FARGO — Moments before Saturday night's United States Hockey League game in Fargo's Scheels Arena, the public address announcer called out starters' names.
Everything was normal, until he got to Aaron Huglen's name.
"A couple of the guys on the bench were welling up when they saw him skating out for the starting lineup," Fargo Force coach Pierre-Paul Lamoureux said. "It was emotional. A lot of the guys have seen what he's been through."
Huglen, the standout hockey player from Roseau, Minn., hadn't played a game in 20 months dating back to April 16, 2019, because of injuries and setbacks.
He was listed as the 13th forward — the extra skater — and the plan was to rotate him in on a few five-on-five shifts and give him power-play time.
His game conditioning will take time to return to normal, the coaching staff figured.
His skill level, apparently, will not.
Huglen, a fourth-round draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres and a Minnesota commit, showed his high-end ability didn't go anywhere during those 20 months off. In his limited minutes, he managed to score a highlight-reel goal for the Force.
It broke a 1-1 tie late in the second period and stood as the game-winner as first-place Fargo improved to 11-3-2.
"My jaw dropped," Lamoureux said of the goal.
The play started when Fargo defenseman Ryan Siedem had the puck at the point. Siedem, a Harvard commit, sent the puck to the top of the crease, where Huglen was standing by Sioux Falls defenseman Nate Schweitzer, a Colorado College commit.
Schweitzer lost his stick, though, and Huglen realized the defender wouldn't be able to intercept the pass, so he let the puck go around Schweitzer before picking it up behind him and on the top of the crease.
When Huglen got the puck, he was alone with goalie Trent Burnham.
Huglen toe-dragged the puck as he slid across the crease. Burnham dropped to the ground and Huglen waited for space to open up before putting it underneath the crossbar from in tight.
"To finish in tight the way he did, he had so much poise," Lamoureux said. "He waited out the goalie, elevated it and tucked it in the top corner. That's a high-end goal, a special goal."
The bench went crazy.
"There were about two seconds of silence, then absolute through-the-roof excitement," Lamoureux said. "Guys have seen him do it in practice. Then, they see him go out and do it in a game. Flat out, the kid has worked so hard for a year and a half. He's made a ton of sacrifices. He's been a great teammate. His teammates were extremely excited for him."
After the puck went in, coaching staff members looked at each other on the bench in disbelief. Then, Lamoureux glanced up to the suite where general manager Cary Eades sits during games.
"Cary and I made eye contact," Lamoureux said. "We were so proud of the player. We know how good Aaron is. For him to go out and execute on that goal was an extreme sense of pride for Aaron and excitement for him."
Huglen's last game came in the 2019 USHL playoffs. Fargo was eliminated by Des Moines on an overtime goal by current Arizona State player Michael Mancinelli.
In the 2019 offseason, he suffered a back injury lifting weights. The injury kept him out all of last season. He had surgery in May and began skating again in July. He was cleared for contact about a month ago.
"We were never concerned about Hugy's skill level and playmaking," Lamoureux said. "In practice, he never lost his hands. It was his legs, skating, conditioning and checking. . . those types of things that we were trying to get game ready. His awareness and sense on the ice is next level.
"He's been through a lot. He's done everything he could to get back to where he is right now. What's exciting is that he's not even close to where he can be."