Tuesday, 23 March 2010

From Walk-On To MVP

Every year in hockey, there are a number of excellent stories that seemingly slip below the radar in terms of their importance not only in the scope of the game, but to the millions of kids and teenagers out there who are toiling as hockey players. The player to the left, Shawn Hunwick, is entirely one of those great stories that doesn't get a lot of fanfare, but really needs to be told so that everyone has a greater appreciation for what he has accomplished. And his accomplishment might just prompt one of those kids who doesn't get a scholarship to keep plugging away at what he or she loves.

Shawn Hunwick was born on April 9, 1987 in Sterling Heights, Michigan. The diminutive kid played one season in the North American Hockey League with the Alpena IceDiggers where he posted a respectable 17-9-2 record with a 3.06 GAA in 2006-07. Not bad for a goaltender who only stood at 5'7", making him shorter than most goaltenders by today's standards. And certainly small by Michigan head coach Red Berenson's standards.

However, Hunwick stayed true to his passion, and eventually earned a spot as a walk-on goaltender with the NCAA's Michigan Wolverines in 2007-08. While he saw action only in practice, he was beginning to turn heads on the ice. As Ryan Kartje of The Michigan Daily found out, his teammates believed in him as much as they did in starter Bryan Hogan in terms of carrying the team.

While it's foolish to believe that all walk-on players get a chance to play in the spotlight, there are a select few where it seems that fate smiles upon them. Being thrust into the limelight isn't easy for anyone, let alone a player who had just 20 minutes of action in three seasons of being part of the team, but this was the reality that Shawn Hunwick faced.

February 25, 2010 saw Bryan Hogan kick out a leg to make a save against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. While the save was of the routine nature, the result certainly was not. Hogan couldn't get back to his feet after pulling a groin muscle, and the hearts of all Wolverine fans sank. The 19-16-1 Michigan Wolverines had struggled up to that point, but losing their top goaltender only appeared to be impending doom for the remainder of the season.

Twenty straight NCAA men's hockey tournaments appeared to be coming to an end, and it was the worst season in Berenson's 26-year tenure as head coach. The kid with "ugly pads", as reader Sammy B. described them, was skating from the bench to the blue paint in the crease as the crowd let out a collective moan. I'm sure hearing that didn't make Hunwick any less nervous as he took over as the starter in a Michigan net.

If the young man was feeling his nerves, he certainly didn't show it against Notre Dame. Hunwick picked up his first NCAA win in a 4-0 shutout of the Fighting Irish. The second game of the two-game set went in South Bend, Indiana on February 27, and a couple of soft goals hurt the Wolverines as they lost 5-3. Hunwick was 1-1, and the Wolverines were the seventh-ranked team in the CCHA at 20-17-1 as the conference playoffs were about to begin.

Hunwick showed his resolve in helping the Wolverines knock off Lake Superior State in two games by scores of 5-2 and 6-0 to open the CCHA tournament. Michigan State was up next, and Hunwick again stared the odds down as Michigan knocked off their rivals by scores of 5-1 and 5-3. In four of the biggest games that any NCAA goalie will play in, Hunwick had only given up six goals while posting a 4-0 record with one shutout. Fans in Ann Arbor, Michigan began to believe. However, their biggest test still laid in front of the Wolverines.

Miami (Ohio) University, who boasted the CCHA Player of the Year in goaltender Cody Reichard, were the next foe standing in Michigan's path. Miami-Ohio was the top-ranked hockey program in the country, and had dismantled teams all season long on their way to being ranked #1 in the nation. Clearly, Hunwick's luck, and Michigan's Cinderella story, had to come to an end at the hands of the best team in the nation, right? 8,000+ fans in the Joe Louis Arena hoped it wasn't over.

Five Michigan goals, including three in the third period, put Reichard on the Miami-Ohio bench, and the Wolverines skated to a 5-2 win. The improbable had happened, and now Hunwick had everyone associated with the University of Michigan believing that the Wolverines' run was no fluke.

What a lot of people didn't realize was that if Michigan had lost any of their previous games, their run to the NCAA's Frozen Four Tournament was over. Losing to the RedHawks wouldn't have been a surprise, but the disappointment of not going to the big dance would have been painful. Instead, the Wolverines saw opportunity, grabbed it, and never let go against the top team in the nation. And because of that, they stood one win away from the most improbable run in college hockey in recent memory. And with a walk-on goaltender backstopping them to the CCHA Finals.

Northern Michigan stood between the Wolverines and destiny, and it appeared that neither team wanted to give the other an inch at Joe Louis Arena in front of 17,063 fans that were mostly pro-Wolverine.

Louie Caporusso put the Wolverines up 1-0 with 19.4 second to play in the second period while on the powerplay. Matt Rust had lost his stick while cycling the puck in the Wildcats' zone, and returned to the bench to retrieve another one. However, Caporusso jumped onto the ice and into the play. He received a pass from defenceman Brandon Burlon at the top of the right face-off circle, and ripped a wrist shot past NMU netminder Brian Stewart on the blocker side.

Caporusso struck again on the powerplay 8:53 into the third. Just seconds after hitting the goalpost himself with a shot, Caporusso deflected a Steve Kampfer shot from the high slot past Stewart to put the Wolverines up by a pair of goals.

Less than a minute later, NMU's Andrew Cherniwchan grabbed a loose puck just outside the crease as Hunwick was down, and he flipped the puck over Michigan's goaltender to make it a 2-1 game at 9:47 of the third period.

Including that shot, Hunwick only faced three shots in the third period as Michigan literally carried the play through the final frame. While Michigan outshot NMU by a 35-18 margin, Hunwick was called on to make some rather remarkable saves. NMU, however, could not get another puck past Hunwick, and the Wolverines - with their walk-on goaltender - won the game 2-1 to capture the CCHA Championship!

Because of his efforts through the CCHA tournament, Shawn Hunwick was named as the CCHA tournament's MVP. That's right: a kid who had only played 20 minutes in the previous three seasons, and only started one game in his NCAA career, was named the MVP of the CCHA tournament, and led his team to an improbable berth in the NCAA Frozen Four tournament.

While this seems like a fairy tale, it is entirely true, and it should be inspiration to every hockey player out there. Shawn Hunwick's storybook season isn't over just yet. Michigan will square off against Bemidji State on Saturday in Fort Wayne, Indiana in the opening round of the NCAA Frozen Four tournament.

The amazing season that Michigan is having might just be hockey's best story of the year. And the main character of that story is a kid who has no hockey pedigree, no hockey scholarship, and what appeared to be no chance of playing for the Wolverines this season at all. Instead, Shawn Hunwick has become an inspiration for every hockey player out there who thinks they may not have a future. And Shawn Hunwick is the player that could still lead his team to an NCAA Championship.

Win or lose on Saturday, Shawn Hunwick will always be an inspiration to me for simply playing a game he loves. When given the chance, he has run with it, showing some incredible goaltending along the way.

The best part about Hunwick's story is that the ending is still unwritten, but the pen is in his hand. And that's what every kid wants: a chance to write his or her own fairy tale. Congratulations, Shawn, and HBIC is rooting for you this weekend!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

***Big thanks to Sammy B. for prompting me to research this story a little more. If you have a story that you'd like to see published, please feel free to email me with your story ideas!

Also, big thanks to James H. who caught my inglorious error on Miami-Ohio's school name! Stick tap to James and Sammy!***

1 comment:

Jim BC said...

Hey Teebz - What a story. A big reason why I've forever been a sports fanatic. I'll be watching the Frozen Four for sure now!