People have heard the Joe Aiken story before, just in a different context.
Hard working student tries out multiple times for a varsity sports team. Eventually he makes the roster. Later he cracks the lineup. Along the way he earns the respect of teammates and coaches. It’s all a dream come true and more than a little unexpected.
Sounds familiar, right?
That’s the path Aiken took from high school standout in suburban Milwaukee to imminent shifts for the sixth-ranked Notre Dame hockey team this weekend when it travels to No. 11 UMass-Lowell in a Hockey East matchup.
“It was a long road,” Aiken said. “I had to put some work in in the weight room over the last two years and a lot of work on the ice too. It was just staying disciplined and keeping my goals in mind the whole time.”
Aiken arrived in South Bend two years ago from Whitefish Bay, Wis., for the first semester of college like any other student. After serving as two-time captain of the Whitefish Bay High School hockey team he signed up to play in the interhall league.
Last year, as a sophomore, Aiken played on the newly established club team. He was the second leading scorer with 13 goals and 27 points.
Both years the left winger tried out for the varsity team. Head coach Jeff Jackson took notice of Aiken’s progress but wasn’t in position to offer a spot on the roster.
“We don’t have open tryouts because there’s not that many kids that really try out, so we throw them into our skill sessions and see how they handle it,” Jackson said. “He came out in his freshman year and he wasn’t anywhere near ready for college hockey. He came back a year later, he was bigger and stronger. He actually must have worked to develop his body in his sophomore year and he played for the club team.”
Aiken showed up again to try out before this season. Jackson offered more opportunity: Aiken went through the entire camp and worked out with the entire team as strength and conditioning coordinator Tony Rolinski put them through the paces.
Without Aiken the Irish would have broken camp with 14 forwards. Adding him to the roster would even things out in terms of having five full lines in practice, something Jackson and the other coaches wanted.
About a week before the exhibition game, Jackson called Aiken into the hockey offices for a meeting.
“It was pretty brief really,” Aiken said. “Coming in this year I still didn’t know if I was gonna be on the team or not. I went through pretty much the whole preseason not knowing. Then I think it was like a week or so before our exhibition game against Guelph he just called me into his office and told me he decided to take me on the team.”
Few could have foreseen how critical it would be to have Aiken on the team.
Notre Dame hits the road for UMass-Lowell down four forwards: Thomas DiPauli, Steven Fogarty, Vince Hinostroza and Mike Voran are all sidelined with injuries. DiPauli and Voran both exited in the first game against Merrimack last weekend, forcing Aiken into the lineup and defenseman Ben Ostlie to a forward role.
Aiken dressed for the first time in the second Merrimack game but didn’t take a shift.
“I probably would’ve given him some shifts but the coaches came back and said in warmups he looked like he was nervous to say the least,” Jackson said. “That made me nervous. But he made the team for a reason. Our thoughts were exactly the situation we’re in here. Going one forward short, get in this situation, we’re actually two forwards short of having a full lineup.”
Nerves won’t matter all that much this weekend. Aiken will have to play at least a little bit out of necessity as Jackson can’t afford to go two straight games playing essentially three lines, further stressing players already logging more ice time than ever.
Aiken is attempting to shut out the fairytale nature of it all.
“You can’t really be thinking about that at all,” said Aiken, whose father played goaltender at Harvard and grandfather did the same at Boston University. “You really have to be thinking about doing your job out there if you get asked to go in there and be ready to go.”
Turns out Aiken has already helped the team in a certain way. Getting to know him over the course of the last few months and watching his practice habits has trickled down to others.
“When guys see him out there working hard it’s kind of a reminder that we’re very fortunate to be in the situation we are,” said captain Jeff Costello. “We should come in every day and work hard no matter what, no matter what else is going on off the ice. Just embrace the situation that we’re in and try to get better every single day.”
All that practice time will crescendo this weekend when Aiken takes his first game shifts as a member of the Notre Dame hockey team. Someday he will sit back and reflect on the unlikelihood of it all.
Two years ago Aiken was just another nondescript student playing interhall. Last year he was lugging gear back and forth between dorms and the Compton Family Ice Arena for practice then playing in shabby rinks with the club team.
Now he is on the verge of sharing ice time with future NHL players.
“It’s been pretty eye opening actually,” Aiken said. “All the free meals and the hotels and all the free equipment is a big thing. I still kinda pinch myself when I walk into the locker room and see my name plaque there. It’s really cool.”