Five years ago, Shawn Hunwick was a third-string goalie with the University of Michigan Wolverines. He wasn’t expected to see a single start for Michigan in his collegiate career and didn’t during his freshman and sophomore years. Wednesday night, he dressed for an NHL team against his home state’s Detroit Red Wings.
Sure, he was just the backup goaltender and it may be a stretch to call the Columbus Blue Jackets an NHL team at this point, but it was still a huge step in a story that is swiftly entering Disney movie territory.
You see, Shawn Hunwick is 5’7″ on a good day. On a bad day, or if he hasn’t been to the chiropractor recently, he’s closer to 5’5″.
Among active players in the NHL, the two shortest goaltenders are listed at 5’10″: Jhonas Enroth of the Buffalo Sabres and Richard Bachman of the Dallas Stars. The average NHL goaltender is around 6’4″, a good 9 inches taller than the diminutive Hunwick, with the longer legs and arms to match. Goaltenders Hunwick’s height just aren’t supposed to be successful.
But Hunwick has managed to beat the odds, becoming the starter for the Wolverines and finishing his senior year with Michigan records in career save percentage and goals against average. After leading the Wolverines to overtime of the NCAA National Championship, Hunwick was named a top ten finalist for the Hobey Baker Award. And, when the Blue Jackets desperately needed a goaltender after Steve Mason was injured in warm up, Hunwick got the call.
In a sport where being 5’10″ as a prospect raises questions about size, it’s remarkable to see a player like Hunwick achieve any measure of success. The fact that he’s achieved that success as a goaltender, where size is deemed essential, is doubly impressive. Hockey idolizes size, with taller and larger players receiving more opportunities and chances to prove their worth. It’s a near-miracle that a 5’7″ goaltender even got a chance to begin with. Everett Cook’s story on how Hunwick got to this point is an essential read.
Size in hockey is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, ever since the Canucks traded the 6’0″ Cody Hodgson for the more-bruising 6’3″ Zack Kassian. By hockey standards, even Hodgson is considered short, while Kassian is closer to average.
I’m 5’10″, but at 27 I’ve basically given up any hope of making the NHL. Who I’m thinking about, however, is my son, who just turned 4 months old.
Growing up, I was always the shortest kid in school. Not just the shortest boy, but the shortest kid, period. Playing sports like hockey and football was pretty much out of the question; fortunately, I enjoyed played soccer and baseball, where height is less of a concern. I regularly led my baseball league in walks with a little patience and a crouching stance that reduced my already tiny strike zone to a wafer-thin slice.
I cheered for the Vancouver Canucks and Cliff Ronning was my hero. At 5’8″, Ronning was noticeably smaller than everyone else on the ice, but it didn’t matter. He was electric and played an essential role in the Canucks run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1994. My childhood idolization was helped by how incredible he was in EA’s NHL video games in the 90′s, where he received a boost from going to school with the founder of EA Sports.
But Ronning, and his precursors like the 5’7″ Henri ” The Pocket Rocket” Richard, contemporaries like the 5’6″ Theo Fleury, and successors like 5’8″ Martin St. Louis, are the outliers in the NHL and their successes are few and far between. When it comes to short goaltenders, there are even fewer success stories. At 5’8″, Arturs Irbe, another idol from my younger days, is one of the few names that comes to mind. To be fair, 5’9″ Manny Legace has managed to carve out a decent career and the 5’5″ Darren Pang is, at the very least, lovable.
My son isn’t likely to end up much taller than I am. At 16, I hit a massive growth spurt and grew 8 inches in one year to end up as a respectable, if still short for hockey, 5’10″. That’s likely the top-end of where he will end up as his mother is much shorter. What do I tell him if he wants to play hockey? What advice do I give him if he dreams of playing in the NHL someday?
If he wants to be a forward, he has quite a few role models. I’ll tell him that he’ll need to learn how to skate like the wind and teach him how to be shifty to avoid checks. Above all, I’ll tell him to keep his head up, as it’s likely to be at the level of some other players’ elbows. If he wants to be a defenceman, I’ll point to players like Tobias Enstrom and Ryan Ellis and teach him the importance of a quick and accurate outlet pass to avoid the forecheck. I’ll show him how to use the boards to absorb a hit and get him to learn how to stickhandle with a longer stick early so he can make up for his lack of limb length.
Most of all, I’ll let him know that he will have to be better than everyone else, because his size will be counted against him. It may seem harsh, but I’ll be realistic with him: if he wants to be a professional hockey player, he’ll have to make up for his lack of size with an overabundance of skill.
If he wants to be a goaltender, that will be even more true. Moreover, his number of role models will drop off drastically. Sure, there are a few 5’10″ and 5’11″ goaltenders in the NHL, but if he’s like me and he’s the shortest kid in his school and likely the shortest kid on his team, that just won’t do. When he knows he’s the shortest player on the ice, he’ll want to look for the shortest player on the ice in the NHL. I can only hope that someone like Shawn Hunwick makes it.
When Hunwick is in net, he’s noticeably smaller than everyone else on the ice and yet he stops pucks like a giant. That’s the type of underdog I want to root for. That’s the type of role model I want for my son. I’ll be cheering for him.