MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. – After playing for three North American Hockey League teams and part of a season with the North Iowa Bulls, Maryland Black Bears forward Aaron Swanson spent a fair amount of his junior hockey career in transition. As it turns out, a college in transition may be the perfect fit for the veteran forward as his junior career comes to an end.
Swanson has announced his commitment to St. Thomas University, a program that will spend its next few seasons on the move from NCAA Division III to NCAA Division I hockey. He’ll become the 10th North Iowa alumnus to suit up for an NCAA Division I program, with three Bulls alumni currently on NCAA Division I rosters.
“Aaron is the consummate professional, on and off the ice,” said Maryland head coach Clint Mylymok. “He competes every time he steps onto the ice and works on his game the right way. Aaron is one of the hardest working kids we had this year, and we are excited to follow him on the next step of his hockey and academic journey. Aaron is a heck of a hockey player, and as competitive as they come. He just makes your team better.”
Swanson honed his skills in the North American Prospects Hockey League with the Madison Capitols’ 16-and-under and 18-and-under AAA programs, tendering with the NAHL’s Amarillo Bulls in May of 2017. After registering just one goal in 22 appearances with Amarillo, though, he would finish his 2017-18 season in Mason City with Sanden’s team.
The Sun Prairie, Wisconsin native played a major role in North Iowa’s postseason push, registering nine points in the team’s final five games, and posting three more in the Bulls’ Central Division semifinal series against the Wausau RiverWolves.
“The biggest thing that Aaron brought to our team was a high compete level, a great work ethic and high personal standards,” said Sanden. “When you bring a guy in late in the season, you don’t want to have to bring him up to speed, and that certainly wasn’t anything that we had to do with Aaron. He had a great work ethic and high personal expectations, which is good for kids coming in late.”
Swanson tendered again with Amarillo, and notched four points in 10 games before heading to the Springfield Jr. Blues. A 22-point showing over the final 34 games of the season helped Springfield earn a spot in the 2019 Robertson Cup playoffs. It also helped him land a captain’s spot with the Jr. Blues, and he made the most of it with 21 points as a Jr. Blue during the 2019-20 campaign.
The final move of his junior career came at the NAHL trade deadline, with a possible East Division playoff spot on the line. Swanson swung a trade to the Black Bears, posting nine points in the final 12 games of the season prior to the leaguewide COVID-19 shutdown. The Black Bears won just three of their final 10 games, but succeeded in finishing the season in the division’s top-four.
“That speaks to Aaron’s character, to be able to transition from team to team,” said Sanden. “The Springfield-to-Maryland transition was a playoff opportunity for him, similar to how we brought him in here. You only go after those guys if you know they’re going to come in and help you out. Those teams trusted that he’d come in, work hard and get the job done.”
Swanson was a regular on the big stage, appearing in the NAPHL’s Top Prospects Tournament in 2016, and the 2017-18 NAPHL 18-and-under All-Star Game. He capped his career with an appearance in the NAHL’s Top Prospects event this past February.
His new home is in the midst of a forced transition of its own, after being removed from the Division III Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference last season. The Tommies were founding members of the league in 1920, and spent 99 years in the MIAC before a vote to expel them last season. St. Thomas’s exit from the league takes effect at the end of the coming academic year.
Now, most of the Tommies athletic program will join the Summit League in 2021, and become the first NCAA athletic program ever to jump directly from Division III to Division I. The hockey program will join a conference enjoying its own rebirth, as the Central Collegiate Hockey Association resumes play next year. The CCHA was disbanded during the 2012-13 realignment, but accepted St. Thomas last week as its eighth member.
“I really liked St. Thomas compared to the other schools because of the coaching staff, the location and great academic programs,” said Swanson. “I think everyone from current to incoming players are really excited for the bump up to Division I. It’s always been a great program and it’s only going to get better.”
North Iowa has a lengthy history of sending former players on to college programs, with more than 150 alumni who have suited up for NCAA or ACHA programs. More than 80 of those players made their commitments while on the North Iowa roster. The Bulls will celebrate their 10th Anniversary season in 2020-21.
The North Iowa Bulls thank Aaron Swanson for his contributions during the 2017-18 regular season and postseason, and congratulate him on earning an NCAA Division I opportunity at St. Thomas University.
(photo credit: Maryland Black Bears)