Equal parts of faith and ferocity, smiles and strength are hallmarks for Gophers forward Aaron Huglen
Off to a slower-than-he-would-like start to his sophomore season, Aaron Huglen and his Gophers teammates and coaches have faith that a return to his puck-possessing ways, learned on the practice rink in his northern Minnesota hometown, is not far away.
MINNEAPOLIS – There was precious little room for Aaron Huglen to work when he got the puck below the goal line in overtime of what would prove to be the most important Minnesota Gophers game of his freshman season. Playing a de facto road game versus defending national champion UMass in their 2022 NCAA tournament opener in Worcester, Massachusetts, the Gophers had trailed 2-0 and 3-1, but had scratched and clawed their way back to force overtime.
In the extra session, Huglen got a pass deep in the offensive zone, and Minutemen defender Aaron Bohlinger was on him immediately, working to force Huglen up against the end wall and take the puck away. But unfortunately for Bohlinger, he had never visited the practice rink in Roseau, Minnesota, and had definitely never played something called “scrub.”
Huglen took off for the far corner, carrying the puck with Bohlinger draped on him. The Gophers forward made his way behind UMass goalie Matt Murray while pivoting to keep the puck on his stick, then Huglen abruptly changed direction, turning his body to shield the puck from the defender, and headed back from whence he had come. Huglen got back to the corner where he had started before Bohlinger caught up with him, but had time to get the puck to Ben Meyers on the side wall. Meyers almost immediately shoveled the puck back to Huglen, who started back along the end boards, Bohlinger still in pursuit, while Meyers headed toward the UMass crease.
Huglen quickly got the puck onto Meyers’ tape, and the Big Ten’s most valuable player flipped a shot past Murray, sending small patches of maroon and gold in the audience into hysterics, and sending the Gophers to the regional final. While Meyers scored the game-winner, the post-game raving was about Huglen’s game of keep-away with the puck, drawing the UMass defenders to him, and leaving Meyers open for the killshot.
“That came from playing ‘scrub’ which is everybody against everybody and you try to score on the goalie and not let anyone else touch the puck,” Huglen said with a grin after a recent Gophers practice, recalling hours spent on the rink in his northern Minnesota hometown. “You have no teammates. It’s one on one on one on one. It’s just a Roseau thing, and our coach hated us playing that game because guys weren’t passing the puck. But I’m telling you, it’s the best game for learning puck protection. That’s where I got that.”
Greg Lund, the current Roseau Rams head coach, who coached Huglen in youth hockey, admits that ‘scrub’ is not something the hockey folks in town encourage.
“But they kept on playing it, and that’s probably why he got such good hands. It’s 15 guys against the goalie and they’re all playing against each other,” Lund said with a chuckle. “I remember watching Aaron as a little kid. It helped him, but I’m not sure it helped the rest of the kids that much.”
From wounded to wed
While the Gophers’ comeback that night in central Massachusetts was notable, it was not the biggest rally of Huglen’s young life. He seemingly had the world by the tail in May of 2019, with a scholarship to the U of M secured, a roster spot with the Fargo Force waiting, and his graduation from Roseau High School impending. But Huglen suffered a back injury while lifting weights that month, and the aftermath was nearly career-ending.
In the “games played” category there’s a zero on Huglen’s career stats sheet for the whole of the 2019-20 season but to say he didn’t skate in any games for the Force is an understatement. So serious was Huglen’s back injury that he could not do so much as put on skates and practice with the team. With the pandemic hitting hard in March of 2020 and wiping out the rest of the hockey season, it was a trying time, mentally and physically, but Huglen got through by relying on one of the most important parts of who he is.
“For a lot of my life, everything was hockey, but I found faith in God, and that’s something that can never be shaken,” Huglen said. “Whatever happens in my life, that’s my rock, and it doesn’t change.”
He eventually had back surgery and spent time with relatives in the Twin Cities suburbs while doing rehabilitation work. During that time away from hockey, Aaron and his brother attended a rodeo one summer night, where he met Maddie Johnson, from Becker. He eventually got the nerve to call her and they began dating. Unlike the slow start to his post-high school hockey career, Aaron and Maddie got a relatively early start on adult life, and were married late June in Osakis, Minnesota, in a ceremony attended by several Gophers teammates.
“I believe in dating to marry. That’s who I am. I knew that’s what I wanted and that’s what she wanted too,” Huglen said. “Being a hockey player in college, nobody does this or it’s rare, so I had a lot of thinking to do, but ultimately I wasn’t going to let that stop me from finding my wife. It’s much more important to me than hockey.”
Asked how life is for the only married man on the Gophers roster, Huglen joked that it hasn’t changed much, he’s just got a really good roommate now.
Strength with a smile
As a man of faith, Christmas is an important time of the year for the Huglen family. It was doubly so a year ago, because after the relatively normal adjustment to the pace of college hockey, Aaron’s game took off after the holidays. Paired with stars Meyers and Matthew Knies late in the season, Huglen’s strength and tenacity with the puck became a dangerous weapon as the Gophers won the Big Ten regular-season title and advanced to the Frozen Four in Boston.
“He’s so uncanny strong. That’s his game,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said. “For me a year ago I was shocked how strong he was down low in tight areas. His game builds off that and he’s got a lot of fire in his belly too.”
Although that fire generally disappears when Huglen takes his hockey helmet off and reveals his seemingly ever-present smile.
“He’s an amazing human, so off the ice he’s just a great person,” said Gophers forward Rhett Pitlick, who has spent time on Huglen’s wing in the first month of the current season. “Playing with him, he’s extremely hard working and intelligent. His unbelievable skating allows him to power through guys and make amazing plays.”
Faith over frustration
Still, after eight games, Huglen’s sophomore stat line shows more penalty minutes (4) than points (3) and none of his 15 shots have yet eluded an opposing goalie. He joked that hopefully he won’t have to wait until Christmas for another offensive uptick.
“You get frustrated early on when you’re not scoring, but I’m just trying to be patient,” Huglen said. “I know this happens to a lot of guys where it doesn’t go in the net and you wonder why. It’s just a waiting game. I’m working hard and we’ll see where it goes.”
Huglen wore jersey number 8 throughout youth and high school hockey in Roseau. When he got to Minneapolis, he noted that 8 is the Gophers’ only retired number (for 1950s star John Mayasich) but 7 – once worn by Roseau star, gold medalist and Gophers Hobey Baker Award winner Neal Broten – was available, and Huglen grabbed it.
It is a nod to his hometown, where he now runs a summer hockey camp, and to those many games of ‘scrub’ that helped him carry the puck like it is glued to his stick. When it comes to anticipating an offensive breakout any game now, Huglen is not the only man of faith on the Gophers bench.
“It appears he’s off to a bit of a slow start, but he’s not going to stay there. Huglen is going to get going,” Motzko said. “He wants to be a little ahead of where he’s at. He’s not far off.”