FORT WAYNE, Ind. — Shawn Hunwick stood with his back pressed up against his net, simply hanging his head in defeat.
The Michigan hockey team and the junior goaltender had just lost their NCAA Tournament regional final to Miami (Ohio), 3-2 in double overtime, concluding the Wolverines’ rollercoaster of a season.
Looking back at the season Michigan endured — horrendous two-game sweeps at the hands of the same RedHawks and Michigan State in early November, the loss to RPI in the opening round of the GLI and finishing seventh in the conference — and adding up all those disappointments, you have to ask yourself one all-encompassing question.
On March 28 at just around 11:54 p.m., when that final, deciding goal made its way past Shawn Hunwick and into the back of the net, was this 2009-10 season a success for the Wolverines?
And at first glance, most would say no. How can you say the rocky season the Wolverines struggled through could be labeled as a success in anyone’s book?
Well, there’s no doubt in my mind that it was.
I’ll be the first to admit — I expected this team to crash and burn after its two-game sweep at Nebraska-Omaha in mid-February. After his slow start this year, I never thought junior Louie Caporusso would have a second half of the season that was on the same pace with last year when he was a finalist for the Hobey Baker. And when junior Bryan Hogan suffered a groin injury against Notre Dame on Feb. 25, I was to ready to write about how Hunwick didn’t belong on any Division-I team.
But coach Red Berenson, Louie, Shawn and the rest of the Michigan hockey team, you proved me wrong and probably most of the Wolverine fan base, as well. You accomplished things no one thought you could after the first thirty or so games this season, and for that, you can hold your heads high on what was a somber night in Fort Wayne.
You rode a walk-on, backup goaltender for the last 10 games of the season, winning eight of those contests. You traveled to East Lansing and stomped your intrastate rival in the second round of the CCHA Tournament, ending any chance the Spartans had at receiving an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The following weekend, you defeated — hands down — the top team in the conference and the country in Miami (Ohio), in convincing fashion, before winning the CCHA Tournament. Media outlets and coaches across the country — including Northern Michigan’s Walt Kyle and Bemidji State’s Tom Serratore — called your team one of the hottest in the country.
And then you found a way to place the RedHawks on their heels for much of last night’s game.
In the postgame conference, Berenson, a 26-year veteran coach, said he was the proudest he had ever been of a Michigan hockey team. Coach, your team battled adversity all year, especially from the GLI and into February. And that was definitely something your Michigan teams hadn’t been accustomed to doing over the course of your long career in Ann Arbor.
But how your team handled itself in the midst of this season — when it looked like it wouldn’t make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 20 seasons, when it looked like it was all over — that speaks volumes of the quality of your program and what it means to be at the pinnacle of college hockey.
After the game, a downtrodden Hunwick approached senior captain Chris Summers and issued a two-word statement that will forever depict why all the players on the team respect Hunwick so much.
“I’m sorry,” Hunwick said to Summers.
Summers chuckled at the walk-on’s apology.
“What are you sorry for, man?,” Summers replied. “We wouldn’t be here without you.”
There’s no doubt about that.