Aaron was playing Juniors hockey for the Billings Bulls of the North American Hockey League. He was determined to make Billings a stepping-stone on a career path that would take him to the NHL. The team had many long bus rides, up to 14 hours each way. “To kill some of the time I randomly bought some books called ‘The Left Behind’ series,” Aaron recalled. “At that point I had absolutely no idea what those books were about. I just saw that there were 12 in a series and it would be fun to read a bunch of books- so I did. While I was reading these books, God was chipping away my calloused heart and I started getting this inner desire to find a church.”
Soon, Aaron began attending church and his faith grew.
That spring, he became a Christian, along with his mother. He returned to Billings for a second season, still pursuing the hockey dream, but with the added strength of his faith.
Seven months later, the family Aaron was living with in Billings woke him at 6 a.m. for a phone call from his father, who broke the news to him that his mother had suffered a heart attack and passed away. “My mother Rose had Multiple Sclerosis and was bound to a wheelchair,” Aaron said. “She couldn’t lift her right arm and had no strength in either leg. Even though she needed help with everything, she never complained. Even though she was weak, she was the strongest woman I have ever known.
“During the whole experience of my mother’s death, God used me to minister to my family and all those who knew my mother. My eyes were opened to the true meaning of life and I felt a strong calling from God to enter into the ministry.”
After returning to Billings, Aaron felt the calling to the ministry grow and he decided to forgo the final season of Juniors hockey. He returned home to be with his family and began exploring college options. Through friends, he heard about Bethel. Intrigued, he visited the school and liked the Christian environment.
While there, he talked to Peter Aus, who was then the Royals’ coach. Aus stressed that at Bethel hockey, while taken seriously and played competitively, was not the focal point of his players’ lives. “I was looking for a college where education would be my No. 1 priority,” said Aaron. “If I played hockey, it was not going to run my life like it had for the first 18 years. Coach Aus affirmed that at Bethel, the priorities were in sync with mine.”
Aaron took over in net for the Royals from the start of his first season. With him in goal, Bethel posted a 12-3-1 record in MIAC play, winning the first conference championship in school history. Aaron led the MIAC goalies with 10 wins. He was also tops in goals against average (1.88) and saves percent (.930). They won the MIAC Playoffs for the first time as well, beating St. Olaf 5-1 and St. Thomas 5-3, securing a berth in the NCAA Division III playoffs. Bethel topped UW-River Falls, 2-1, before losing to St. Norbert’s, 4-1, to close the season 18-10-1. Aaron was named to the All-MIAC First Team and also to the MIAC All-Rookie Team. That season, he set the school record for shut outs with three. His overall GAA of 2.56 was tops in Bethel history as was his overall save percentage of .913 (although he would tie that percentage the following season).
The following year, Bethel finished tied for second with an 11-4-1 record. Aaron earned All-MIAC honors as he led the league in wins (11) and save percent (.921). The Royals lost to St. Thomas in the semifinals of the MIAC Playoffs to end their season 16-7-2. Aaron established a school record for wins in a season with 16. Aaron was named team MVP and received the Christian Character award from his teammates.
Last year, Aaron and the Royals struggled, as they slipped to 8-8-0 in conference play. They finished sixth, missing the MIAC Playoffs. Aaron received All-MIAC Honorable Mention, as he saved 90.4% of the shots he faced, with 729 saves. He was again awarded the Christian Character award.
This year, Bethel is in the thick of the title chase. They are in third place with a 7-5-0 record, two points out of first place as seven teams jostle for the five playoff slots. Overall, the Royals are 8-9-0.
“Very rarely do you find players who demonstrate and live out excellence on and off the ice,” stated Bethel Coach Joel Johnson. “Aaron is just such a player. While I'm careful not to label anyone ‘perfect’ because nobody can live up to those expectations, I can tell you that Aaron has been a model of character and integrity, a faithful leader, and an elite hockey player in his time here at Bethel. He has been the cornerstone of our team for four seasons.”
On December 5, 2009, Aaron became the school’s all-time wins leader as he notched his 43rd career win in a Bethel sweater, a thrilling 2-1 overtime win over Concordia.
As much as Johnson respects the things Aaron does in goal, he is even more appreciative of the way Aaron leads and influences the team, on the ice and beyond. “More important than [his accomplishments] is the leadership that Aaron brings off the ice," the coach stated. “You simply cannot ask for a better example in the dressing room. His personal values and the attitudes and desires of his life are the types of things that all of us strive for. His impact on our team has been greater off the ice than it has been on it. The influence Aaron has on his teammates and coaches is life-changing, which is more profound than anything he has done on the ice.”
Away from hockey, Aaron has been involved in a program called Antioch Way, which works to enable participants to minister effectively to the world around them. Antioch Way students also build community by participating in social gatherings and retreats. They also take a core of recommended courses, meet with mentors in various ministries both on and off campus, and work related internships.
Through Antioch Way, Aaron met with a pair of mentors, Teaching Pastor Jason Strand and Director of Ministries Tyler Gregory of Eagle Brook Church. He job-shadowed the Junior and Senior High pastors at Eagle Brook during his junior year. This led to a full-time internship during the summer with their Junior High Ministries.
Aaron is a Communications major with a minor in Biblical and Theological Studies. He sports a 3.36 GPA and will graduate in May. He is applying for a Kern Foundation Scholarship, which would send him to Denver Seminary. From there, he plans to become a speaking pastor.
He was born in Bemidji, but Aaron grew up in the Grand Rapids area. His family calls Remer, a small town of 300, home. Aaron has an older brother, Ian, who was a lineman on the football team when he was in high school. Aaron attended Greenway High in Coleraine. He was active in athletics throughout the school year. “I played baseball till 10th grade, when I switched to tennis,” he said. “I played football in the fall and hockey in the winter.”
On the tennis court, Aaron played doubles for three years. “I had never played before I joined the team as a sophomore,” he said. “I played No. 2 doubles that year and No. 1 doubles my junior and senior years.” He and his partner won the Subsection title in his junior year, but lost in the first round of Sections. “We were ranked No. 1 in the Section my senior year, but got upset in the first round of Subsection,” he recalled.
Aaron was a versatile player on the gridiron. As a sophomore, he played on special teams as Greenway reached the state tourney, but lost in the first round. He started at wide receiver and cornerback as a junior and senior as well as playing on special teams. His junior year, Aaron was the holder for placekicks; his senior year, he was the long-snapper.
“I learned to skate when I was four or five years old,” he said. “By second grade, I was playing youth hockey in Greenway.” He played at all levels of the program, from Mites to Bantams. “My first year of Bantams, we made it to the state tourney,” he stated. “Because of my birthday, I played Bantams in 10th grade, too.”
Aaron was drafted by Billings in the NAHL draft. He played for them for one year. He tried to move up to the USHL the following year, trying out with Sioux Falls, but not making the team. Before he tried out for Sioux Falls, TriCities called to see if he was interested in playing for them. They called later that summer and offered him a spot on their roster. He accepted. After three months, in which his playing time was sparse and erratic, Aaron was cut. He contacted the Billings team, which welcomed him back.
Shortly after his return to Billings, Aaron’s spiritual odyssey began. That quest has led him to discover God, grow in faith and accept a calling to the ministry. It brought him to Bethel, which has been “the perfect fit for me,” Aaron stated. “It has provided me with an education, helped me toward my career, and still allowed me to have fun playing hockey.”
While Aaron’s journey of faith will continue long after his playing days are over, Coach Johnson is confident Aaron is equipped for the trek. “Aaron is driven and guided by his core values, his personal faith in Jesus Christ, and a constant striving for character and integrity," he said. “With many people, those are just words that sound good written in an article. For Aaron, they embody that which he is committed to each and every day. His pursuit of a life transforming faith along with his passion for excellence on the ice has made him a true servant leader in every sense of the word.”
[Photos are courtesy of the Bethel University Sports Information office.]
The Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) is widely respected as one of the premier conferences in nearly every sport competed in Division III. Year after year, the MIAC produces teams and individual student-athletes who excel in their given sport. At the same time, the MIAC schools maintain a reputation of commitment to academic excellence. This article is one in a series of spotlights on some of the young men and women who represent the league’s commitment to excellence, both in the classroom and athletics during the 2008-09 academic year.
This feature will be included in the "Profiles of Excellence 2009-2010" book which will be available for order at RDM Publishing. It will feature profiles of student-athletes from the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, written by CSN’s "Mapping the MIAC" columnist Rich Mies.