It was the spring of 2019 and the future was looking pretty bright for Aaron Huglen. The Northern Minnesota native had just completed a before-and-after rookie season with the USHL's Fargo Force which saw him play the middle of the campaign for Roseau high school, where he led the Rams in scoring with 52 points in just 24 games. The NHL draft was approaching and Huglen, a University of Minnesota commit, was a lock to get picked.
"He had a real strong finish with us and we had a plan in place for Aaron," said Fargo coach Pierre-Paul Lamoureux. "He could have gone into Minnesota as a freshman that year and he is a mature kid, but physically to step into college hockey - it's a big step. So the plan was for him to have a great summer, train and build his body, come into Fargo and be a go-to player for us. Everyone was on board."
But just a few weeks later, Huglen's story took a turn. At the time it seemed like a minor setback, but it became an incredible ordeal that he is still reckoning with today.
"I was doing a lift and I felt my back slip as I was doing it," Huglen said. "Right away, I didn't realize the severity of it - I thought it was just a pulled muscle in my back."
But the muscle didn't heal. Huglen eventually went to get an MRI, which revealed that he had a bulging disc - an injury that typically takes two or three months to heal. In the meantime, Huglen was indeed selected at the 2019 draft, going in the fourth round to the Buffalo Sabres. It was a great piece of news during a time of great uncertainty for both Huglen and the Force - uncertainty that would stretch on for a staggering amount of time and include doctors from the Force, the University of Minnesota, the Sabres and the Minnesota Wild.
"The initial injury, we thought it would take a few months to go back to normal," Lamoureux said. "We always had benchmarks for when we were expecting him to return. The goal was for him to be training full-bore in summer so he'd be ready for training camp. That didn't happen. Then it was, 'maybe the end of training camp or the pre-season.' Then it was month-to-month from there and he wasn't getting any better. Early last year, he started regressing and that's when we as a staff and Aaron were getting really concerned."
Eventually, Huglen opted for back surgery and even that was delayed - this time by the Covid-19 pandemic. But in the middle of May, 2020, he finally had the operation. After that, it was more rehabbing, but on Jan. 2, Huglen played his first USHL game of the season - scoring a goal in a 4-1 win over Sioux Falls. It was his first action in 20 months.
"It felt really good," Huglen said. "We're pretty fortunate to be playing anyway with Covid and coming back from that long injury - it's awesome to be back with the guys, be in the lineup and having the energy with the guys. I was nervous for sure, but talking to a lot of people, the main message was to have fun: You don't know how it's going to go, coming back after a year and a half. And it was a lot of fun."
Since returning to the Force lineup, Huglen has been a point-per-game player and while he's still getting comfortable, he looks pretty great out there. Fargo is the best team in the Western Conference and extending his season with a good playoff run would obviously be beneficial. It has yet to be determined if Huglen will join the NCAA's Golden Gophers next season, but the kid once again has a bright future.
"He's a special talent," Lamoureux said. "He's a fourth-round NHL draft pick but he's probably more talented than a fourth-rounder. He has NHL attributes with his skill and his vision and his hockey sense. He has an exceptional feel for the game; what's coming at him and where his space is and how to elude defenders and play with or without the puck. He has a knack for stripping opponents of the puck and putting opponents in awkward positions where they turn it over. We've managed his minutes so far, but he can play in almost any situation."
The fact Huglen uses his mind as much as he does his body on the ice actually helped the teen get through the past 20 months.
"I definitely had some doubts as I went along, but I've never been a physically dominant player - my hockey sense has been my best attribute," he said. "So that's what I was holding on to."
And make no mistake: it was a mental grind for him. In order to keep Huglen in the fold, Lamoureux and his staff made the center a de facto coach during his time off. Huglen would look at video, he would go on the road with Fargo and he would even give the occasional pre-game speech.
"The coaches in Fargo have been great throughout the injury, just keeping me involved with the team and being supportive in every way," Huglen said. "I definitely owe a lot to them. Getting involved is so important for any athlete, just staying connected. You can kinda be a loner if you're not involved in practices and such, so it was important."
When the Sabres drafted Huglen back in 2019, it looked like a savvy selection: the kid definitely had talent and he just needed time to grow and develop as a player. Though he ended up losing a lot of that time in the past year and a half, Huglen's early results suggest that his game hasn't diminished one bit during that time and as he continues to develop in Fargo and then the University of Minnesota, he could become an incredible weapon for Buffalo.
"He's not even close to reaching his full potential physically," Lamoureux said. "He hasn't even gotten back to the spring of 2019. There's a tremendous amount of upside, which is extremely exciting."
And after all he's gone through, there is no questioning Huglen's perseverance and dedication to the game.