SUNRISE, Fla. -- Aaron Ekblad relished every moment from Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final at Amerant Bank Arena on Monday, from the ride to the rink to the 2-1 victory against the Edmonton Oilers.

The win, Florida's first Stanley Cup championship, was the culmination of a long journey for the 28-year-old defenseman, one that started as the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft.

“Obviously we’ve turned it around. It wasn’t much to look at the first few years,” Ekblad said between hugs and pictures on the ice postgame. “With the ownership, who obviously spent the money to do it, it’s a destination and people want to be here.”

Part of the reason is also to play with Ekblad, who Florida general manger Bill Zito called a cornerstone of the franchise. Ekblad just completed his 10th season with the Panthers.

“[Ekblad] and [Aleksander Barkov], those are the real guys. They’re the ones who really built this because they stayed with it and they care. They’re Panthers and they’re so proud,” said Zito, who fought back tears. “What they went through, they stuck to it. They believed in the community.

"[Ekblad] has his on-ice presence and his off-ice presence where he leads and cares about his teammates. He’s a barbecue guy. I can’t say enough about the calming influence he has on the group.”

The Panthers earn their first Stanley Cup in franchise history

That influence was seen from an early age in Ekblad, who in 2011 became the second player, and first defenseman, to be granted exceptional player status by Hockey Canada, which allowed him to play in the Ontario Hockey League as a 15-year-old.

Three years later, after being selected by the Panthers, Ekblad achieved success early in the NHL, winning the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie in 2015 after he had 39 points (12 goals, 27 assists) in 81 games. He also played in the NHL All-Star Game in 2015 and 2016.

But the Panthers struggled on the ice and at the gate. They finished 10th in the Eastern Conference (38-29-15) his rookie season, failing to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It was the start of a run of either missing the playoffs or being eliminated early that didn't end until 2022-23, when the Panthers advanced to the Final before losing to the Vegas Golden Knights in five games.

Ekblad, though, had broken his foot earlier that postseason against the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference First Round. He also sustained two shoulder dislocations and tore an oblique muscle on the way to the Final.

On Monday, he appeared to labor on the ice against the Oilers.

“He such a warrior. He fights through so many injuries,” forward Ryan Lomberg said. “He’s in some (pain), but he doesn’t care. He lays it all on the line for the boys. This is our goal. We accomplished it and he was a big part.”

Moments after he did his lap with the Stanley Cup, Ekblad hugged Panthers staff members and reached into the crowd to greet fans, thanking them for their support and bringing the noise for Game 7.

“Absolutely, as they should,” Ekblad said. “They’re here watching their team win for the very first time. We’re just as excited as they are.”


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