It’s 5:30 p.m. on a Wednesday. The coaches left the ice at
Yost Ice Arena more than 20 minutes ago. Some of the players have
already hit the showers, but a few others stay after practice. Five
of them — including senior captain Eric Nystrom and senior
Milan Gajic — are crowded around the net trying to slip one
past goalie Al Montoya. Gajic puts a rebound over Montoya’s
blocker and celebrates with his stick raised in the air, mocking
Montoya. The sprints and drills are long over, and now it’s
time for goofing off, shooting around and having fun.

Ice Hockey
(TONY DING/Daily)

But while it’s fun and games at one end of the ice,
it’s all business at the other. Brandon Rogers and Matt
Hunwick are at the far end of the ice, still drilling away. They
start at center ice, dump the puck into the zone, sprint after it
and bring it up out of the zone together. This is typical of
Rogers, the senior alternate captain, and Hunwick, the sophomore
sensation. The two of them can be found trying to improve their
chemistry long after the allotted practice time is over. Sometimes
they do drills that work on their skills and puck handling;
sometimes they work on their communication and ice sense. Even
before they became defensive line partners, the two of them were
two of the last skaters off the ice.

“We both always stay out on the ice (after practice)
anyway, and it just makes sense for us to be working on stuff
together out there,” Hunwick said. “I think it’s
good to have a partner who you can stay on the ice with and work
with and develop continuity together and become better as a
team.”

When they finally leave the ice, if they aren’t going to
spend time in the weight room or the trainer’s room, they get
showered and changed and head home for dinner and relaxation. They
live together — along with seniors Nystrom, Gajic, Mike
Woodford and Jason Ryznar and sophomore T.J. Hensick. All of the
guys enjoy watching television — especially hockey — on
their two-TV setup in the living room, but Rogers and Hunwick have
even more in common.

“He and I both are big “Seinfeld” guys,”
Hunwick said. “So we usually just try to get some of that
— watching them after practice or at night sometime. A couple
other guys like it, but I think, for the most part, we’re the
biggest fans.”

Whether it be “The Soup Nazi,”
“Festivus” or “The Contest,” the defensive
line pairing admits to watching an unhealthy amount of Jerry,
Elaine, George and Kramer.

 

 

It’s certainly not a requirement for a defensive pair to
be friends off of the ice — and coach Red Berenson said that
he didn’t even know if Hunwick and Rogers hung out together
— but both of the guys said that there is truly an added
benefit to being close.

“It definitely doesn’t hurt (to be friends off the
ice) because we can talk about things that went on on the
ice,” Rogers said. “And it’s easier to
communicate that way.”

In their case, sharing a house has brought them closer. In
addition to watching “Seinfeld,” the roommates also
watch sports together — Rogers is a rabid Red Sox fan —
and cook. Rogers even claims to have taught Hunwick to make their
favorite dish: chicken and pasta with vegetables.

“You know what he does that’s great,” said
Rogers of his sophomore roommate. “He’s real good at
cleaning up the house. He’s always doing the dishes and
cleaning up the living room and the kitchen and pretty much keeping
things organized. Without him, the dishes pile up in a
hurry.”

Rich Hunwick, Matt’s dad, said that he’s noticed his
son’s neat side throughout his entire life and described him
as a real-life Felix Unger — the neat one from The Odd
Couple.

When Hunwick was playing for the U.S. national team, he got into
a couple of fights. While his opponent was throwing off his gloves
and charging at him, Hunwick was taking off his gloves and neatly
placing them on the ice next to his stick.

“I remember thinking, ‘Are you going to organize
everything and let this guy pound your head while you’re
organizing your equipment?’ ” his father said.

When Hunwick first began playing on teams as a 6-year-old, his
coaches immediately put him on defense. He said it was because he
was the only kid on the team who could skate backwards. The coaches
saw his strong skating and immediately wanted him on the back
line.

His dad was the man who motivated Hunwick to learn how to skate.
When his son was 3 years old, Rich Hunwick took him to an ice rink
in Birmingham for public skating. As a 3-year-old, Matt
wasn’t quite as focused on becoming a star hockey player as
he is now. Rich said that his son was bored just skating around the
ice. So Rich challenged him to make a whole lap around the rink
without falling and guaranteed him McDonalds if he did. It took him
some time to make it all the way around, but when he did, his dad
fulfilled the promise. Eventually, it didn’t take Matt as
long to finish his lap.

“After a couple of times he sort of took off,” Rich
Hunwick said. “It would take 20 minutes to drive to the rink
and three minutes to skate around and it was time to leave. It was
kind of cute when he was 3 years old and saying, ‘Well Dad,
it’s time to get a hamburger — I’m done.’
We had only been there five minutes, and I don’t even have my
skates on, and (Matt wanted) to leave.”

 

 

Rogers learned to skate in his backyard in Rochester, N.H. His
father, Tom, built a rink in their yard out of wooden boards. He
rebuilt it every winter and maintained it every night. As Rogers
got older, the wooden rink got bigger. Like Hunwick’s
parents, Judy and Tom Rogers took their son to the local ice
skating rink when he was 3 years old. But most of his time honing
his skills came in their backyard in the winter or in the driveway
in the summer. He used to play against a collie from the
neighborhood.

“He would come home in the afternoon and start hitting the
puck, and the dog would hear him and come down around the corner
and would play with him,” Judy said. “It was like
playing with someone else because the dog would go after the
puck.”

Like Hunwick, Rogers also played defense right from the start.
But for him, his coaches’ reasoning was a little bit
different.

“When I started, they put me with the best player —
probably because I was the worst player,” Rogers said.
“I think that they just wanted to balance things out on
‘D.’ So they put me right back there right
away.”

When they were younger, there were no tryouts to see what either
player was good at, or trial games at different positions to get a
feel for their talents. Both Hunwick and Rogers, now
Michigan’s top line on defense, were simply thrown into their
job as defensemen on the first day of practice for the first team
they played for. Rich said that, for a couple of years, Hunwick
wanted to move up to forward, but eventually he realized that being
a great defender was more valuable than being an average forward,
and now they both love it.

“I like being the last guys who are depended on to keep
the puck out of the net,” Rogers said. “You can see the
whole ice better than you can as a forward, because the play is
always in front of you. So you can see things develop. And then on
the offensive zone, getting a chance to sneak into the slot and
catch guys by surprise.”

 

 

According to Nystrom and the coaches, the thing that separates
Hunwick and Rogers from their teammates is their work ethic.
Rogers, especially, is a leader in the weight room and the locker
room.

“He does things the way you would expect players to do
them,” associate head coach Mel Pearson said. “As far
as his work ethic at practice, he’s a kid that’s
dependable, he’s on time, he does the right thing … on
the ice. And that’s why he’s one of the captains on our
team.”

That responsibility has always been a part of Rogers’s
personality. When he was about 10 years old, he hit a puck from his
homemade ice rink through his neighbor’s living room window
while she was ironing.

“Brandon pointed his finger like he was pointing
upstairs,” Judy Rogers said. “He shouted, ‘I have
the money upstairs!’ ”

Hunwick is also a player accustomed to responsibility.
He’s won a gold medal with the U.S. national team, and last
season he played most of his time on Michigan’s top line. He
teamed up with senior captain Andy Burns to go up against the
opposition’s top scoring lines.

“It definitely helps to drive you knowing that you are
going to play against someone like a Jim Slater (a Michigan State
forward and preseason first team All-CCHA),” Hunwick said.
“For that weekend I think it’s something that pushes
you all week. You know that your assignment is going to be against
their top guys and shutting them down.”

Collectively, Hunwick and Burns had a plus-minus rating of
plus-25 last season. But Burns was the epitome of a
defensive-defenseman. He didn’t score his first goal last
year until the last game of the season against Boston College, and
he only had four goals for his entire career. Hunwick, who has a
tendency to move up into the play, was free to play by his
instincts — knowing that his partner would be there to back
him up.

Rogers, as good as his coaches and teammates say he is on
defense, is a two-way player. He likes to push up into the slot and
try to score. And this season, the coaching staff is really trying
to get its defenders more involved in the offense. But that means
that the two of them have to be careful not to get caught too far
up the ice at the same time.

“When you give them the green light like that, sometimes
they’ll both jump up,” Pearson said. “They have
to read off each other a little bit better when one should jump and
the other should pull back a little bit.”

And that’s where the communication comes in. Hunwick and
Rogers continue to drill long after practice ends, and spend time
together because they know that their communication is essential to
the success of the Wolverines.

“I think that the biggest thing is to have respect for the
guy you’re playing with,” Hunwick said. “You have
to respect him as a player and also off the ice as a person. So I
think, in our case, it works out.”

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