Stephen J. Nesbitt: Without the elusive ring, Hunwick's legendary story falls short

Jake Fromm/Daily
Goaltender Shawn Hunwick (31) at the press conference after Michigan lost to University of Minnesota Duluth in the NCAA Frozen Four Championship at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, MN on Thursday, April 9. Michigan lost the game 3-2 in overtime. Buy this photo

By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published April 9, 2011

ST. PAUL, Minn. — They called him “Tiny Jesus.” The curtains closed on him just a moment too soon.

Shawn Hunwick gazed up at the rafters and skated slowly to the bench. The setting was perfect — the outcome was all wrong.

The moment he always dreamed about was decimated, ripped away by a one-timed wrist shot from Kyle Schmidt.

The stage was set, and Hunwick knew what was at stake. A Michigan loss and he was just a good story. A win and he was a legend.

Then came the dagger.

“I think everything was in line for the fairytale story, and unfortunately we came up short,” Hunwick said, head bowed in the locker room.

It wasn’t just a fairytale; it was Rudy leading his team into overtime in the national championship — on his birthday.

With Hunwick ducking his tiny frame under the crossbar at Xcel Energy Center, Michigan’s savior was in charge. Every chapter of the book was written — except the grand finale.

The 5-foot-7 wisp of goaltender passed up Adrian College just to sit on the bench in front of Red Berenson. Four years later, that same kid became Michigan’s hero, single-handedly propelling Michigan to the national title game.

The little man was the star of college hockey’s biggest stage.

But Rudy didn’t get a championship ring, and neither did Hunwick.

It wasn’t for lack of goalmouth heroics. With just over nine minutes left in the deadlocked, 2-2 game, Bulldog forward Mike Connolly picked up a loose puck and waltzed in on Hunwick. The path was clear, Connolly just needed to bury it like he had 28 times already this season. Top shelf, glove side.

The puck smacked the netting of Hunwick's glove.

“He’s the one that got us here,” senior Matt Rust said. “He played great, made some (really) great saves (Saturday). It’s too bad.”

In the postgame press conference, Hunwick credited the defense with playing solid defense in front of him.

But how could he? Hunwick faced 78 shots in the Frozen Four. He had to stave off 13 power-play opportunities against North Dakota and Minnesota-Duluth — Michigan was lucky to even be in striking distance of a title.

He wouldn't leave his teammates out to dry. Back in the locker room, not on national television, the goaltender finally opened up.

“I don’t know if we played our best defense — we came out tentative,” Hunwick said.

Still, it was “we” that choked, “we” that came up short in the national championship game.

And fortunately for Berenson, the Wolverines and hockey fans anywhere, that “we” will be headlined by Hunwick's return in the fall. No. 31 plans to return as a fifth-year senior to backstop Michigan in one final NCAA title run.

“Every guy in this room that’s returning is going to have a bitter taste in their mouth all summer long,” Hunwick said. “Losing in overtime in the national championship game, you should be pretty easily motivated.”

The storybook ending got lost somewhere in the excitement of the Frozen Four, but the final twist may be still to come.

“Being able to win a national championship on my birthday would ‘ve been something I’d always remember,” Hunwick continued. “But I’ll always remember the guys in this room and the run we went on.”

For Hunwick, his legacy lies in how this — his biggest failure at Michigan — drives him. Because while the film crews shut down, the lights dim and the madness subsides, this kid, with tears in his eyes, knows he can be more than just a good story.

And that’s how legends are made.

- Nesbitt expects this column to face its fiercest critic Monday morning, when Hunwick sits down in John U. Bacon's course and critiques it. Nesbitt can be reached at stnesbit@michigandaily.com