COLUMBUS — A 2003 Ford Ranger pulled into the players’ parking lot on Wednesday at Nationwide Arena in Columbus. Assorted hockey gear, two small goalie leg pads and a winged helmet sat in the bed of the pickup truck.
The newest member of the Columbus Blue Jackets opened the window to speak to the lot attendant.
Shawn Hunwick told the attendant that he was here to be the back-up goalie.
“I don’t think he really believed me,” Hunwick said. “But then he radioed up to somebody, and they said I was good.”
Hunwick got out of the pickup, went into the arena and signed some papers that officially put the 5-foot-6 goalie on the roster of an NHL team. Then he got back into the Ranger and drove off to his hotel.
If you listen to junior defenseman Lee Moffie, it was a miracle the clunker — too small to be a considered a real pickup truck and older than most, too — ever made it into the parking lot in Columbus.
“I wouldn’t get too excited about (Hunwick) dressing in Columbus tonight,” Moffie posted on his Twitter account Wednesday, before exaggerating for effect. “The chances of his ’86 Ranger making it there are slim to none.”
Slim collided with none on Wednesday morning, and slim won. That collision coincided with a more literal collision — that of a puck and Columbus goaltender Steve Mason’s facemask. Mason, who was supposed to be the starter later that evening against the Detroit Red Wings, was ruled out after suffering a minor head injury.
With goaltender Curtis Sanford already injured, Columbus needed a backup goalie. And fast.
They called Michigan coach Red Berenson.
“(They) told us that one of their goalies got hurt this morning,” Berenson said. “They asked if Hunwick was available.”
Berenson had assistant coach Brian Wiseman call Hunwick. Hunwick, who had decided to sleep in on Wednesday morning, was still in bed.
“I wasn’t at the (Brown) Jug yet,” Hunwick said later. “A couple more hours, and I might’ve been.”
“Get to the rink as soon as possible,” was all Wiseman told him.
So Hunwick followed instructions, assuming that he must have done something wrong the night before and that word had reached Wiseman.
When Hunwick got to the rink, Wiseman told him: the Blue Jackets needed a goaltender, and they wanted Hunwick.
The 24-year old netminder didn’t know what to think. He looked to Berenson.
“He gave me that grin that he does, and said, ‘Just have fun, soak it in,’ ” Hunwick said.
But Hunwick wasn’t convinced. During the season, Hunwick said one NHL team had been following him throughout the year. Now, though, he concedes that that might have been a lie he used “to pick up some girls or something.”
So Hunwick was skeptical.
“I checked to see if it was April 1st,” he said. “I don’t know, I thought everybody was messing around with me.”
But moments later, Hunwick was on the phone again, this time with Blue Jackets General Manager Scott Howson. The call lasted one minute. Howson told him that he wanted to sign him to an unpaid amateur tryout contract, which, by rule, would last only one day. Howson told him that he just wanted him to do what he did in college. And he told him that he had to make it down to Columbus by 5 p.m. or else he wouldn’t play.
So Hunwick hustled. He called his father first, then his brother, Matt, who laughed at the whole situation. Last, he called former teammate Kevin Porter, and then he threw all of his equipment into the back of the Ford Ranger and drove off for Columbus.
Two miles later, the Ford Ranger turned back around. Hunwick had forgotten his wallet and his shoes.
When he finally made it onto I-75 South, his phone buzzed so frequently that it died halfway through the trip.
So for the next 90 minutes, Hunwick was on an island, alone with his thoughts in that old, small Ford Ranger.
At 4 p.m., Shawn Hunwick pulled into the parking lot at Nationwide Arena. With a skeptical look and orders from his walkie-talkie, the attendant opened the gate, and the player, who was again in the right place at the right time, entered the National Hockey League.