His new GM in Florida says he’s 18 going on 30. His junior coach likens him to the greatest European defenseman of all-time. Now it’s up to super-poised Aaron Ekblad to live up to the hype. Ken Campbell takes a long-form, in-depth look at the 2014 first-overall pick and where he’s headed.
Funny how Aaron Ekblad looks neither particularly dangerous nor lonely the afternoon before the 2014 draft. He’s sitting in his designated spot at the National Constitution Center, wearing an NHL-issued golf shirt, khakis and casual footwear (no socks), swatting aside questions with the same ease he does 16-year-old lightweights in the Ontario League. His hair has a blond streak and he’s well tanned, the result of having a little downtime after the season to spend on his family’s new Sea-Doo 21-foot Challenger boat on Lake St. Clair near Windsor. There’s a certain irony that Ekblad, the day before he’ll be consigned to an NHL team over which he has absolutely no choice, is doing this in the same city where the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were signed.
Ekblad’s emancipation from junior hockey, though, is almost complete. He’ll soon be a part of the Barrie Colts alumni. At 6-foot-4 with a cannon from the blueline, NHL hockey sense and the makeup to log big-time minutes, he’ll be playing in the best league in the world this coming season. On this afternoon, the only question is where. The Florida Panthers are dangling the first-overall pick and they’re getting some action, particularly from the Flyers, who want to make a splash in front of their fans. They also want the player who’s the most NHL-ready among all the prospects. “He’s a man,” says Panthers GM Dale Tallon, who stays up all night stewing over trade offers before deciding to take Ekblad. “He’s 18 going on 30.”
Ekblad was a boy once, and he still sometimes displays the kind of behavior commensurate with his birth certificate. When he didn’t make the Canadian under-18 team for the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament two summers ago, he cried most of the way from Toronto to his hometown of Windsor. “I cried too,” said Lisa Ekblad, Aaron’s mother and a nurse practitioner in Belle River, Ont., “because you hate to see your kid upset. He felt he should have made the team.”
Even though Ekblad has been shaving since he was 14, he felt compelled to add Just for Men hair coloring to his playoff beard when he was barely 16 because it came in blond. And by his own admission, his immaturity level rises in direct proportion to the amount of fatigue and hunger he is feeling. Even his mother acknowledges that “he turns into a little diva” when he gets too hungry. “She always tells me to go have a Snickers,” he says.
Ekblad religiously watches, along with his Barrie roommate, Brendan Lemieux, a program called One Tree Hill. Lemieux acknowledges the two of them “crushed” eight seasons worth of the show in about a month. This is a drama about two half brothers, Lucas and Nathan Scott who play high school basketball in North Carolina, which sounds manly enough, but according to Wikipedia, the plotline of the show includes the following: “Lucas’ romantic interest in Nathan’s girlfriend, Peyton Sawyer, also strengthens their feud. Peyton’s best friend, Brooke Davis, tries to date Lucas, and Nathan attempts to date Lucas’s best friend, Haley James. The story of Lucas and Nathan’s father, Dan Scott, is occasionally explored through flashbacks, which show his relationships with Karen Roe, Lucas’s mother, and Deb Scott, Nathan’s mother, and how he ended up with one woman rather than the other.” Ugh.
Like the other young men who have worked their entire lives for this moment, Ekblad is exceptional. It’s just that he’s a little more exceptional. Hockey Canada gave him that indelible brand three years ago when he was granted “exceptional status,” which let him play in the OHL as a 15-year-old. He became only the second player, after John Tavares, to receive the designation.
With 175 OHL games to his credit, he’s ready to play in the NHL. His coach with the Colts is Dale Hawerchuk, who also broke into the NHL at 18, in 1981-82, and became the youngest player in NHL history to record 100 points. The way Hawerchuk figures, his former player will play it safe for the first month or so before he gets comfortable, and only then will he begin to display his offensive prowess. And that will be the beginning of a long and fruitful career. “I think he has the potential to be a 20-year player who can do it all, and his chances of winning a couple of Norris trophies are great,” Hawerchuk says. “I think he’s a bigger, stronger, Nick Lidstrom type of player.”
That’s exactly what the Panthers were envisioning when they took him…hey, wait a minute. Did Hawerchuk just compare an 18-year-old kid who has yet to draw his first NHL paycheck to one of the greatest defensemen in the history of the game? Hawerchuk should know a Hall of Famer when he sees one, since his plaque isn’t far from Lidstrom’s. But really, Dale, Ekblad’s skill level isn’t in the same realm as Lidstrom, is it? The kid only scored just a shade more than 100 points in three years in the OHL. “His skill level is one of the best I’ve seen in a defenseman his age,” Hawerchuk says. “A lot of guys don’t understand that about this kid. He’s good. And he’ll be breaking into the league a lot younger than Lidstrom was in his rookie year.”
Meanwhile, back at the National Constitution Center, Ekblad looks like anything but a rookie. He handles these situations like a pro, just as he did in 16 pre-draft interviews. He went into every one knowing exactly where he would fit into that team’s depth chart, and disclosed on the day he was drafted that the Panthers had four left shots and three rights among their defensemen this past season. One of the writers who covers the team admits that even he didn’t know that. “I was just doing my due diligence as a hockey player,” Ekblad says. “I knew it was a question that might come up and I wanted to be prepared. I’m not a hockey nerd or anything.”
Ekblad keeps telling himself to “just breathe.” It’s a way of coping with stressful situations, a mechanism that has guided him throughout his life and his career and made him into the poised young man who’s facing all the pressure the hockey world can place on him. He’s asked in every possible way if he has any inkling about whether the Panthers will take him, how he feels about going No. 1 and whether or not he can live up to expectations. The questions keep coming as waves of media members descend, and he patiently responds with the same answers that are remarkably captured in perfect sound bites. You think he must have been coached, that, unlike Ferris Bueller, he’s had a couple lessons. But he’s the real deal: polished, poised and mature. He’s been to several development camps with The Orr Group, the agency headed by Bobby Orr that represents him, and there has been some cursory media training. But this is authentic. “They give us a few tips on what to say and what not to say,” Ekblad says, “basically to give you guys nothing at all, but make you guys walk away thinking you got something.”
Not far away are Dave and Lisa Ekblad. You can see where Ekblad gets his size. His father, Dave, the chief financial officer for an automotive parts manufacturer, is tall and robust. But Aaron apparently most resembles his great grandfather, Gunnar Ekblad, who was a professional wrestler in Sweden before coming to Canada at the turn of the 20th century. There are times when Ekblad’s parents get overwhelmed by the hype surrounding their son, but they try to keep him grounded. And that’s why there’s a level of maturity in him you don’t see in a lot of teenagers. They are involved, without a doubt, but the Ekblads have always given their son space and freedom to make his own decisions. They never carried his hockey bag into the arena and never pushed him to play. Lisa remembers when parents were pulling their children out of a class in public school because the teacher was too demanding, she told her son to suck it up. The couple are just as proud of Aaron as they are of their 20-year-old son, Darien, a goaltender who played one OHL game for the Saginaw Spirit two years ago. “There are no stars in our house,” Dave says.
As parents, you try to instill the values you think are important in your children and hope they take. There wasn’t a lot of molding Dave and Lisa needed to do with their son. The usual reminders about saying “please” and “thank you” and applying a firm grip and looking the other person straight in the eye when you shake a hand. It wasn’t long before Aaron was making friends and influencing people with his level of poise. “Because he was always so much physically bigger than the other kids that people expected so much more from him,” Lisa says. “At five, they thought he should be talking like a seven- or eight-year-old. He always just seemed to be that way, and then after a while we started thinking the same way. I look at him now and he’s 18, but it’s like he’s going on 25.”
For the record, Lisa was dead-set against her son applying for the “exceptional player” status three years ago. She knew it would mean he’d be leaving home at 15 to live hundreds of miles away with another family and playing against stronger, more experienced players, some of whom were five years older. The Colts, who won just 15 games in 2010-11, were by far the worst team in the OHL, meaning they held the first pick. Their home rink was also 270 miles away, a five-hour drive from Windsor in good traffic. But Lisa knows her son. She knew for every point she could make to discourage the move, he would come up with two that made it seem to make sense. “I had a million reasons why he shouldn’t go, and he had a list just as long why he should,” Lisa recalls. “I remember I was very emotional about it. I was crying and saying, ‘Aaron, I really don’t think you should go,’ but he had an answer for everything. And finally I thought, ‘It’s not fair that my 40-year-old fears should be instilled in him. He doesn’t even have those yet and he doesn’t need them.’ So off he went at 15.”
There were no guarantees that just because he was deemed exceptional at the age of 15 he was going to be exceptional, or even really good, three years later. Scouts see it all the time. A kid who looks like he’s a beast at 15 or 16 doesn’t get any bigger, doesn’t get any better, doesn’t develop as a player and a person, and by the time he’s 18 he’s just another one of the thousands of players slogging it out in the hopes of beating increasingly incredible odds. “We were afraid for him to fail,” Dave says, “but he’s not at all like that.”
Ekblad grew only one inch in three years of junior hockey, but he was already 6-foot-3 when he entered the league. More importantly, he grew into his body and became just the fourth player, after Eric Lindros, Steven Stamkos and Tavares to be chosen first overall in the OHL and NHL drafts. That is indeed rare company, and if history is any indicator, the precursor to a long, successful and financially rewarding career. With bonuses, Shea Weber will make $14 million this coming season and Ryan Suter will pull down $11 million. Ekblad’s performance so far and his draft position suggest he will someday be in that class of defensemen in the NHL. But at the same time, he’s grounded about what the draft means, which in the grand scheme of things, is nothing. He realizes it only means that right here and right now, he’s considered the best 18-year-old prospect on the planet, nothing more. Five years from now if he’s struggling to find his game, nobody is going to remember he was an exceptional player when he was 15. But he’s also supremely confident the upward projection he has displayed so far will continue. He’s not predicting Lidstrom the way his junior coach is, but he knows what he’s capable of. “I think there’s a very good chance I’ll be going in the top five,” he says the day before the draft. “All those teams would welcome a defenseman on their team, and if I’m given the opportunity, I’m going to run with it. I’m ready to play in the NHL. I’m confident and I believe in myself. I’m not going to go in resting on my laurels and expecting to make it. I’m going to expect to make it, and I’m going to make it because I work hard and do the right things.”
And so it goes, with Ekblad riffing off deep thoughts and sounding like a veteran for the next 30 minutes. At points it gets downright comical. He’s asked whether he thinks teams want him to fall to No. 4 the way Seth Jones did to the Nashville Predators last year. “I really don’t know how to answer that question without saying anything stupid,” he responds. He’s asked, again, whether he has any inkling of how things are going to unfold the next night. “No one knows what’s going to happen,” he says. “I’ve said it a thousand times, and I’ll say it a thousand times more.” He’s asked if he’s always lived a charmed life and if he’s ever had a bad day in his life. “My dog, Bailey, died a couple of years ago,” he says. “That was pretty sad.”
As the seconds tick down to the first pick of the 2014 draft, Ekblad sits in the stands of the Wells Fargo Center with his parents. If he knows what’s going to happen, he’s doing an good job of hiding it. But he doesn’t. He said so a thousand times. No NHL team has taken a defenseman with the first-overall pick since 2006 and this draft, perhaps more than any in recent history, is difficult to handicap. “My heart is beating so fast,” he says. He turns to his father, grabs his hand and says, “I love you, man.” Then Tallon goes to the podium and announces, “We proudly select with the first pick overall in the 2014 NHL draft, from the Ontario Hockey League…” It’s down to him and Sam Bennett of the Kingston Frontenacs. Tallon extends the pause for the full dramatic effect. “Oh my God, come on!” Ekblad says before Tallon finally calls his name.
Now Ekblad’s heart can return to its regularly scheduled beating. The boy-man who never gets rattled shows a chink in the armor. Look closely, it might be the only one you ever see.