From Catching Softballs With A Goalie Glove In Daycare To Tending Goal In Chocolate Town, Hunter Shepard Is Shining In Hershey

Photo: South Carolina Stingrays

Growing up in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, Hunter Shepard was sent to a daycare in nearby Bovey, Minnesota as a kid. The daycare just happened to be run by the mother of Adam Hauser, the starting goaltender for the University of Minnesota hockey team.

To pass the time, Shepard would catch softballs with a goalie glove in the Hauser’s living room. During the catch sessions, Adam Hauser would encourage the young Hunter to become a goalie. Shepard didn’t know it at the time, but Hauser’s encouragement would ultimately lead him on a path to become a professional hockey career.

During his senior year at Grand Rapids High School, Shepard was awarded the Frank Brimsek Award as the top prep goalie in the state of Minnesota. Yet, Shepard would eventually go undrafted and did not receive any scholarship offers to play college hockey.

Shepard had the option of joining the Lincoln Stars of the United States Hockey League (USHL), but elected not to play with the Stars because he was not going to have a goalie coach. Instead, Shepard phoned Layne Sedevie, the head coach of the Bismarck Bobcats of the North American Hockey League (NAHL) to see if there was a spot on the team for him. With an open spot available, Shepard headed to South Dakota for the 2014-15 season to continue his hockey journey.

The start to his time in Bismarck could not have gone any worse for Shepard. The netminder surrendered three goals in the first four shots he faced and gave up seven goals in his debut. But Shepard kept battling and finished the season with a 14-14-4 record. The Minnesotan would finish with a pedestrian 3.28 goals-against average and an .878 save percentage.

In his second season with the Bobcats in 2015-16, Shepard showed marked improvement. He posted a 34–11–3 record, which set a new franchise record for wins in a season. His goals-against average dropped to 1.90. Shepard’s save percentage increased to .926 and he was named the NAHL’s Goaltender of the Month in January for winning all eight games he started.

College Bound

Shepard’s play drew the attention of a collegiate program in his home state as the University of Minnesota-Duluth (UMD) Bulldogs came to Shepard with an offer to be their third goalie for the 2016-17 season. He accepted the offer.

The move would prove to be the best decision of Shepard’s hockey career. He didn’t see much action as a freshman, making just one start and appearing in another. Shepard lost both contests, but did make an impression in his first start. He stopped 35 shots, the most by a Minnesota-Duluth goalie in his debut since 1991.

The 2017-18 college hockey campaign was where Shepard began to make a name for himself. He started the season in a shared goalie situation with teammates Ben Patt and Nick Deery. Head coach Scott Sandelin took the unusual approach of giving each goalie a period in the season opener against Minnesota. Shepard was perfect, turning aside all 10 shots sent his way. Eventually, Shepard won the starting position outright and the Bulldogs started their ascent in the NCHC standings.

In February, Shepard recorded three consecutive shutouts, a program record. He ended the season with eight shutouts, also a program record for shutouts in a season. The Grand Rapids, Minnesota native concluded the season with a record of 25-14-1, with a goals-against average of 1.91 and a .925 save percentage.

Minnesota-Duluth got into the NCAA tournament with an at-large bid and were seeded third in the West Regional. Shepard and the Bulldogs would take advantage of the opportunity in front of them.

Facing in-state rival Minnesota State in the opening round, UMD got off to a slow start. Minnesota State tallied twice in an opening period where they fired 12 shots towards Shepard. The Bulldogs regrouped and held Minnesota State to nine shots the rest of the game. Shepard let nothing else get buy him and Minnesota-Duluth rallied for a 3-2 overtime win. The stingy defense continued in the next round, as the Bulldogs held Air Force to 12 shots en route to a 2-1 victory in the West Regional final. Shepard and his teammates were headed to the Frozen Four.

In the Frozen Four, Shepard and his teammates beat Ohio State in the semifinals and moved onto the National Championship game with a 2-1 triumph. Minnesota-Duluth scored twice in the first period and Sheppard made those two goals stand up as the Bulldogs defeated Notre Dame 2-1 to earn the school’s second National Championship. Shepard was named to the All Frozen Four All-Tournament Team.

With a National Championship under his belt, Shepard came into his junior season as the clear number one goaltender for Minnesota-Duluth. The netminder delivered another strong season. He led the nation with 29 wins and was second in the country with seven shutouts. Shepard was named the NCHC Goaltender of the Year and earned AHCA First-Team All-American honors, the first UMD goalie to be a first team All-American since Alex Stalock in 2008-09. He ended the season having started a program record 81 consecutive games.

The Bulldogs entered the 2019 NCAA tournament as the top seed in the Midwest Region. Being the top seed almost did not matter for UMD. After two periods, the fourth seeded Bowling Green Falcons held a 1-0 edge on the Bulldogs. Shepard and his teammates called upon their experience the previous season and equalized with 3:01 in the third and then won in overtime to keep their title defense alive. Shepard made 30 saves in the victory. He then stopped 20 Quinnipiac shots in the Midwest Region Final as Minnesota-Duluth claimed a 3-1 victory to return to the Frozen Four.

A big third period in the semifinals propelled the Bulldogs to a 4-1 win over Providence to return to the National Championship game. Shepard made 28 saves in the victory. He then had the chance to achieve a rare feat, backstopping a team to consecutive NCAA hockey championships. Minnesota-Duluth smothered Massachusetts defensively, limiting the Minutemen to 18 shots. The Bulldogs tallied once in each period and defended their National Championship with a 3-0 triumph. Shepard recorded his seventh shutout of the season and it was the first shutout in a title game since 2013. For the second straight season, he was named to the Frozen Four All-Tournament Team. In two postseasons, he went 8-0 with two championships.

Immediately following his winning his second National Championship, Shepard announced his intention to return to Duluth for his senior season. He was named a co-captain, the first goalie captain in the program since 1976.

On November 27, 2019, Shepard won his 61st career game, making him the winningest goalie in school history. He was not done setting records. The Minnesotan started his 105th consecutive game on January 25, 2020 to set a NCAA record for most consecutive starts by a goaltender. He was 22-10-2 with a 2.18 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage in 34 when the season came to halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shepard and the Bulldogs were highly ranked again, but the pandemic robbed them of the chance to become the first team since Michigan in 1953 to win three straight national titles. He ended his collegiate career with 76 wins, 17 shutouts, 115 consecutive starts, a pair of NCHC Goaltender of the Year awards and two National Championships. Not bad for a guy who was brought into the program as a number three goalie.

Chocolate Town Calling

With his college eligibility up, Shepard was a free agent and free to sign with any team. He inked his first professional contract on June 30, 2020 when he signed an American Hockey League (AHL) contract for the 2020-21 season with the Hershey Bears.

As the pandemic continued, the AHL season was delayed. To get him playing time, the Bears assigned Shepard to the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL. He got off to a good start. In December, he was named the ECHL’s Goaltender of the Month. Shepard went 2-0-1 with 1.89 goal-against average and a save percentage of .935.

Unfortunately for Shepard, he suffered an injury and was not healthy when Hershey’s training camp opened in mid-January. He would miss nine weeks before returning on March 6. The backstop came back strong, turning away 40 shots and leading the Stingrays to a 5-3 victory over the Jacksonville Iceman.

Shepard played 14 games in the ECHL for South Carolina, going 6-5-2, and was recalled by the Bears on April 5. He made his long-awaited AHL debut for the Bears against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms on May 3, 2021. He excelled.

Hershey controlled most of the first period, but Shepard came up with a big save when called upon. With 9:36 left in the opening period, Max Willman blew by the Bears’ defenders and put a backhanded shot on net. Shepard stopped Willman’s attempt with his pad.

In the second period, Shepard again made a key save. At 13:47 of the stanza. Hershey turned the puck over while shorthanded when an errant pass sent Chris Mueller in on a breakaway. Shepard stonewalled Mueller’s shot with a glove save and then stopped the rebound with his blocker. The stops allowed the Bears to take a 1-0 lead a few minutes later.

The strong play continued for Shepard in the third. Lehigh Valley sent 13 shots his way, but the netminder was up to the task. He saved everything the Phantoms threw at him and Hershey sealed the win with an empty net goal. Shepard had his first AHL shutout and his first AHL victory in his first AHL game. He was named the game’s number one star.

Shepard’s efforts secured head coach Spencer Carbery’s 100th career AHL win and Carbery singled out his netminder’s play in his postgame press conference. Holding a game puck signifying his 100th win, Carbery said, “I can thank Hunter for that right there. I don’t remember at this level, at least in the three years that I’ve been here, and I’m not just talking about a goaltender, for a player in his first AHL game to have that type of impact and play that well. He was lights out.” He continued, “That’s as good of a first game in the American Hockey League that I’ve seen.”

As for Shepard himself, he felt at home in his first game. “I felt pretty calm out there,” he said in his postgame media availability. “The guys played pretty well in front of me.”

The two-time National Champion stated that the first period allowed him to ease into the game. “The first shot was a clean one from the point that I got just in my chest. That definitely calmed me down a bit,” Shepard said. “I think getting the first period under my belt without any major mishaps definitely gave me some confidence.”

Two games later, Shepard was given his second AHL start, this time on the road in Newark, New Jersey against the Binghamton Devils. Again, he was excellent. The Devils dictated the play in most of the first period and had four power plays, including a one minute and 34 second two-man advantage. Binghamton fired 10 shots on Shepard, but none got past him and the game remained scoreless. He made 12 more saves in the second period, allowing the chocolate and white to tally twice to take a 2-0 lead after forty minutes.

Through five AHL periods, Shepard had not given up a goal. His shutout streak came to a halt with 6:10 to go in regulation. Reilly Walsh whistled a shot through traffic and into the net. Shepard never saw the shot. Walsh’s marker would be the only blemish on the scoresheet and the Minnesotan picked up his second AHL victory. He made 31 saves and was named the game’s number one star for the second time in as many starts.

Shepard’s play could guide him to his first National Hockey League (NHL) contract. If the Washington Capitals give him that deal, it would deepen an already strong position. The Capitals have Ilya Samsonov, Vitek Vanecek, Pheonix Copley and Zach Fucale under contract for next season. That would seem to leave little room for Shepard. However, there is an expansion draft coming in July and it is possible that the Seattle Kraken could take one of Washington’s netminders as their choice from the Capitals.

If Samsonov is protected, Vanecek would be a quality, inexpensive option in net for Seattle. If Vanecek is the one protected, Samsonov provides the Kraken with a talented young goalie with high upside. There is also the possibility that Washington moves a goalie out in a trade. Signing Shepard would give the organization another strong net option.

Having been overlooked his entire career, Shepard is making people notice with his play. He has come a long way from catching softball in a goalie glove in Hauser’s living room. One thing is for certain, Hunter Shepard should not be underestimated.

By Eric Lord

About Eric Lord

Eric has been a Hershey Bears fan since attending his 1st game at age 8. He has been a season-ticket holder since the 2009-10 season and has been writing about Hershey Bears hockey since 2012. His favorite Bears memory is the team's 1996-97 run to the Calder Cup Championship where Hershey was 5-0 when facing elimination. Eric graduated from Fordham University in 2000 with a bachelors in communication and from Iona College in 2005 with a Masters in Journalism. He is also a photographer and serves as an assistant soccer coach for the Pottsville Area High School girls soccer team.
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1 Response to From Catching Softballs With A Goalie Glove In Daycare To Tending Goal In Chocolate Town, Hunter Shepard Is Shining In Hershey

  1. horn73 says:

    Great piece. I love it when journalist provide us with insight. Unfortunately it is becoming more rare which is frustrating because there are so many great stories, like this, to be told.

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