Feb. 6, 2015
By John Patrick Bruno `18
“He’s just like Rudy… on ice.”
University of Notre Dame hockey coach Jeff Jackson’s description of Joe Aiken fits the senior winger well. Notching his first career point Jan. 18 against Connecticut, Aiken was responsible for the game-winning goal in what would end up being a 6-1 contest.
But for Aiken, it has been quite a long journey.
As a freshman coming from Whitefish Bay, Wis., Aiken reached out to the Notre Dame hockey coaching staff about the possibility of becoming a walk-on.
“I got in here just for academics, and I knew I wanted to come here just for the strong academics,” Aiken says. “But still, college hockey was always a goal of mine that I tried to keep alive in the back of my mind.”
And keep the dream alive he did, skating with the team during tryouts before being cut. But even that couldn’t stop him.
“Coach gave me some areas to work on and said to give it my all in the weight room,” Aiken says. “He said they would love to see me come back the next year for another shot.”
Fall of his sophomore year, Aiken skated with the team for the majority of the preseason before once again being cut. However, that year was the inaugural season for the Notre Dame club hockey team. Aiken was the second-leading scorer on the team in its first year of existence (2012-13), scoring 13 goals with 14 assists.
“My year there was amazing, I can’t say enough great things about the players and coaches,” Aiken says. “Nick Stasack – our third goalie this year – was on the club team with me back then too. Just seeing that guys can make the jump brings credibility to a new team like that.” But in the back of his mind, Aiken knew he had a chance to fulfill his dream of playing college hockey.
“I came back again junior year to try out again,” Aiken says. “But this time the coaches told me mid-preseason that I had made the team.”
And just like that, Aiken made the jump from student to student-athlete: a bigger jump than many realize.
“I knew it would be a huge difference,” he says. “Going from a non-athlete to an athlete, you are just amazed at how much free time you had without all the obligations. Like, `what did I even do with all that time?'”
The schedule changes didn’t do much to affect Aiken, who consistently gave everything he had skating during practice. During the 2013-’14 season, he earned ice time in five games, taking three shots along the way.
“I was definitely nervous for my first game,” Aiken says. “I was playing on such a big stage I had never played on before. So many times I had imagined what it would be like to play for a place like Notre Dame.”
For Aiken, his season never really ends, working hard during the offseason to keep up with National Hockey League (NHL) talent.
“Sometimes it’s crazy to think that the guys I’m playing with will be in the pros in a few years,” he says. “It just drives me to work even harder.”
According to Jackson, hard work is not an issue for Aiken.
“He is out there bringing 100 percent every day,” Jackson says. “Guys watch how hard a guy like Joe plays, and you can tell they are inspired by how hard he battles.”
Aiken not only recognizes his role as a practice squad player – he embraces it.
“When guys see other guys work hard, everyone works harder,” he says. “It’s a contagious thing. “
And when a last-minute scratch left Notre Dame a man down for its Sunday afternoon game against the University of Connecticut, Jackson called on No. 21. In the second period with the game tied 1-1, sophomore Ben Ostlie fed Aiken at the faceoff dot, setting up a quick wrist shot that beat the UConn goalie on his glove side.
“I had pictured that moment so many times,” Aiken says. “It’s hard to put into words a feeling like that: the best feeling in the world.”
Jackson saw the reaction from the bench as a sign of the impact Aiken has had on the team.
“You can tell they care about a guy like Joe,” Jackson says. “It’s a sign of a close team that they are so proud of one of their own. Joe is one of the most shy, humble guys I’ve seen around. He really deserved that moment.”
When Jackson speaks of Joe Aiken’s humility, he isn’t exaggerating. Aiken accepts and embraces his role on the practice squad, and loves the opportunity to push younger skaters during drills. Aiken’s countless hours of practice and hard work have clearly paid off, as coaches trust him in situations when they need that one extra body on their bench.
“I know my role,” Aiken says. “It’s an honor to be out there, but I can’t get ahead of myself. I know what I need to do to help the team succeed; I always remember what my job on the ice is.”
While many overlook the importance of the practice squad players, at Notre Dame the coaches affirm the importance of these athletes, who have earned a shot to make their dreams a reality through hard work and dedication. And as for Aiken’s future?
“He earned himself another game,” Jackson says. “We’ll put him out there and see what he does with it.”