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Draft Memories: Aaron Ekblad

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

SUNRISE, Fla. - After a long, dramatic pause, general manager Dale Tallon cracked a cheeky grin before finally announcing that the Florida Panthers had selected Aaron Ekblad with the first overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

"We are thrilled to have selected Aaron with the No. 1 pick," Tallon said. "He is a strong, smart and physically mature defenseman who skates well and can play at both ends of the ice. Aaron is another building block for our team and we are confident that he will fit well with our young nucleus of talented players."

The first defenseman in eight years to be selected No. 1 overall, Ekblad went on to make the Panthers roster as an 18-year-old, finishing with 12 goals and 39 points in 81 games to win the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie during the 2014-15 season.

Since then, he's only gotten better.

This past season, Ekblad, now 22, ranked fourth in the NHL for goals by a defenseman, besting the likes of Roman Josi (14), Brent Burns (12) and Drew Doughty (10). He also made significant strides on the defensive-side of the puck, setting new career highs in takeaways (40) and blocked shots (121).

With the 2018 NHL Draft set to be held at the American Airlines Center in Dallas on June 22-23, FloridaPanthers.com's Jameson Olive recently caught up with Ekblad to take a look back at the day he officially became a member of the Panthers.

OLIVE: When looking back at your draft, what memory stands out the most?

EKBLAD: It's the one that everyone talks about the most, when Dale had that pause and made everybody wait. It gave us that rush of a few seconds where we didn't know what was going to happen. That was probably, for my family, the most intense and memorable time at the draft. Then, of course, getting picked and finally getting to walk up on stage and be a part of the Florida Panthers was a very memorable moment.

OLIVE: Have you and Dale ever talked about that moment?

EKBLAD: I'm sure we've had some friendly banter about it back and forth over the years. He obviously must have planned it beforehand and knew he was going to do it. It was a fun moment for me.

OLIVE: How sure were you that you'd be selected first overall by the Panthers?

EKBLAD: You obviously want to have that quiet confidence and be sure, but anything can happen. The organization could have gone any which way with some of the players that were available in those top few spots. Overall, I was very happy to be picked by Florida. I think my parents were even more happy than I was [Laughs]. They get to visit all the time now. It's been a great situation for them as well. It all worked out.

OLIVE: On a personal level, how much did it mean to be the top pick in the draft?

EKBLAD: It was really important for me. I remember being slotted in the two-spot for a long time and using that as motivation to work harder the next summer going into my final year in the OHL. It was a motivation piece for me to be No.1 overall. I'm a competitive person, you can ask anybody in my family about that. It was something that I wanted to do. I put my mind towards that goal and it all worked out.

OLIVE: Did those high expectations ever weigh on you during your time in juniors?

EKBLAD: Like I said, you want to have that quiet confidence that you can take into every game, every year in the OHL. It makes you a better player. I had my ups and downs like every other player did and I'm sure I was slotted anywhere between one and ten on that draft list. It was exciting, but also a very difficult time getting to that point. It was a relieving feeling after being drafted, but right then and there I knew the work was only beginning and that there was going to be a long road ahead to become an established, reliable defenseman in the NHL.

OLIVE: Do you remember how you celebrated later that night?

EKBLAD: I think we went out to dinner and then back to the hotel. We had a good time as a family.

OLIVE: I know you probably went home with a lot of souvenirs from your draft, but few are more important than your draft-day jersey. Is that kept in a special place these days?

EKBLAD: It's hanging up in the basement of my parent's place. They recently moved from their home - my childhood home - to a place I had originally purchased in Belle River, Ontario. Once that move is completely settled in they're going to set all that stuff up in the basement of the new place just like it was in the previous house.

OLIVE: You got to spend some time with the Panthers on the second day of the draft. What was that experience like?

EKBLAD: It was cool. I had some friends that were going to be drafted later on that day, too. It was a special experience to watch that and see some of the happiness of my friends and their cumulative efforts to get drafted into the NHL. It was definitely cool to be a part of some of the talks about who [the Panthers] were going to take. I obviously didn't make any suggestions, but it was great to be there and listen and be a part of it. It was a great day and fun to be a part of.

OLIVE: Not long after the draft, you headed to South Florida for your first development camp at the Panthers IceDen. Did you feel like there was any added pressure on yourself to impress after being the first-overall pick?

EKBLAD: I mean D-camp isn't much of an end all, be all. I didn't really go in there with any expectations. I was just going in there to play hockey. I think they'd just come off a fairly grueling playoff run. In the end, development camp isn't a high measure of what players are at that point. It's the middle of the summer. But I knew that I had a lot of work in front of me and it was good to see how good the players were in front of me that I'd be competing against. It helped me work on things and get ready to come back for training camp.

OLIVE: If you could travel back in time, what would you tell yourself on draft day?

EKBLAD: I feel like I've kind of rode the ups and downs as much as anyone else. I would say, "Don't take your foot off the pedal." I think I slowed down a bit during my third year in the NHL. It was an eye-opener for me that I had to work a little bit harder. I came back in my fourth year and had a bounce-back season. I would have liked to not have that happen, but it's a learning experience and I'll be better for it throughout the rest of my career.

OLIVE: If you could offer one piece of advice to Florida's incoming draft class, what would it be?

EKBLAD: You've only got your foot in the door. You've got a lot of work to do to become a regular in the NHL. A lot of times those early picks get thrown into the fire, sometimes too early, but in the end you've got to really put in the work on and off the ice to become the player that the team wants you to be to fill that role and that spot. In the end, it's a business and they're going to do what it takes to have the best players on the ice at all times. You've got to work your hardest.

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