ITO Special by: Bryan Thiel
It takes a very special person to bend the rules and get away with it.
Aaron Ekblad is a special person.
Earlier this year, the 15-year old became just the second player in OHL history to be granted exceptional status and enter the league a year early. And like the man before him, Ekblad made sure to prove the exception wasn’t a fluke.
In a 7-4 Barrie Colts win, the 6’3”, 200lbs defenseman didn’t look like he was playing in his first career OHL game. He didn’t even look like he was playing in his first OHL season. He skated like a veteran, made silky-smooth passes and moves with the puck, and thought through the game at least to the level of his competitors, if not above that level at points.
Ekblad, in many ways, showed flashes of the same moxy and poise that one-time Colts’ defenseman Alex Pietrangelo showed in his final OHL season.
When asked about nerves, the savvy teen shrugged the question off. Asked if he was too excited to sleep during his typical pre-game nap amidst the buildup to his much-anticipated debut it was a simple “Nah…I was able to get it in just fine.”
It’s impressive, considering the pressure put on the teen-aged players who are supposed to be in the league. Not one that’s playing ahead of himself.
But that’s just the thing. Ekblad doesn’t look like he’s playing ahead of himself. He let’s the game come to him, and recognizes a role.
“The season is going to be about looking at my performance after every game and whether or not I’m happy with it. Points are nice, but if they aren’t there, they aren’t there. I’m a defenseman and my job is to keep the puck out of my own net.”
The fact that Ekblad is able to recognize his responsibilities at such a young age and realize that the attention he’s getting doesn’t need to be justified with production is stunning. Especially since these days fans and media really only gauge a player’s worth or growth through offensive totals.
But getting back to his job, in his first game, he did a pretty good job of keeping the puck out of his net. Of the four Kingston goals scored, Ekblad wasn’t on the ice for any of them. He even found himself on the penalty kill as the game wore on, shifts he wasn’t taking at the beginning of the game, while he played regular time on the power play. He even started the second with a shift where the Colts had trouble getting off for a change, but seemed to handle it as well as any young defenseman could.
“I’m not really (tired). Yeah it’s hard out there and will wear you down, but it’s also what you prepare and train for, so you’ve got to be ready.”
The level-headedness of the top-pairing defenseman is something that bodes well for Ekblad’s future, and along with his character is what convinced Hockey Canada he was ready to make the job. It becomes especially important when you consider the attention he’s going to receive, not only in his first year, but the rest of his junior career.
And we’ve got a pretty good idea of what that coverage is going to be like, as it was back in the 2005-06 season that John Tavares stormed into the OHL with a goal in his first game and nine in his first seven games. Between electrifying fans, people trying to get their own look at the future first-overall pick, and thunderous trade rumours, it’s a wonder Tavares ever got any peace. Maybe he didn’t.
Attention or not though, Colts’ captain Colin Behenna knows that team has got something special.
“He’s a really special player and you can tell that just by looking at him. He’s 15 years old, but he’s able to do some amazing things out there. It’s fun to watch.”
Exceptional status or not though, Ekblad is still a rookie, which puts him on the low end of the totem pole. Which means…
“I don’t have to do that (when asked about carrying roommate Norm Ezekiel’s sticks), but there are other rookie duties. I can’t get out of those.”
And in terms of setting the tone with pre-game music?
“Rookies are rookies, they don’t get to touch the music in the dressing room, “ cracked Behenna.
The day will come sooner than later though, when Ekblad gets his say on the tunes.