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Aaron Ekblad returns to Panthers for practice

Defenseman cleared after sustaining neck injury during World Cup of Hockey 2016

by Alain Poupart / Correspondent

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad practiced Thursday for the first time since he sustained a neck injury playing for Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey 2016.

Ekblad was cleared for practice Tuesday and did some skating on his own Wednesday, when his teammates had the day off.

Ekblad will not be in the lineup Thursday when the Panthers play the Tampa Bay Lightning in a preseason game at Amalie Arena, but he's eager to see action for the first time since being injured in Team North America's first game of the World Cup, a 4-1 win against Team Finland.

"It's definitely great to be cleared and be back at full speed with the team," Ekblad said. "Obviously I'm going to take my time and get as strong as possible here. All these guys had a month longer than us to prepare. I'm trying to get strong in the gym, take care of my neck, take care of any other issues we can prevent in the future kind of thing. Once I do that, I know I'll be OK."

Ekblad's injury occurred when he collided with Team Finland forward Leo Komarov. The injury first was reported as a concussion, but Ekblad said the problem was with his neck, and that's what produced concussion-like symptoms.

He said he waited until late in the afternoon after he was injured before he said anything to Team North America officials because he was hoping his symptoms would disappear. Ekblad watched Team North America's 4-3 loss to Team Russia before returning to Florida.

"That day it hit me hard, and sitting in the stands watching, [it was] very hard to watch," Ekblad said. "Obviously that's my team. If I felt better and we moved on, I was asking everybody to go back, that kind of thing. I was kind of telling them, hey, if I'm feeling better I'd want to go right back in into the fight. It didn't come to that point obviously, but if it did I was hoping to get back there."

Ekblad missed four games last season because of a concussion, sustained when he was checked into the boards by Edmonton Oilers forward Matt Hendricks. Florida won that game to extend their Panthers-record winning streak to 12 games but lost the four games Ekblad missed. It won five in a row after he returned.

Panthers general manager Tom Rowe said Ekblad needed to become more aware on the ice in certain situations, an assessment the 20-year-old agreed with.

"When I think about it in the Edmonton game last year, there were a couple of big hits on their guys. I should have expected to someone was going to come after me," Ekblad said. "Obviously you don't think that. You think there's a little bit more respect among players out there. I turned, I saw him. I didn't think he was going to drive my head into the glass. The Komarov hit there, he got me on the shoulder, not much on the head or anything like that. It was more of the whiplash effect. Again, I've got to be more aware. You train your body, you train your brain to do that kind of thing. I do a lot of eye exercises and stuff like that. We're working on that right now and just trying to be a better hockey player that way.

"From past hits, probably Edmonton before, that's where the neck [issue] kind of started. Now that we're doing things that are going to help prevent that, it's not going to happen as easily where that neck is not going to cause the symptoms in my head. It shouldn't be as bad in the future."

On July 1, Ekblad, 20, signed an eight-year contract extension reportedly worth $60 million that begins next season. He's a major reason there's a lot of optimism around the Panthers heading into this season.

"Tons of high hopes," he said. "We have such a skilled team, and now that we've been together for a couple of years we've built that chemistry. I think guys are more comfortable, even myself. I feel a lot more confident on the ice. Anxious. I know I'm going to be playing a lot of minutes this year. It's going to be no easy challenge, but I'm going to embrace that for sure and I think everybody is."

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