The Ekblad brothers raced down the stairs to their basement and set up a shooting range in the corner. The older brother Darien strapped on his goaltending gear and stopped his little brother’s shots for hours.
“We had a blocker and a stick; sometimes we played with no shoes on. I remember breaking my brother’s foot one time,” Aaron Ekblad chuckled, as he shook his head. “It was pretty fun and we enjoyed it! We were always competitive and always pushed each other.”
Drafted first overall by Florida in 2014, Ekblad has just completed his 50th NHL game and has proved a difference maker for the young Panthers roster.Panthers rookie defenseman Ekblad grew up in the small town of Belle River, Ontario, Canada with his parents and older brother.
Growing up, Ekblad played other sports like basketball and baseball, but didn’t care for them as much as hockey. His parents supported their son playing hockey so long as he excelled in school. This motivated him to follow his passion. Whether it was playing the game in his parents’ basement or watching Nicklas Lidstrom from the Detroit Red Wings, Ekblad found his niche in hockey.
In 2009, Ekblad played minor hockey for the Sun County Panthers Minor Midget AAA. Two years later, he received “exceptional player” status by Hockey Canada for eligibility in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) at age 15. This allowed him to compete a year earlier than the eligible age.
The Barrie Colts selected Ekblad first overall in the first round of the OHL draft. During his three seasons in Barrie, he recorded 116 points (40-76—116). He was named the OHL’s most outstanding defensemen for the 2013-2014 season.
Ekblad appreciated his time with the Colts and thanks head coach and former NHL Hall-of-Famer Dale Hawerchuk, for molding him into the player that he is today.
“He was always creatively driven,” said Ekblad. “There’s a structure, if you’re not playing well, you fall back. If you’re playing well, then you build onto that structure. Use your confidence to make plays and that’s what he believed in and that helped me with my game.”
That confidence and craft led Ekblad down the road to the 2014 NHL Draft. Ekblad was anxious and excited with his family in Philadelphia, Pa. when Florida Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon stepped onto the podium and chose the 6-foot-4 Ontario native as the first overall pick of the 2014 Draft. This moment represented Ekblad’s hard work and dedication over the years and on September 3, 2014, he signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Panthers organization.
Ekblad adjusted to the Sunshine State quickly and loves waking up to warm weather. The rookie connected with fellow defenseman and Panthers Captain Willie Mitchell. The two even live together and paddle board and fish on their days off. Mitchell mentors Ekblad on and off the ice.
“He’s really smart about every aspect of life and hockey,” Ekblad said. “He’s really caring, him and his wife.”
Ekblad admires the NHL veteran not only for his character, but for his defensive skills on the ice. The rookie absorbs Mitchell’s style and positioning to improve his own skills.
“I try to follow what he does and learn what he does. His stick is always in good position and his body’s in great position all the time,” said Ekblad. “That’s what I need to learn.”
Since joining the Panthers, the 19-year-old averages about 20 minutes of ice time in games and surpassed Ed Jovanovski’s franchise record for most points by a rookie defenseman set in the 1995-1996 season (16). Ekblad is currently chasing agent Bobby Orr’s NHL rookie point total (41). Ekblad plays an intelligent defensive game. When the opportunity arises, he’ll join the offensive rush.
Ekblad looks up to his teammates, like Brian Campbell, Shawn Thornton, Nick Bjugstad and others for their work ethic and talent. Ekblad constantly searches for ways to improve his game. An ultimate learning experience knocked on Ekblad’s door.
The Panthers rookie, along with goalie Roberto Luongo, were selected to participate in the 2015 NHL All-Star Game in Columbus, Ohio. The two were drafted to Jonathan Toews’s team along with John Tavares, fellow rookie Filip Forsberg and other greats around the league. Ekblad absorbed the ways his teammates played during the All-Star Game and was attentive to details.
“I couldn’t get up to the speed of Shea Weber’s slap shot,” he laughed. “Just learning how he takes a shot and steps into it, little things like that that I can pick up on. I tried to be a sponge while I was out there.”
As for the rest of the season, Ekblad is motivated to help the team make the playoffs.
“It’s time to build ourselves a castle out of this hole and put ourselves in a good position so we don’t have to fight for games late in the season,” he said. “There’s fear and that’s a good thing. Fear can be a good thing sometimes and it can make you play with urgency and we believe in ourselves.”