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Yale had just taken all the momentum from the Harvard men’s hockey team. Now it was after Harvard’s honor.
Down 3-1 to the Crimson and facing elimination in the 2001 ECAC quarterfinals, Yale forward Lee Jelenic realized that scoring is easier when you knock the opposing goalie out of the way. Rules be damned, Jelenic barreled into Crimson goaltender Oliver Jonas, allowing a teammate to convert on the empty-net opportunity.
While Bright Hockey Center filled with jeers, and Harvard collectively asked ECAC referee Dan Murphy to come to his senses and disallow the goal, Jelenic decided to remind Jonas of his recent accomplishment.
With both teams’ skaters huddled around their respective benches, Jelenic took the ice and charged in alone to Jonas, taunting and skating circles around the bewildered Crimson goaltender.
He didn’t last very long.
Then-sophomore Aaron Kim looked up from the bench, saw the debacle and immediately leaped over the boards to confront Jelenic and back up both his goaltender and his team.
“He was taunting the goalie, and I took it upon myself to go out there and say ‘you can’t do this’ and send a message that we’re not going to take this as a team,” said Kim, now a senior.
It was not one of Murphy’s better games—the referee rewarded Jelenic’s antics with a Yale power play, as Jelenic received a game misconduct but only Kim went to the box. Yale would score with the extra man and would later take a 4-3 lead, but Kim’s actions helped Harvard keep its composure and survive the onslaught—the Crimson came back to win, 7-4.
“There are things that are unacceptable in hockey, and skating around the goalie is ridiculous.” said team captain Dominic Moore. “And to let it go on would have been like letting them spit on us. Kim stood in there and showed them what type of respect our goalie deserves.”
While teammates weren’t the least bit surprised Kim was the first one to jump the boards and defend his team, perhaps it was a little unusual that he tried to drive some sense into Jelenic. After all, Kim would spend most of his hockey career doing his best to (legally) knock opposing players senseless.
The Crimson Kamikaze
While no one makes a major Division I hockey team without a considerable amount of skill, by the time he was in high school Kim realized he would not last long on talent alone.
Fortunately, it wasn’t hard for Kim to find something extra to bring to the ice.
“I like to get my nose dirty and go after it,” Kim said. “My favorite thing watching the pros play was all the bodies flying around. Knowing how the fans reacted to it and how it excited everyone…I get a joy and a rush from the fans feeding off of that.”
For all of Harvard’s NHL-caliber talent, the team still has an affinity for smaller packages. Last year the Crimson’s heart and soul—and best defenseman—was Peter Capouch ’02, a huge locker room presence with his 5’6, 167 lb. frame. So it is no surprise that one the most skilled teams in the country turns to its smallest player for its most physically-intense play.
By now the 5’10 Kim is used to crushing players much bigger than him. But players of his size are supposed to be the finesse guys, the players who try to juke players, not weld them to the boards. Opponents still stuck in this mindset have had a hard time adjusting to Kim’s style.
“I can see that they get ticked off and annoyed,” Kim said. “I get in their heads a little bit, and it gets other players out of their game.”
Yet Kim is far more than just an enforcer. Others might appear more in the box score, but Kim’s high-energy, speedy play is critical for the Crimson to gain control the puck in the first place. Harvard is littered with gifted scorers, but Kim provides a crucial complement for others’ more visible playmaking.
“I get a lot of comments from people saying ‘boy, that Aaron Kim is not afraid at all,’” Moore said. “He’s not the biggest guy out there, but he’ll run through the boards to get to a loose puck or make a play. He’s someone who just has no regard for his well-being.”
Opposing skaters are not the only object of Kim’s competitive intensity. He is probably the closest thing Harvard has to the traditional, fiery senior leader. The other senior regulars, Moore and classmate Brett Nowak, tend to be more laid back, preferring to lead by example. That leaves it to Kim to speak up when necessary—a task made easier by the respect he earns on the ice.
“He doesn’t let things slide on the ice or in the locker room,” said junior Rob Fried, who played with Kim for three years at Deerfield Academy. “You respect him so much because of what he brings in energy every night.”
Things didn’t start off quite as planned for Kim at Harvard. Recruited as a forward, where he played most of his life, Kim saw his first collegiate action as a defenseman.
A season-ending injury to Graham Morell ’01-’02 left the Crimson short a defenseman. Desperate for depth at the back, new coach Mark Mazzoleni turned to Kim and asked him to switch to defense. It wasn’t the first time Kim changed positions for his team—as a senior in high school, Kim’s coach moved him back to shore up a shaky defense.
He wouldn’t leave the blue line for two years. And while Kim never turned into a natural defenseman, he remained one of the Crimson’s top six options at defense and held up well enough to give Harvard at least some semblance of depth at the position.
Yet the true extent of that sacrifice didn’t hit home until Kim’s junior year. There, finally in his natural position of forward, Kim found himself a rookie again—he’d have to relearn a position not played since his junior year of high school, and do it against top-notch college competition. The adjustment took a toll.
“I never felt that comfortable my junior year,” Kim said. “Playing forward, things move a lot quicker, and you have to react a lot faster. I wasn’t used to that.”
Kim has settled back into life as a forward his senior year. After scoring just once last year, he already has four goals this season.
“He never said a word about it, he just went out there and did his job,” Fried said. “He’ll do whatever the coach asks him to do.”
Korean hockey players come around about as often as a Jelenic goalie charge. The Kim family is doing all it can to change that on its own.
Kim’s introduction to hockey began with two older cousins, who both enjoyed considerable success playing hockey around the United States. When Kim’s father moved to America from Korea, he lived with his cousins, following them around the nation from game to game. It didn’t take him long to fall in love with the sport.
“My father really liked the speed and the physical aspect of hockey,” Kim said. “Once he saw that he had two sons, he thought ‘Wow, it would be great to have them start playing.’”
Kim says hockey is growing fast in South Korea, and the nation is making some inroads into American hockey as well. Richard Park—the only Korean-born player in the NHL—is a highly-regarded role player for the Minnesota Wild. Yale forward Denis Nam played with Kim at the youth level, and Kim’s brother Dennis is currently a freshman at Division III Williams College—one of several D-III players from Korea.
Although he once entertained thoughts of playing for the Korean national team, Kim says his final game for Harvard this year will be his last in organized hockey. When that fateful moment will come is anyone’s guess. The Crimson hopes its season extends at least into the NCAA Tournament three weeks from now.
But one thing is certain. Kim will skate in his last-ever game with all the excitement and intensity of his first—and of every other he’s played in.
“He’s never taken a shift off in six years,” Fried said. “He’s all you can ask for in a teammate.”
—Staff writer Elijah M. Alper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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