Hermantown's Aaron Pionk is coming home, will join Bulldogs' blue line next season
The former Hermantown Hawks forward and Minnesota Wilderness defenseman had previously been committed to play at Minnesota State, until the Mavericks underwent a coaching change.
DULUTH — Hermantown native Aaron Pionk is no longer heading to Minnesota State.
Instead, Pionk is following in the footsteps of his older brother and so many other Hawks before him. The 6-foot-1, 175-pound left-handed defenseman has committed to play for Minnesota Duluth in the fall of 2023.
“I remember my dad (Scott) bringing us to games at the DECC and stuff. Chad Huttel, my high school coach, went there as well,” Pionk said. “There are always people that I’ve known who have gone there. It’s always been my team, going to a lot of those games. The rink, Amsoil (Arena), I love it. I’ve always loved UMD. I’m glad it worked out now.”
Honored to announce my commitment to play hockey at the University of Minnesota Duluth! I’d like to thank all of my teammates, coaches, family and friends that have helped get me where I am today! #godogs 🐶 pic.twitter.com/37NgO7vPfe— Aaron Pionk (@AaronPionk) May 9, 2023
Pionk, 20, has spent the past two seasons in junior hockey since graduating from Hermantown in 2021. He was with the Cloquet-based Minnesota Wilderness of the North American Hockey League in 2021-22 — after playing 10 games there following his senior season of high school — and spent 2022-23 with the Waterloo Black Hawks of the United States Hockey League.
Pionk posted nine goals and 19 assists in 51 games with the Wilderness in 2021-22, and increased his offensive output in the USHL with 12 goals and 26 assists in 60 games this season.
Pionk verbally committed to Minnesota State back in December 2021 while playing for the Wilderness and signed a National Letter of Intent with the Mavs in the fall of 2022. He asked and received his release from the NLI after Minnesota State head coach Mike Hastings and associate head coach Todd Knott both left Mankato this spring to take the same jobs at Wisconsin.
Pionk said Hastings and Knott were the main reasons he committed to the Mavericks. He said he had a really good relationship with both coaches.
“It was difficult,” Pionk said of the timing of Hastings and Knott leaving for Wisconsin. “When it all happened, it was probably three of four months until I had to head down there for summer classes. I was going to be in school. I was ready for it. I was excited. We had just found out about our roommates, as well as our living situation, probably three days prior. I was just getting to know those guys and then it came out. It was a shock.”
Luke Strand, a former assistant coach at Ohio State and head coach in the USHL, has taken over as head coach at Minnesota State. The Mankato Free Press reported Sunday that Pionk has officially been released from his NLI by the school, along with two others.
Four Mavericks are transferring out this offseason, with three following Hastings and Knott to Wisconsin.
“We want guys who want to be here,” Strand told the Mankato Free Press. “If that isn’t a priority to them, we can’t make it a priority to us.”
Pionk was a forward when he was at Hermantown — transitioning to defenseman with the Wilderness — posting 30 goals and 53 assists in three seasons with the Hawks. He put up 40 points his senior year of 2020-21 when the Hawks lost in the Class A state quarterfinals after most of the team was exposed to COVID-19 and forced to sit out due to MSHSL and Minnesota Department of Health protocols.
Pionk has four older brothers. His second-oldest brother, Neal, played two seasons on the Bulldogs’ blue line from 2015-17, helping UMD reach the NCAA title game in 2017 against Denver in Chicago. Neal Pionk, who went undrafted out of high school and juniors, left after that season to sign an NHL contract with the New York Rangers. He just wrapped up his fourth season with the Winnipeg Jets.
Aaron Pionk, who is eligible and a potential prospect for the 2023 NHL draft, played high school hockey in Hermantown with two other UMD recruits in Zam Plante and Ty Hanson, as well as current Bulldogs Joey Pierce, Blake Biondi and Darian Gotz.
Plante has signed an NLI to join the Bulldogs in 2023-24 while Hanson is scheduled to return to juniors next season. Both played in the USHL this season and are eligible to return next year.
“This is going to be cool. I’m going to be at home with all these former Hermantown players that are there and going to be there,” Aaron Pionk said. “With Joey, Blake and Darian there, it’s going to be really fun. I played with those guys my whole life and I get to play with them in college. And my friends back home get to watch as well. It’ll be fun.”
Aaron Pionk is one of three 20-year-old junior players coming to UMD next season as freshmen along with forwards Anthony Menghini of the USHL’s Fargo Force and Braden Fischer of the NAHL’s Minot Minotauros. UMD also has two transfers coming in — Penn State senior wing Connor McMenamin and North Dakota sophomore defenseman Luke Bast.
This story originally excluded a fourth older brother of Aaron Pionk. It was updated at 4:12 p.m. on Tuesday, May 9, 2023. The News Tribune regrets the error.