Kuhn finds his place for Western Michigan

In the second half of this season, Western Michigan goaltender Jerry Kuhn has made it look easy. The senior from Southgate, Mich., has been the starter since a 4-1 win over Lake Superior State on Dec. 11, the first contest of WMU’s 14-game unbeaten streak that finally ended with a 3-1 loss to Miami on Feb. 12.

But Kuhn’s season didn’t start on a high note, and his first three years in Kalamazoo were not what he expected.

“He’s as special a story as there is in college hockey,” said WMU coach Jeff Blashill. “For three years he saw no light at the end of the tunnel. He comes in this year, plays the first game, and then doesn’t play for us for a long time. He was getting discouraged. You could tell from his effort in practice.”

Kuhn played 13 games his freshman year, 14 his sophomore season and just seven last year. He played the first game of the 2010-11 season, a loss to Canisius in which he gave up five goals on 26 shots. Sophomore Nick Pisellini played the following night and got a win and the job as starter for another 15 games.

Blashill feared that Kuhn’s spirit was sinking, but something happened — Blashill isn’t even certain what it was — that turned the goalie’s season around.

“I was actually out of town and he and [assistant coach] Pat Ferschweiler had a little meeting with each other,” said Blashill, “and for whatever reason, the light bulb clicked in Jerry, and he made the decision, ‘I’m going to work hard every day and if I happen to get that chance, I’m going to jump through that window.’ Certainly, he’s jumped through that window.”

Kuhn admits that he’s struggled with his role on the team in the past: “To be honest, I wasn’t that positive.”

He said the hiring of Blashill before the start of the season was his new start.

“I saw it as it’s finally my turn,” said Kuhn. “I stayed all summer before I even knew who the coach was. My plan was to stay all summer. I probably gained 15, 20 pounds [in 2009-10]. I shed some weight, got mentally and physically ready.”

He was ready, but he wasn’t prepared for that first game of the season. “I think in the beginning of the year, I built up so much pressure on myself,” he said. “In that first game of the year, I was nervous. I hadn’t played in God knows how long.”

That pressure is part of the package, said Kuhn’s classmate, forward Max Campbell. “He gets too focused and that’s a problem sometimes,” said Campbell. “He gets too focused and it gets in his head. If you see him before and between periods, he’s reading the paper or something. He’s doing something just to keep his mind off the game because he thinks. It obviously works for him.”

He’s so focused on his game this weekend that he doesn’t even know how many of his family members and friends are in the stands — and he doesn’t want to know. “I don’t like to talk to my family [before games],” said Kuhn. “I call my dad after every pregame. It’s strictly, ‘You ready to go?’ and, ‘Yeah,’ and that’s it.”

The only time Kuhn faltered in the second half of the season since becoming starter was a road game against Michigan, a 6-3 loss in which he gave up four goals before being replaced by Pisellini. He was solid in net the following night in a 5-4 overtime loss.

“When I went to Yost, I was so intimidated by Michigan,” said Kuhn.

That’s clearly changed this weekend in Joe Louis Arena.

“I came out here tonight and I was smiling during warmups,” he said. “I was having a good time.

“This is just a dream come true. I came to Western hoping I would get this opportunity my freshman and sophomore year and so when things weren’t going my way, it really took a toll on me. To be honest, this whole experience has definitely thrown all that out the window.”