ST. PAUL, Minn. — Shawn Hunwick wasn’t supposed to be here.
Standing a listed 5-foot-7 tall – “I’m about 5-foot-6, maybe a half,” he said with a smile – and having posted a .904 save percentage in 28 games with the Alpena Ice Dogs of the North American Hockey League, Hunwick never got much Division I interest, and in the spring of 2007, he was on his way to join the fledgling Division III program at Adrian College, less than two hours away from his family’s home in Sterling Heights, Mich.
“I’m sure I would have enjoyed my time there,” Hunwick said. “Unless Michigan called, I was on my way. I was enrolled in school. I was already sporting Adrian Hockey t-shirts and stuff like that.”
Had he gone to Adrian, he might have played for the Bulldogs in this season’s NCAA Division III Championship game, which Adrian lost to St. Norbert at Ridder Arena, on the campus of the University of Minnesota. Instead, Hunwick will be between the pipes for the University of Michigan on Saturday night, when the Wolverines face Minnesota Duluth for the 2011 NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Championship at the Xcel Energy Center, less than 10 miles away.
“I’m excited,” Hunwick said. “I’m glad I’ve given our team an opportunity to play for a national championship.”
Still, he wasn’t supposed to be here, a key player for Michigan in a national championship game. Maybe his brother, Shawn, a second team All-American in 2007 who now plays for the Colorado Avalanche in his third full season in the National Hockey League, could have been a leader on an NCAA Championship team at Michigan, but not his younger brother.
Matt Hunwick, however, never made it to the Frozen Four. He saw his last two collegiate seasons come to an end against North Dakota in the West Regionals of the NCAA tournament in 2006 and 2007. Shawn on the other hand, is a little more than 24 hours removed from a 2-0 victory over – as fate would have it – North Dakota, who tested the younger Hunwick with 40 shots on goal in the game.
“I never really even thought about it,” Hunwick said Friday. “They knocked my brother out his last two seasons here at Michigan. It never really crossed my mind.”
It didn’t cross Matt Hunwick’s lips, either, when the two brothers spoke Thursday night after the game.
“He’s excited,” Shawn said. “His first words were to refocus, though. We haven’t finished the job yet at all.”
Staying focused and not letting extraneous thoughts cross his mind have been two of the keys to Hunwick’s success at Michigan.
“He has a nice balance between cockiness, confidence and humility,” head coach Red Berenson said. “He is likeable with his teammates. He’s not just full of himself, he spreads himself out and reaches out to other people, and I think that’s why the team has rallied around him.”
That mix of attributes Berenson mentions is pretty much what you would expect from someone who left a Division III team where he would have played significant ice time to be the third goaltender at Michigan, with little opportunity for game action. It wasn’t always an easy road – “There were times in the middle of January, when you’re thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’” Hunwick admits – but Hunwick knew exactly what he was signing up for.
“The majority of the time,” Hunwick said, “I was ecstatic to be on the ice with Coach Berenson. Working with [Josh] Blackburn has been unbelievable. Sophomore year, we were working for junior year. We were hoping that I could become the second goalie. If I would have never played a minute in my career at Michigan, I would have been happy, still.”
The minutes, however, came last Feburary, when classmate Bryan Hogan sustained a season-ending groin injury that opened the door for Hunwick to get his shot. He finished the season with a record of 8-3-0, a 1.82 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage for a Michigan team that came from nowhere in the second half of the season to win the CCHA Championship and come within an overtime goal of the 2010 Frozen Four. This year, Hunwick has played 34 games for the Wolverines, and enters Saturday’s championship game with a 2.19 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage.
“A year ago I would have told you there was no chance that this would be happening,” Berenson said, “and yet he nearly got us to the Frozen Four last year when he had to come in in late season as an emergency. And even this year when he was competing for the starting job and Hogan was healthy, it looked like Hogan was going to take over the starting job and Hogan got hurt again, in the warm-up before the Big Chill. Hunwick came in, got a shot, and he’s played every game since, and here we are.”
If it defies imagination for a veteran coach whose record includes both the Spencer Penrose Award as the top coach in college hockey and the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s Coach of the Year, it’s certainly easy to see how Hunwick might find it hard to understand. But, like every opportunity he’s ever gotten, he’ll gladly take the net for Saturday night’s NCAA Championship game, and do as much as he can with it.
“It still baffles me,” Hunwick said, “how it all went down. Lucky opportunity after lucky opportunity has gotten me to this point. It was a lucky opportunity to get into school, and then Bryan got hurt, unfortunately. We were supposed to be bringing in Jack Campbell, so I didn’t think I was ever going to play, but I’m lucky I got in there. It’s been a crazy journey, and it’s gotten us this far.”