Hunter Shepard from Grand Rapids High School received the heralded Frank Brimsek Award as Minnesota’s best high school senior goaltender in 2014. Despite that, he was not selected in the NHL Entry Draft. He did not receive any NCAA Division I offers. He was not chosen in the USHL Draft.
But that did not stop him from continuing on his own path at his own pace – and his hard work and patience is paying off. Last year, he backstopped the University of Minnesota Duluth to its second NCAA Division I national championship.
Shepard reflected on his development and offered tips for serious 14U/16U players navigating their own paths.
Make the most of opportunity – whatever it is
The opportunity may not be the one you wished for, nor the one of your dreams. It may in fact be a disappointment. But it’s still an opportunity. It’s up to you what you do with it.
So after being passed over by colleges and the USHL, Shepard earned a spot with the Bismarck Bobcats of the Tier II NAHL. After sharing the crease for his first full season, he won the NAHL Goaltender of the Year award in his second year.
Just one month before Shepard was about to age-out of junior hockey eligibility, Minnesota Duluth offered him a spot to be the team’s third goaltender.
“It was probably one of the most important decisions of my life,” Shepard said of playing in the NAHL. “I wouldn’t have had the chance to go to school at UMD, and playing in the NAHL helped my game a ton. It taught me so much and helped me make the move to college.
“You have to see every opportunity as a way to get to that next level. It might not always be the path you envision or planned for yourself, but you have to make the most of it.”
At Minnesota Duluth, Shepard again had to prove himself. He didn’t earn a chance to start until his sophomore year, the 2017-18 season, after the Bulldogs’ previous starting goaltender, Hunter Miska, signed a NHL contract with the Arizona Coyotes.
“Eventually things work out,” the Cohasset, Minnesota, native said. “I was just thrilled to get my shot.”
He eventually set program single-season records in goals-against average (1.91) and shutouts (8), while posting a 25-14-1 record and earning the team’s MVP award.
Be an athlete
“You don’t need to play hockey all year long,” said Shepard. “I know that’s all anyone talks about, but it’s true. I played baseball in the summer – shortstop and pitcher. In fact, nobody in my family ever even played hockey, so until I was 11 or 12, my dad would shoot baseballs at me in the basement because we didn’t have hockey pucks.”
To be an elite hockey player, you must be an elite, well-rounded athlete, Shepard said.
“In order to be an athlete, you have to train and present yourself like one, which means playing other sports,” he added. “It’s such an important thing. All of the best players can do more than just play with a stick and puck.”
Especially as players mature and start rising through the ranks of 14U/16U, junior hockey and beyond, work ethic is paramount. Players cannot control everything, but they are fully responsible for their level of effort and commitment, on and off the ice, day in and day out.
“At every level, you go up you’ve got to make adjustments because players are better, shooters are better,” Shepard said. “Overall, you just have to compete. I’m not the biggest goalie out there, so that’s a huge part of my game – just go out and compete, battle and do whatever you’ve got to do to stop the puck.”
Never be satisfied. Whether you make an elite team, get cut from a team, receive a college offer, get drafted, get snubbed, or win a title … never be satisfied.
At 14U/16U and beyond, there are always other players working relentlessly for your spot.
“Even though we ended the season where every team wants to be (with a national title), you can’t be satisfied with that,” Shepard said. “Yeah, it’s great, it’s something I can look back on the rest of my life and be happy about, but when you want to go further than that, there’s always going to be another higher level to strive for, and there’s always room for improvement. Don’t forget that.”