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COLOGNE, Germany -- Mikkel Aagaard didn't see it coming. But he sure welcomed it.  

Because the Stockton Heat forward couldn't have imagined the strides he'd make in his hockey career over the course of the past 10 months. 

Nor the journey.

"I wouldn't have believed it," Aagaard started.

It may sound far-fetched to the 21-year-old, but it's true. 

He earned his first NHL camp invite in September, signed his first American Hockey League contract in October, and, after his first season of playing hockey in North America, returned to Europe to represent Denmark at the 2017 IIHF World Championship. 

Not bad on all counts. 

The latter, in particular is impressive. 

"It's always a big honour," said Aagaard, who has represented Denmark at the IIHF World Under-18 Championship, the IIHF World Junior-A Challenge and the IIHF World Junior Championship and now twice at the World Championship level. 

"Things ended too early in Stockton, so to come here and represent Denmark is an amazing feeling. It's always fun to play for your country and definitely a big honour.

"Any tournament you can play in and against these players is a really good tournament for me. It was a little different coming back and playing on the big ice. I was looking forward to coming back and getting a lot of ice time. I didn't get as much as I wanted to but it's a process. 

"I'm young. It's a process and I took it step-by-step."

He's underselling it. 

Though Aagaard finished pointless in seven games in the tournament and Denmark failed to qualify for quarterfinal action, he caught his coach's eye as one of the younger players in the tournament. 

"I'm really impressed by Mikkel," said Jan Karlsson, head coach of Denmark's entry at the World Championship. "He just flew in here and I put him in the center position and he's done it really, really good. I'm impressed with that guy. 

"I think he has a big future with a big hockey team."

Aagaard is hoping he's shown that throughout the season.

It's one he's particularly proud of. 

"It's been an amazing season for me and for me to show I can play in the American Hockey League, play a full year in North America has been amazing for me," he said. "I'm looking forward to continuing that wherever that is. I hope to be back in Stockton. 

"We'll see if it is."

His progression throughout the year will certainly garner him another look.

Aagaard was one of six free agents invited to skate alongside prospects of the Flames at the Young Stars Classic in Penticton in September. He parlayed a fruitful performance in the South Okanagan into a main camp invite, and survived late into the month before earning an assignment with Stockton of the American Hockey League. 

A week later he signed his first North American contract, an AHL deal with Calgary's minor-league affiliate. 

He netted 13 goals and 39 points in 38 games with Adirondack of the ECHL, and five goals and 11 points in 25 games in the AHL. He closed out his season with Stockton, scoring once in four playoff games. 

But it wasn't the end of his season.

A stop in Cologne gave Aagaard his final experience of a long journey. 

It'll help set the tone going forward. 

And, hopefully, take him on his next journey.

"Definitely," he said.

"It's going to be a hard summer for me. I can see where I need to work out and work on stuff. I'll be in contact with Calgary on the stuff they want me to work on. 

"Hopefully it'll take me to a two-way contract.

"That's what I'm hoping for. For me it's just really important for me to show both Stockton and Calgary that I can play in the American league. I've been really, really happy being in Stockton and with the Calgary Flames organization. Hopefully that will continue."

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