltered and Hunwick came through in the clutch. It was an anomaly that didn’t even make sense to Berenson himself.

Hunwick is breaking that mold this year — albeit after starting fairly slow — and it could mean the difference between a regional final loss like last year and a Frozen Four berth in St. Paul.

You see, when your underdog stories grow into full-on success stories, then you know your team is in good shape. Unearthing a hidden success is one of the key ingredients in many championship teams of the past.

After his 37-save effort against Alaska-Fairbanks on Friday, a game that he won on his own merits, it’s pretty clear that Shawn Hunwick is no longer an underdog or a cute story. He’s a hot goalie that teams will have to start gameplanning for when they play the Wolverines.

That’s a dangerous weapon in hockey, especially in the postseason. And as Hunwick continues to play the best hockey of his short career, his underdog story is beginning to morph into something a little different than your run-of-the-mill, feel-good tale.

That’s why I’m calling dibs on the book deal right now. And if/when Hunwick leads Michigan to an NCAA Championship, his story might be one of those you tell your kids about 20 years from now.

If that does happen, be sure to pick up my book, slated for fall 2013.

-Follow Kartje on Twitter at @Ryan_Kartje. He can also be reached at rkartje@umich.edu.


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