ON THE HORIZON – Aaron Ness, D, Bridgeport (AHL)

Ever since Aaron Ness laced up his first pair of skates at the tender age of 2, he has heard the cackles cascading from hockey rinks all across the Twin Cities and beyond. Yet, despite being diminutive in size, Ness wouldn’t let the chatter around him be a distraction. Simply put, Ness let his talents on the ice speak volumes rather than waging a war of words against his harshest detractors.

“I always had to deal with it,” said Ness, who himself recalled standing 5-feet-8 inches tall and weighing a rather lanky 160 pounds, as a senior at Roseau High School in Roseau, Minnesota. “I never would change my game. I would use my speed and knowledge to outsmart my opponents.”

That determination and skill-set earned Ness an honor bestowed on a select few in his home state of Minnesota, after his 2007-08 senior season at Roseau. Following in the footsteps of current Islanders scout and 14-year NHL veteran Trent Klatt and current Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Paul Martin, Ness was named “Mr. Hockey” for the year of 2008.

Statistically, Ness led the Rams and the entire of Minnesota in defenseman scoring with 72 points, tickling the twine 28 times, while assisting on 44 others.

Along with winning the school’s first “Mr. Hockey” award, Ness was named the 2008 Associated Press Minnesota High School Player of the Year, as well as earning All-Associated First Team honors.

Beyond the tight-knit hockey community of Roseau – population 2,773 – Ness’ stellar season also didn’t go unnoticed.

After accepting a four-year scholarship to play hockey at the University of Minnesota, Ness’ attention was quickly reverted to the competitive NHL scouting combine, prior to the 2008 Entry Draft in Ottawa.

“During my draft year, I never really thought of myself as a professional,” said a humble Ness. “My buddies told me that they were hearing that professional teams were looking at me, and that it was a realistic dream.

“But at the combine, the experience was crazy. I talked to nearly every team for a short amount of time. I really didn’t know who would draft me.”

With projections of being a late first rounder, Ness slipped into the second round and was quickly snatched up by the Islanders with their second of three 2nd-round selections – 40th overall.

“It was pretty special to be selected by the Islanders,” said Ness.

With hopes of building up his physical core, Ness became a Golden Gopher in the fall of 2008. He skated 37 games as a freshman, scoring two goals and assisting on 15 others. Despite finishing second amongst Gophers defenseman in points, the team finished in the WCHA and failed to reach the NCAA tournament.

Ness would return to the University of Minnesota for his sophomore and junior seasons, but experienced similar struggles both individually and team-wise. In 74 combined games as a sophomore and junior in St. Paul, Ness was only able to accumulate 26 points – four goals and 22 assists. As a team, the Golden Gophers did not reach the NCAA tournament in either year.

“My time at the University of Minnesota was better than expected,” said Ness. “However, hockey-wise, I was not as pleased.

“I never put up the numbers that I wanted to, and as a team, we were never able to put it together. The little things and the bounces never went our way.”

Still, Ness believed it was this time – following his junior season – to take his talents to the NHL.

“After three years, I believed that I was mature enough to take that next step,” said Ness, who grew two inches and gained over 20 pounds in his three years in college.

After signing his three-year entry level contract last March with the Islanders, Ness was quickly summoned to its AHL affiliate in Bridgeport. He played 13 games as a Sound Tiger and collected four points – one goal and three assists.

Yet, it was the experience itself that made Ness quickly take notice.

“Bridgeport gave me an opportunity to work with a great coaching staff,” said Ness. “It also gave me a chance to build on my strengths, which is my quickness and my vision. It also allowed me to work on my shot and build on my physical strength even more.”

After a brief stint in Bridgeport to close out the 2011 AHL campaign, Ness not only took part in his fourth Islander summer scrimmage, but was asked to participate – for the first time – to compete with the Islanders for a coveted spot on its opening day roster.

“It was a pretty good camp,” said Ness. “It was a great learning experience to play with a lot of good players. I know that if I continue to play my game, I will be able to produce.”

The 21-year-old earned the accolades of current New York Islanders head coach Jack Capuano, who was quite tempted to bring Ness along to compete for a third pairing spot with the parent club, but decided that it would be best for him to earn seasoning in Bridgeport under first-year head coach Brent Thompson.

“When I first watched Aaron play, I thought his style was very similar to (Mark) Streit,” said Thompson. “Aaron has great speed and mobility.

“And while he is small, he competes like a buzzard.”

In his first full season in Bridgeport, Ness is earning top-four minutes, while competing alongside Islander prospects Ty Wishart, Matt Donovan and Calvin De Haan. He has collected 11 points – two goals and nine assists – in 33 games.

“We have such a tight knit team in Bridgeport,” said Ness, who hopes to pattern his game after Detroit Red Wing blue-liner Nicklas Lidstrom, based on the future hall-of-famer’s ability to excel in all zones. “There are so many good guys here, who are all competing for one goal, and that’s to play in the NHL.”

While itching for an opportunity that may indeed come by season’s end, Ness does not have a personal timeline on when he would like to be called up to the Island.

“I could get called up today or tomorrow, but I know that I need to continue to grow as a player each day,” said Ness. “I am hopeful that when I do get called up, I will provide offense, while staying strong in the defensive zone.

In his free time, Ness enjoys going bowling with roommates Sean Backman, Tyler McNeely and Matt Donovan, as well as playing Xbox.

“Aaron is a guy that the Islander fans will really enjoy,” said Thompson. “ He is a first class kid that possesses tremendous leadership qualities.”

Only time will tell if size truly matters.

Just ask former Islander draft pick and current Minnesota Wild top pairing defenseman Jared Spurgeon, who is playing over 20 minutes a night while standing 5-feet-9 inches tall and weighing 185 pounds.