DETROIT — March 1991: The United States begins pulling troops out of the Persian Gulf; Latvia, Estonia and Georgia vote for independence from the Soviet Union; Someday by Mariah Carey is Billboard’s No. 1 hit; and the Michigan men’s ice hockey team starts an incredible streak that would last for at least another 20 years when they make NCAA men’s ice hockey tournament.
In the 20 years since, the Wolverines have won two national championships, but have never faced a road to the tournament as daunting as this year’s.
First, their starting goalie Bryan Hogan gets hurt on Feb. 25, leading to untested and unseasoned unknown Shawn Hunwick being thrust into the starting role. Then, captain and arguably top defenseman Chris Summers gets hurt against Lake Superior State in the opening round of the CCHA tournament on March 6.
They had to win a CCHA tournament quarterfinal series on the road against archrival Michigan State before playing the CCHA regular season champion Miami in the semifinal round. Finally, Michigan had to beat Northern Michigan in the CCHA Tournament final, a team that has been steadily increasing its momentum since the Christmas layoff.
Few teams would have the fortitude to paddle up that river and come back victorious, but the Wolverines found a way.
“It’s not about where we are, but how we got here. This was the most challenging way to get in the tournament Michigan’s had in a long time,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “But, that’s the thing about young athletes: They’re resilient; they have energy; they have enthusiasm.”
Berenson wasn’t alone in his appreciation of the mountain Michigan had to climb to earn their tournament spot.
“This one means the most to all of us with the road we had to take to here,” said senior defenseman Steve Kampfer.
No player on the team has risen to the occasion more so than Hunwick. The junior goalie was given little chance by anyone to ever start, let alone become MVP of the CCHA tournament while leading the Wolverines to the championship and their berth in the NCAA tournament.
“It’s pretty surreal,” said Hunwick. “I owe all the credit to my teammates. They’re playing incredible. I think we’re peaking at the right time.”
Also aiding Michigan in its quest for an NCAA tournament appearance were the maize and blue faithful. They turned East Lansing into a western version of Ann Arbor last week in the team’s quarterfinal series against Michigan State. This weekend Joe Louis Arena was a sea of maize and blue when the Wolverines were playing.
“Our fans were terrific in supporting our team, not just here at Joe Louis, but at East Lansing last week,” said Berenson. “We wouldn’t be here without our fans.”
But Michigan persevered through it all to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament, where they will undoubtably make life very difficult for a higher seed in the regional round next weekend.