When the second intermission at the Great Lakes Invitational ended, the coaches walked across the ice and to their places behind the bench.
But there was something different about the sight of them, gripping along the glass as they trotted. There was a new face, or at least a new face in that role and that place.
Matt Hunwick, a former Michigan hockey captain who was hired as a volunteer assistant specializing in defensemen this year, came out alongside the regular coaching lineup.
It was the first time all year he had coached from behind the bench. Normally, Wolverine coaches Kris Mayotte, Bill Muckalt and Mel Pearson occupied that space, while he would watch from the press box level — floors above. But at Little Caesars Arena, for one period, he stood behind the players.
And he didn’t like it.
Or at least, that’s what he initially thought after his first experience there.
“I thought I preferred being up top versus that first experience,” Hunwick said Saturday, after a 4-1 exhibition loss for Michigan. “But tonight, I really did enjoy being on the bench. I think it was good. I liked, you know, that I can talk to players and kind of read the game from a different perspective being close.”
Up top, it was easier for him to see systematic things — like forechecks, opposing game plans, different faceoffs. Sitting behind the bench offers an angle where those aspects are hard to see. Players standing up — impeding a coach’s vision. Bending over necks to watch a play. Up top he could see it all.
Down on the bench, however, his perspective changes — in more ways than just vision. He now had a direct line of communication, a read for a game similar to a player’s — a view he was used to. It was a better feel for him.
With Muckalt and Mayotte traveling for recruiting, Pearson turned to Hunwick to fill their spots on the bench against the U.S. National Team Development Program (NTDP).
It wasn’t the first time Pearson turned to Hunwick with a role in mind. At the end of summer, after it became clear that a neck injury would keep Hunwick from playing in the NHL this season, Pearson brought up the idea of coming back to Michigan. Hunwick had done it many times before, in the summertime, just looking to work out or skate around. He loved his time in Ann Arbor and liked to stay around the program.
But this time, Pearson proposed, he should come back as a coach.
“I never really envisioned anything in a formal capacity,” Hunwick said.
But Pearson offered, and he considered.
When Mayotte was hired as the penalty kill and goaltender specialist mid-August, Steve Shield’s volunteer role as a goaltending coach become repetitive. So the team phased him into a player development role, leaving the volunteer role vacant.
Pearson wanted someone who could coach defensemen. Had Hunwick’s neck injury allowed him to play the 2019-2020 season in the NHL, Pearson would have had to find another defensemen to fill that role.
“It was kind of hinged on my ability to play this season and if I was going to go back to Buffalo.” Hunwick said. “And unfortunately (or) fortunately, however we want to look at it, my neck didn’t get better. So I’m here.
“This is a great kind of transition, out of playing but still, you know, still involved in the game daily and on the ice, just not quite as intense as it was maybe a year ago.
Hunwick was only a few months removed from being a professional player with the possibility of returning to the ice — the Buffalo Sabers had placed him on injured reserve. He was 12 years removed from being a Michigan player — a four-year skater who captained the team his senior year. And he was 16 years removed from being a USNTDP player — a drafted prospect excited to face the Wolverines.
While he had never coached formally, former Michigan coach Red Berenson asked him to be an instructor at his summer camps multiple times — in addition to having helped out at USA and USNTDP hockey schools.
Through his experiences on all levels, and his recency of playing, he had a perspective of the game the other players or coaches might not have — the players especially.
“I certainly (am able to relate to them),” Hunwick said. “There’s a million things going on with kids that move away from home for the first time. So knowing that experience and having lived it, I think it helps me kind of relate and understand what they’re going through.
“Some stuff, you know, I’ve had a good idea of and maybe even the coaches haven’t had exposure to it just because the NHL game the pro game has changed. So just being able to bring those here to these guys.”
His players will ask him all sorts of questions. Sometimes about the speed and style of the game at the next level. Sometimes about specifics in a game. And it’s easier to answer when he’s right behind them, standing by their side during a match.
“They’ll ask specific questions, different plays, how you want to do stuff,” Hunwick said. “And if I see stuff, I try and point it out right away.”
Coaching has been an aspect of hockey that Hunwick found to be a joy.
“I was excited just to be able to come back and give back,” he said.
And he’s given plenty back. Sharing his knowledge and experience with the players and watching them grow has been the biggest thing for him. The steady improvement in whatever area he could help in has been fun for him to watch.
He’s pondered if he wants to continue the experience or not. Regardless, he thought learning the ins-and-outs of the job were necessary to do so — therefore experiencing every aspect. He wants to make an informed decision, and coaching would require getting behind the bench at some point, so he used Saturday’s USNTDP game as an opportunity to do so.
From up top, things seem easier.
“You guys probably think you can go out there and do it,” Hunwick said. “It looks simple. But speed picks up as you get close to the game and being on the bench and being able to handle the bench, the pairs, and making sure your guys do all the things, that’s what it’s all about.”
So he took his place next to Pearson, with a different but familiar perspective.
“That’s what I did for all the years growing up, just a couple feet behind where I used to sit.”