Five games into the USHL season, the Tri-City Storm had a team save percentage of .832, leaving general manager and head coach Bliss Littler with a decision regarding the team’s goaltending. On Oct. 11, Littler signed 18-year-old Aaron Rock, and there’s been no question in net since.
The Storm started the season with an ultra-talented scoring duo of Jaroslav Markovic and Jarod Palmer and one of the more experienced blue lines in the league, but the team struggled to find their starting netminder early in the season. Aaron Damjonovich and Nick Hopper were given a shot early in the season, but neither stepped up to the plate. Rock had been released by the Saginaw Spirit of the OHL and could have sulked, instead he’s taken the opportunity and run with it.
In his first USHL game he shut out the Lincoln Stars and his teammates scored four goals in the Oct. 14 victory. Eight days later Rock had his second shutout, another 4-0 victory, this time against the Omaha Lancers. Since then, Rock has tallied five more shutouts, giving the Wheatland, Ill., native a league-leading seven shutouts and breaking Peter Mannino’s Tri-City record of five shutouts in a season. Mannino helped lead Denver University to the NCAA National Championship last season. Although Rock’s league leads the USHL in goals-against average heading into the final weekend of the season with 2.11, he will not be joining Mannino in the NCAA ranks.
Having played 12 games, and only 518 minutes, as the backup goaltender of the OHL Saginaw Spirit, Rock is ineligible to play NCAA college hockey. Selected by Saginaw in the sixth round of the 2003 OHL Priority Selection draft, Rock decided to give the major junior route a shot. Born July 5, 1987, Rock played up with the 86s for two seasons with the Chicago Mission, including the 2002-03 season, and then moved to Team Illinois for the 2003-04 season to play midget major before moving up to major juniors in 2004-05.
Rock lost out to Francois Thuot and Ryan Daniels in Saginaw, but the move to the USHL provided Rock with an opportunity he had never had his entire career, the opportunity to be a No. 1 netminder. When Rock’s on his game, he’s one of the best goaltenders in the USHL. His crease movement is smooth and he can launch pucks when stickhandling. However, Rock has also had to work on his consistency, as he played sparsely in Saginaw and had to split time in youth hockey in Illinois.
Rock has played plenty for the Storm, earning a record of 23-14-7. He was named the USHL/Let’s Play Hockey Defensive Player of the Week Dec. 5 for three home wins that week, but more importantly he was named the Defensive Player of the Week Mar. 20. Rock won three games for Tri-City the previous week, including stopping all nine shooters he faced between two shootout victories. The three victories helped the Storm clinch the final playoff spot in the USHL’s West Division.
Hockey’s Future caught up with Rock before his three-win week and discussed his rebound season in the USHL, his desire to return to the OHL next season, and his quest to play professional hockey thereafter.
HF: When you came to the USHL, you started out as the hot hand. How did you have such success in your first few games in the USHL?
AR: I had a lot to prove my first few games. I came from a position where I didn’t really get a chance to show the team what I could do and I just came to the USHL thinking, ‘I don’t have many chances left, I’ve got to make the most of it.’ I came in with that mentality and to work hard it paid off for me.
HF: How would you say the USHL compares to the OHL?
AR: I’d say speed-wise it’s pretty much the same. I think this league is a little bit more defensive than the OHL. I mean, the OHL has their five or six players that offensively just dominate the league, and that’s pretty much the big difference.
HF: What made you decide to go the OHL route originally?
AR: They talked to me my first midget major year, where I played up a year, and I got drafted pretty high with the intent to come in and start off being a rookie the first year and hopefully take over the next year. I’ve been a goalie that’s liked to play a lot of games over practices, so I figured the best route for me to go if I want to be a No. 1 goalie to get in a lot of games, because I do want to be a pro, and playing 45, 50 games a season is better than playing 30.
HF: Has there been any adjustment after last year, playing sparsely, versus being the definite No. 1 goalie this year?
AR: This is the first time I’ve ever had the position where I was a starting goalie. Even growing up we played that rule where you switch off every other game. So, it’s been a big adjustment, but I’ve pretty much figured out what I need to do game in and game out to prepare for each game. So I go into every game with a lot of energy.
HF: So where do you go next year? Do you stay here, do you go back to major juniors?
AR: Most likely I’ll end up back in major juniors. I’m hoping to land a starting spot in the "O" next year, because college is pretty much out of the way and I’m still looking to go pro, so that’s the best opportunity.
HF: Would there have been the potential to play college, having played major juniors? Would you just have to sit out the year or what?
AR: The rule was the first game you play you have to sit out a full year, and then for every other game that you play, you have to sit out another year on top of that. So they set it up so you pretty much can’t go to college.
HF: So you’ll probably turn pro when you’re 20 or 21. Where do you hope to break into after junior hockey?
AR: After junior hockey, wherever I’m going to get a good opportunity to be seen by the NHL or anything like that where I can get a lot of games in, where the club really wants me and wants to see me develop. So, if that ends up I have to start out in the ECHL and play a year or go right to the AHL, anything. It doesn’t matter.
HF: What do you think your strengths are as a goalie?
AR: I think my strengths are my quickness in net, moving side-to-side, rebound control has been pretty good for me this year, cutting down shots, and my puck movement.
HF: What are some of the things you’ve been working on?
AR: I’ve been working a lot on quick shots where guys are from behind the net passing out top, trying to get to the top of the crease quick enough to set up. I’ve been working a lot on that, and pretty much making sure I’m square on every shot so I take up a lot of room.
HF: So what’s your puckhandling like nowadays?
AR: I know in this league they don’t have the trapezoid behind the net, so I have a lot more freedom to go out and play the puck. I’m always looking, I’m always hoping I can get that assist or whatnot. So, on the power play, whenever it gets dumped down, I’m looking for that guy at the far blue line, try to hit him as hard as I can with the pass.
HF: Do the Storm encourage you play the puck a little less, a little more?
AR: A lot more. Bliss, our head coach, wants us to try and get behind the net and try to stop the puck every time. So, for ten minutes before practice we usually work on that, dump-ins around the net, setting it up, and playing it off the glass.
HF: Do they prefer you to set it up for the defenseman or would they rather have you launching passes or both?
AR: Both, actually. In tight spots I’ll just go out there and set it up. But if I have the time, I like to hear from our wingers that they’re open so I can give them a pass.
HF: How did midget hockey help prepare you for this route?
AR: When I got drafted I still had another year that I could play, that I wanted to play midget major, just so I could set some of my standards for moving, getting a little bit more comfortable, and work on a lot of things so I could go into the next year with a lot more confidence.
HF: What’s the season break down for each of these, midget majors, etc?
AR: My first year of midget major was 2001-02, I think. I’m an ’87 and I played up a year with the ’86’s, for a couple years, so my first year of midget majors was a year early, and that would be the year I got drafted. That year I played for the Chicago Mission, and then the following year when the 87’s caught up to midget major, I played for Team Illinois.
HF: It seems like it’s pretty common to bounce around midgets in Illinois.
AR: In Illinois a lot of coaches kind of bounce around and pretty much I’ve noticed that the guys followed certain coaches that moved around. So, not many people stayed with the same program year after year.
HF: What are your goals with hockey?
AR: My main goal is I want to play in the NHL when I get older. Pro, that’s my kind of life. I don’t want a job where I’m sitting in an office working a certain amount of shifts and a certain amount of hours. I’ve got to stay active and I just love the game, and that’s what I want to do with my life.
HF: Are the any regrets going the OHL route originally?
AR: No, not really, because I still have a lot of confidence. It was kind of heartbreaking at first that I was going to be coming down here, but it turned out to be one of the best things for me, getting to play a lot. I’m just looking forward to hopefully going back there next year.
HF: What did it mean to break Peter Mannino’s Tri-City Storm shutout record?
AR: Oh, that was huge to me, because I know everybody looks at Peter Mannino as one of the greatest goalies that’s played in this league. He’s doing great things in Denver right now, and it’s a pretty big thing for me.
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