High School Hockey: Bemidji's Erickson and Roseau's Ness on the same wavelength
On the eve of Valentine's Day, Bemidji senior center Sarah Erickson couldn't hide her smile. Was she looking forward to receiving a valentine from her boyfriend, Roseau hockey star Aaron Ness? Was she, perhaps, thrilled about Bemidji's victory ov...
On the eve of Valentine's Day, Bemidji senior center Sarah Erickson couldn't hide her smile.
Was she looking forward to receiving a valentine from her boyfriend, Roseau hockey star Aaron Ness? Was she, perhaps, thrilled about Bemidji's victory over Moorhead the night before in the Section 8AA semifinals and looking ahead to a sectional final showdown with Elk River?
"Sorry, Aaron, I've got hockey on my mind," Sarah said. "I think he not only would respect that but also understand it. We are totally on the same wavelength when it comes to hockey."
"She hit that right on the head," Aaron said. "We both know what we want from hockey, and everything else is second."
Indeed. Aaron and Sarah began dating in August 2007, but because of hockey, they have seen one another only about a half-dozen times since.
"I hear my classmates complain when they haven't seen their boyfriend on a particular day," Erickson said. "I tell them, 'Hey, quit your complaining. I haven't seen mine in months.'"
That didn't stop the first couple of Minnesota prep hockey from having banner seasons.
In addition to being selected the St. Paul Pioneer Press players of the year, the University of Minnesota recruits were selected the winners of Minnesota's Mr. and Ms. Hockey for the 2007-08 season.
Erickson scored 42 goals and assisted on 17 in leading the Lumberjacks to a runner-up finish in Section 8AA. She missed six games during the regular season to captain the U.S. Women's National Under-18 team to a gold medal in the inaugural International Ice Hockey Federation World Women's U18 championships in Calgary, Alberta. Ness scored 28 goals, had 44 assists and a plus-67 rating in helping the top-ranked Rams to a fourth-place finish at the state tournament.
The hockey relationship between Sarah and Aaron has deep roots.
Sarah was born and raised in Roseau before moving to Bemidji before her sophomore year. She and Aaron were rink rats in Roseau, spending hours with their hockey pals skating, stick-handling and even taking occasional naps in warming houses to recharge.
"Leaving there was the most difficult thing I've ever had to do," Sarah said. "The transition was really rough. We were leaving a great hockey town with a heritage I wanted to continue being a part of."
She played boys hockey in Roseau's development system through the peewee level, where she was on a first line with Aaron and Tyler Landman, two major factors in the Rams' title runs.
"She was strong, fast and did just fine playing in the same games and leagues as the guys," Aaron said. "She has the total package you want in a hockey player. We didn't care that she was a girl. She played tough and gritty, just like a guy."
Everything wasn't always rosy during those early days. Sarah heard the whispers from local skeptics and opponents about being a girl on a boys team. Taunts and jeers would come in the form of hard checks and comments suggesting she go home and play with her dolls.
"I can laugh about it now, but playing through that made me tougher," she said. "I used it as motivation. It increased my confidence because I was able to show that I earned a spot on my own."
Said Aaron: "She is the hardest worker and most determined player I've seen in my life. She knows what the ultimate goal is."
When Roseau won the Class 2A boys title last season, Sarah was filled with pride and emotion. She was thrilled for the players, many of whom were friends and past teammates.
Decision time for Sarah came when she contemplated taking the step up to bantams with the guys or switching to help the newly formed Roseau girls team. She opted to move to the girls' game, but she often would come home in tears because the game was slower and her teammates were not as skilled as she was used to.
"When she came to our program as an eighth-grader, she had more goals the first year than our whole team had the previous two years combined," Roseau girls coach Brian Bergstrom said. "We had her playing defense because she was the only one that could stop the other team. You could see she was a great player, a special player. She left quite an imprint on this program when she left. She left the message that hard work and determination will bring success."
Roseau finished third in this season's Class A tournament.
Sarah is on the fast track to what could be a spot on the U.S. women's national team.
She is one of 27 players invited to the U.S. women's pre-world tournament training camp March 24-31 in Colorado Springs, Colo. Twenty will make the team that plays in the world tournament April 1-13 in Harbin, China.
"I think she has an incredible passion for the game," U.S. women's star Natalie Darwitz said. "She wants to thrive. She just doesn't back down. She is confident in her ability, not cocky. There is a difference. She can be an Olympian if she keeps working hard and improving her game. If she does that, all the balls will fall into her court."
Said Sarah: "I totally listen to what (Darwitz) says. She is one of the greatest women's hockey players in the world."
In Aaron's quest to advance to the college level and beyond, he has accelerated his high school academic load to complete his junior and senior years so he can graduate in June. He takes eight classes during the school day and an additional three online at home in the evening.
"I have always set really high goals for myself," Aaron said. "At an early age, I set a goal to get to the highest level of college hockey, the NHL and even the Olympics. With that comes the commitment of making them happen.
"Combining the academics has been a challenge, a tough one. But I feel I am ready for the next level."
Aaron, a hard-skating defenseman who can score from anywhere, turned down offers to play in the United States Hockey League and the USA National Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"As talented as he is on the ice, he is very unselfish and team oriented," Roseau coach Scott Oliver said. "Wearing the green and white of Roseau has always meant the world to him. His decision to accelerate his education is supported by his teammates, classmates and our town. You don't find many special players like that."
The 5-foot-10, 170-pound left-handed shooting playmaker should be a welcome addition to the Gophers, who encountered anemic scoring this season. In 88 high school games, Aaron scored 44 goals, had 100 assists and was a plus-133.
"One of the greatest compliments a great player can get is what they do to the level of play of his teammates," Oliver said. "It is easy to see what kind of impact Aaron has had. This program is going to be just fine for years to come. We have benefited by him being a part of our program.
"He has all the skills and mind-set to go on to the next level and the level after that. Add in his intangibles of leadership and being a quality human being, and he is sure to be a success. As excited as he is to be a Gopher, he is just as excited to play at the level after that. The great ones know where they want to go in this game."