COLUMBUS -- Twelve months ago, Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad was in a hotel in Sudbury, Ontario with his Barrie Colts teammates awaiting an Ontario Hockey League game the following afternoon.
Sunday, Ekblad not only participated in the 2015 Honda NHL All-Star Game at Nationwide Arena, the 18-year-old rookie had four assists in Team Toews' 17-12 victory against Team Foligno.
"I did not know that," Ekblad said, when told he finished with four points. "I probably made a pass from the bottom of our zone and we scored. It is not a big deal.
"It is just a fun experience. I'm really happy to be here. I just came in as a replacement, and I didn't expect to be playing in this game. It was cool, and all the guys in here were professionals and welcomed me with open arms. It was nice."
Ekblad was joined on Team Toews by forwards Filip Forsberg of the Nashville Predators and Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames. They have been three of the top rookies in the NHL this season, and all were given a chance to play in the game because of injuries to other players.
None looked out of place. Forsberg had two goals, and each was set up by Gaudreau.
"It was good. He set me up for two easy goals," Forsberg said. "The first he had a breakaway and I could just tap in the rebound and the second one was an open net after the pass. It just proves how good of a player he is."
Ekblad has had a phenomenal season with the Panthers, and he's a big part of why they're in ninth place in the Eastern Conference after selecting him with the first pick in the 2014 NHL Draft.
Another big reason is Panthers teammate Roberto Luongo, who was also his teammate Sunday. Luongo was able to provide Ekblad with a little veteran guidance.
"I was really happy for him," Luongo said. "It's a huge difference between just coming to play for the skills and playing in the actual game. I was really happy for him and told him to relax and enjoy it."
For a rookie like Ekblad, there was a bit of an adjustment to this style of game.
"I was sitting on the bench getting the shakes a little bit," Ekblad said. "I was trying not to try too hard. That's kind of like the thing to do almost. It is hard to do. I got chirped a little bit for trying too hard."
A year ago, Gaudreau was in State College, Pa., and had a goal and an assist to help Boston College defeat Penn State 3-2. He's been a creative force for the Flames in his first season as a professional.
Gaudreau was the last addition to the roster, finding out about 10 minutes before the 2015 Honda NHL Superskills competition on Saturday night that he would be joining Forsberg and Ekblad in the game Sunday.
His parents made a seven-hour drive Sunday to Columbus to be here for their son's first NHL All-Star game.
"It's been really special for me," Gaudreau said. "Growing up, I was watching this game and watching a lot of guys who have been in this game before. This weekend I got to be a part of it. I was extremely grateful.
"It was a great experience for me. Being a younger guy here was really special for me and getting to play in the game was even better."
Forsberg was in Rockford, Ill., on Jan. 25, 2014, and he was held scoreless in a 2-1 loss for his Milwaukee Admirals of the American Hockey League against the Rockford IceHogs. Last season was a learning experience for Forsberg, who entered the 2013-14 campaign with the possibility of becoming a regular for the Predators, but it didn't happen and he ended up spending most of the season in the AHL.
It has happened in 2014-15, and he has 40 points in 45 games. He's been vital for Nashville, which is fighting for a Central Division title after not making the playoffs last season.
"Obviously it is really great to be here with these guys," Forsberg said. "You've been looking up them for as long you can remember basically. It was really awesome."
Forsberg also made history. His goals were the first by a Nashville player in an NHL All-Star game.
"I just heard that," Forsberg said. "I got a text from my buddy about it. That’s all I know about it, but that is pretty cool."
Ekblad, Gaudreau and Forsberg could be together again at the NHL Awards show in June as the finalists for the Calder Trophy. They've all had an impact after being in markedly different situations a year ago, and they each had an impact Sunday while playing with some of the League's top players.
"It was just nice to meet a lot of guys and build relationships," Ekblad said. "That’s what this game and life is about. It's meeting new people and enjoying it. I'm happy I'm here and just generally excited about it."
Author: Corey Masisak | NHL.com Staff Writer