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Hockey: Aiken chases dream

Jack Hefferon | Wednesday, November 20, 2013

 

This time last year, junior Joe Aiken was a member of Notre Dame’s club hockey team, which was trying to establish itself in its first year of existence. The club didn’t have a permanent locker room at Compton Family Ice Arena, so Aiken would lug his gear to and from late-night practices at the rink, trudging across the huge expanse of snowy parking lots with a bulging bag of gear.

Now, Aiken is the newest member of Notre Dame’s varsity squad, after walking on to the team this summer. His new roster spot finally brings him a locker at the arena to call his own – and a whole lot more. In addition to the free gear and fancy hotels, a recent barrage of injuries to the Irish lineup has pushed the winger into the spotlight, where he’ll be asked to make his college debut this Friday night against No. 13 Massachusetts-Lowell.

“It’s a dream come true,” Aiken said. “Obviously with the injuries you can’t replace the skill level and talent level of those guys, but you have to have a ‘next man in’ philosophy. So if I get asked to take a couple shifts, I’ll be ready to go.”

With Notre Dame’s current predicament, he better be. When Irish coach Jeff Jackson brought Aiken onto the team, he anticipated the soft-spoken walk-on would contribute solely as a practice player. But with four forwards out with injuries, Aiken dressed for the Irish on Saturday night against Merrimack to fill out the lineup.

Jackson said that Aiken looked nervous in warm-ups in front of the crowd on Saturday, and he decided to skate three lines to avoid throwing Aiken into the fray. But when the Irish travel to the Tsongas Center this weekend, an even shorter bench and a lack of TV timeouts will force the Irish to roll Aiken into the rotation and onto the ice.

“It’s kind of an interesting situation we’re in now, but he definitely deserves to be wearing the Irish jersey,” Irish senior captain Jeff Costello said. “He comes to the rink every day ready to work, and he’s only gotten better since he started to train with us in the summer. He’s stronger. He’s faster. And he’s starting to get more comfortable, which is allowing him to make plays he probably wouldn’t have tried to make when he was newer to the team.”

Aiken played high school hockey in the Milwaukee area, then came to Notre Dame to major in finance. He tried out for the team as a freshman but was cut, and was left to play for Alumni Hall’s interhall team instead. Aiken came back bigger and stronger as a sophomore but failed to make the varsity again, and helped the club team come into its own and finish its inaugural season on a seven-game win streak.

This summer, Aiken continued to build on his progress, and entered the tryout period with a new sense of confidence.

“From the start of the summer, there was no doubt in my mind that I could hang with these guys,” Aiken said. “I don’t think I would’ve made the team if I didn’t have that belief. But there are no guarantees, so during the preseason I tried to do everything I could to give myself the best shot.”

All Aiken’s work finally paid off this time around, as Jackson called him into his office a week before the team’s first game to let Joe know that he’d made the squad. An excited Aiken called his parents, some friends back home, then went back to his dorm to celebrate with his friends and former teammates.

“He came in, tried out a couple of times; he’s a bit of the ‘Rudy’ story,” Jackson said. “He’s worked hard, he’s been a great kid… He made the team for a reason.”

After three years and focusing on every step along the way, Aiken’s reason for making the team will present itself this weekend. And while the experience may be a dream three years in the making, Aiken can’t afford to think about anything but the play in front of him come Friday.

“You can’t be thinking about all the milestones along the way,” he said. “I’m really just going to focus in on what I’m supposed to be doing out there, doing my job, and being ready to go when I’m asked to do so.”

Contact Jack Hefferon at wheffero@nd.edu