ROSEAU, Minn. — Long before the coronavirus pandemic caused sports and nearly every other aspect of “normal” life to shut down in March, the 2019-20 hockey season was already a lost cause for Aaron Huglen.
Injured in the spring of 2019 while lifting weights, Huglen — the former Roseau star forward who is committed to the Minnesota Gophers — was unable to play or practice for the Fargo Force last winter due to on-going back issues.
But as every passing day seemingly brings more hope that a way to mitigate the virus can be found, Huglen’s comeback has begun. In May, he had surgery to repair the bulging disk in his back, and got some unexpected good news just weeks later.
“The doctor, right out of the gate, a month after surgery said I could be skating in two weeks. That kind of blew me away, so it was good,” said Huglen, 19, who averaged better than two points a game for the Rams as a high school senior in 2018-19. “I was able to get on skates quick. I’m not 100 percent, but I’m taking steps each day.”
In early July, he laced up the blades for the first time in what seemed like forever, and took a few strides on the ice at Roseau’s renowned Memorial Arena. While some might feel trepidation in a moment like that, for Huglen it was pure joy.
“It was so fun. It’s been a long journey,” he said. “I wasn’t necessarily nervous. I was definitely rusty, but it came back pretty quickly.”
The strides are being taken slowly and deliberately. Huglen said he has not participated in a full pick-up game yet, opting to work on skills and skating without contact so far. Shooting still causes some back pain, but there is an expectation that things will get continually better as his body heals and his strength increases.
“I think the biggest thing with Aaron is just proceeding with optimistic caution,” said Force coach Pierre-Paul Lamoureux, whose team was 27-15-4-2 running the team before his first season was cut short by the pandemic. “His injury was 15 months ago, and we don’t want to put him in a position where he’s going to be set back. So the biggest thing is having patience and making sure he’s ready to go when the time is right.”
Huglen’s comeback came after a long winter spent helping out the Force in any capacity they could find for him. The team had him help out with coaching, accompany the Force on road trips, break down video and make sure he knew he was valuable, even if Huglen didn’t wear a jersey.
“He cares about his teammates and he was able, without playing in a single game or participating in a single practice last year, to really endear himself to his team. He was involved in nearly all of our team activities,” Lamoureux said. “That level of care and willingness to do anything to help the team shows what kind of person he is. That’s going to go a long way in his playing career and in his life in general.”
In addition to Huglen’s good news, the United States Hockey League recently announced an early November start date, which has allowed players and coaches to put together a calendar for when they will have training camp, and when they will hit the ice for real. It was a welcome bit of good news amid all of the uncertainty caused by COVID-19.
For Huglen, the coming season represents a chance to start over, and slowly return to being the player that lit up opposing goalies on the high school rinks, earning him the opportunity to maybe one day play college hockey in the Big Ten. He said his original goal was to play a season of junior hockey, then head to the U of M. With the “lost season” behind him and his health returning, just skating and shooting pucks feels like the first win of the coming season.
“No matter where I’d be playing this year, I’m just excited to get on the ice,” Huglen said. “It definitely feels like a do-over, but a good one.”