PEMBROKE PINES, Fla. - Aaron Ekblad's summer reading tour stop started with a simple question.
"Who here has ever been to a Florida Panthers game?"
In a sizeable auditorium at the Southwest Regional Library, hand after hand of the nearly 70 children in attendance, many of them sporting the jerseys or shirts of their favorite players, began to shoot up into the air. For Ekblad, who is entering his fifth season with Florida, the enthusiasm was a welcome sight.
"I love to see it," said Ekblad, who credited the team's increased presence in schools. "It's where it all starts. My passion for hockey started long before I even had a choice. My parents were way into it, but some of these kids don't really have that luxury. Getting them to be able to come out to a game or come out to one of these events and read to them is great. Hopefully, it buds that inspiration to want to play."
In conjunction with Broward County Libraries and the Broward Public Library Foundation, the Panthers are visiting a total of 11 area libraries from June-August, with special guest readers at each stop. With an enthusiastic group of kids hanging on his every word, Ekblad used his guest spot to read aloud the book "I'm Cool," which tells the story of a heroic Zamboni that rescues his team from a bad sheet of ice.
From shouting "Shaaamboni!" to eliciting more than a few laughs, Ekblad said he enjoyed every minute.
"It's a treat for the soul, for me," the former All-Star defenseman said. "It's nice to give back and to read to some kids and teach them a little bit about hockey, the Zamboni and what that book was all about. It's a real treat. It's fun to meet a bunch of kids in this community and start, maybe, helping build up the mindset about becoming a hockey player."
While community outreach events like the reading tour are an undoubtedly important part of the club's efforts to cultivate new fans, Ekblad knows that giving the kids a winning hockey team to root for is also necessary. After finishing with 96 points last season - the third-best point total in franchise history - the 22-year-old said that he and his fellow budding superstars are now ready to take the next step.
"We're all in prime physical shape and we all have that potential to come together as a team and be a good team," Ekblad said. "I do think it's time for us to do that."
With a talented young core built around a plethora of former first-round picks like Aleksander Barkov, 22, Jonathan Huberdeau, 24, Mike Matheson, 23, Nick Bjugstad, 25, and Ekblad, Florida made just a few additions to their roster this offseason. They added a top-six winger in perennial 50-point player Mike Hoffman, bolstered their defense with Russian import Bogdan Kiselevich and secured their safety net in goal with the addition of third-string netminder Michael Hutchinson.
Florida acquired all three players without parting with any top prospects or current roster players.
"I love it," Ekblad said of Florida's offseason moves. "I think Hoffman's going to add a good scoring touch on one of our top two lines and Kiselevich is a veteran presence that will help out our young core on the backend."
For a team that's finally coming into their own, Ekblad said addition without subtraction was key.
"It's huge," he said. "I think it's great. We were 25-8-2 towards the end of the year. It's a number that we do like to fall back on. Obviously, it unfortunately wasn't a playoff number. But if we can do that throughout the year and create something along the lines of that run, we'll be in good shape."
Coming off a career-high 16-goal campaign, Ekblad projects to be a major factor in Florida's push to return to the playoffs this season. With 38 percent of his 5-on-5 faceoffs coming in the defensive zone -- up from 28.4 percent in 2016-17 -- the former Calder Trophy winner played some of the biggest minutes of his career last season, tasked with shutting down opposing teams' top lines on almost a nightly basis.
Ekblad's 1,917:54 of ice time were second to only Keith Yandle on the Panthers, with a team-high 183:49 coming on the penalty kill and 174:23 on the power play. When Ekblad was on the ice, Florida had a .912 save percentage on the penalty kill, thanks in part to his career-high 40 takeaways and 121 blocks.
"Overall, it was a good year, it wasn't a great year," Ekblad said. "I feel that I was a lot more confident towards the second half in taking care of first lines of other teams. It's not easy. You're going to get scored on. I think just learning what different players' tendencies are, it's a little easier to take care of them."
With Opening Night fast approaching, Ekblad, who plans to remain in Fort Lauderdale for the majority of the remaining summer months, is more eager than ever to get back onto the ice with his teammates.
"I'm trying to convince other guys to come back sooner," he said.