WASHINGTON, D.C. — Hunter Shepard chats with his teammates at MedStar Capitals Iceplex and dishes out some fist bumps to his fellow netminders before leaving the ice and heading to the dressing room.
As the Washington Capitals taxi squad netminder, parts of the NHL lifestyle have become routine for the 26-year-old. Still, the small-town Minnesotan-turned-pro goaltender admits to getting starstruck from time to time as he discusses his somewhat unexpected path to D.C.
“[When you] walk in the building and Ovi and Oshie give you a fist bump or whatever and say what’s up, it’s pretty crazy. It’s cool,” Shepard said. They’re all real nice guys and make it really easy for me to be here… I wouldn’t want to do anything else as a job, that’s for sure.”
Shepard was born in the small town of Coleraine in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. His parents dropped him off at daycare, where a strange coincidence would shape the Minnesota native’s future. The daycare was run by the mother of goaltender Adam Hauser, a University of Minnesota legend who led the Golden Gophers to a national championship back in 2002.
There, he pulled on a goaltending glove and caught softballs in the Hausers’ living room, and he never looked back. However, the path wouldn’t be easy; no one else in his family played hockey, so his dad and uncle would coach him in baseball. They would also provide whatever help they could, while Shepard also started playing competitive hockey at a young age.
“I don’t know if my path is the same as a lot of kids,” Shepard explained. “When hockey season was over in spring, I played baseball. No one in my family ever played hockey. So just my dad shooting on me in the backyard, in the basement, that’s kind of how I learned to play.”
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Growing up, Shepard played prep school hockey and also played baseball. He got drafted by the USHL’s Lincoln Stars but didn’t end up playing because there was no goalie coach. After that, he called Layne Sedevie of the NAHL’s Bismarck Bobcats, who had a spot for him on the team.
The move boded well for Shepard, who went from a rough debut to a top-tier starter for the Bobcats. In his second season, where he set a 34-11-3 record with a 1.90 GAA and .926 save percentage. His play caught the attention of the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, who needed a third goaltender at the last minute after Kasimir Kaskisuo left UMD.
There, Shepard followed in the footsteps of his idol Hauser. He worked his way up to become the Bulldogs’ starter, and later on, their captain. In 2018, he led Duluth to an NCAA Championship, winning at Xcel Energy Center, the same building where Hauser pulled it off years prior. He did it again with another championship in 2019.
“Every kid’s goal is to play professional, play in the NHL, but to get to do that the same way [Hauser] did it was really special,” Shepard said.
HUNTER. SHEPARD. WOW. 😳
— NCAA Ice Hockey (@NCAAIceHockey) April 11, 2019
Beyond a championship, Shepard cemented his legacy as one of, if not the best, netminders in UMD history. He set an NCAA record for the most consecutive games played, starting 115 straight contests from Oct. 21, 2017 to March 7, 2020. He is the Bulldogs all-time leader in wins (76), GAA (1.94), save percentage (.922) and shutouts (17).
Off the ice, Shepard spent a lot of his spare time fishing and hunting, while also majoring in marketing. He didn’t have plans to go pro, but after his four-year run with the Bulldogs, he inked a deal with Hershey in 2020.
Shepard had an impressive rookie campaign, going 12-6-2 with a .922 save percentage in 21 games with the Capitals’ ECHL affiliate South Carolina Stingrays in 2020-21. He also made three appearances in Hershey, going undefeated and boasting a .969 SV%. The 26-year-old also helped lead the Stingrays to the 2021 Kelly Cup Final.
“Just trying to be consistent probably,” Shepard said when asked of the challenges that come with going pro. “Like, the college season is long but it’s obviously not as many games. I think the adjustment to pro hockey, it’s not just playing Fridays and Saturdays. There’s a lot of travel, playing more than two games in a week and playing just a lot more games in general. Just [being] consistent and [having] good habits every day I think is super important. It’s crazy… goalies that play 15 or 20 years in the NHL, to be able to be consistent for that long, that’s just like a lot of hard work and just doing the routine every day.”
— Bears Hockey Nation (@HBHNationBlog) January 9, 2022
His performance earned him a two-year deal with the Capitals over the summer. And at that moment, his life’s work came full circle.
“You can’t plan on that. You gotta play well enough to get an opportunity to do that,” Shepard said of going pro. “I also was fortunate to play on some really good teams in college and there’s a lot of guys that are playing in the NHL right now that I played with… going to Duluth, I was going to be happy regardless of if I got to play or not. Obviously, I’m happy to be here and get paid to play.”
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Shepard has played four games for Hershey this season (3-1-0, .923 SV%) and nine for South Carolina (3-4-2, 903 SV%). His current assignment: serving as the Capitals’ taxi squad netminder. The role is a bit of an odd one. He’s not playing games and not necessarily preparing for them, yet there’s the need to be 100 percent ready to go in case adversity strikes — which for Washington this season, has happened quite a bit. Other than that, it’s practice, working on the fundamentals and being there for the team.
Despite the lack of game action, it’s been a huge step forward for Shepard as he continues his development.
“It’s cool. If you would have told me I was going to be going on a road trip on a private jet with some of these guys two years ago, I would have laughed at you,” Shepard smiled. “Getting to face these guys in practice and work with a goalie coach and just be up here and kind of get this experience is obviously really cool. It just puts a lot of things into perspective. Just like I feel like you can always work hard. But I feel like coming up here just gives you motivation because you get a little taste of what it would be like if you could be up here. So just like that’s a big part of it for sure.”