To this day, when Mattias Ekholm recalls his best memories in the game of hockey, he's back in Sweden, a young boy on the ice with his friends, learning the game without a care in the world.
That first sensation of a pair of blades gliding along, the breeze in his face, the feel of the puck on his stick - there's nothing like it.
That's the feeling he wants all children to experience for the first time - especially those who may not have the same opportunities as others their age - and that vision is becoming reality in Nashville.
The Predators defenseman and his fiancée, Ida Bjornstad, have launched On Ice with Ekky, a six-week program full of hockey curriculum to be taken through public education classes in local schools. It's an endeavor they've already taken on back home across the Atlantic, and the next logical step was to enact something similar in the only NHL city Ekholm has ever known.
"Hockey is an expensive sport. Unfortunately, that's just the reality of it, and everyone can't afford all the gear and the skates," Ekholm said. "We were thinking, and we all got together and decided to do this program where we have equipment for school kids. We're aiming toward different schools and trying to get more kids to try hockey where they actually have all the equipment, and all of their needs are taken care of… We're just trying to get more people involved with it, and I think it's going to go a long way to helping more kids discover the sport."
On Monday afternoons, a P.E. class full of fourth graders leaves the gym at Lighthouse Christian School and heads for Ford Ice Center Antioch to get suited up. Once they've changed into their complimentary equipment, they take to the ice with the help of Preds youth hockey instructors and learn the game for the first time.
Just two weeks into the six-week session, reviews are already in - and the participants are discovering exactly where Ekholm's passion for the game comes from.
"The kids are actually being active, they're on their feet, they're on the ice and they have shown great progress in just two visits alone," Lighthouse Christian Upper Elementary Teacher Miranda Ranson said. "We are so incredibly grateful for Mattias and the Preds. The kids absolutely love it, and every single Monday they say, 'What time do we get to go to the Preds?!' They're very excited, and we're very grateful."
Bjornstad has also joined the children on the ice the past two weeks, and now that Ekholm is back in town after a 10-day road trip, the blueliner will be making an appearance next Monday as well.
"Ida has said the kids loved it, and they thought it was so much fun to be out there," Ekholm said. "Then they went the second time and some of them were even skating on their own… It's a process, but she said they saw some great progression and all the kids were having fun. It's been a great turnout so far."
With the ultimate goal in mind, the hockey won't stop after the six-week session, if desired. After the curriculum is complete, the players will have the option to continue along in the Predators youth hockey programs. If that's the path they choose, Ekholm will help contribute to those endeavors, too.
Music City is more than just a place for the Swede and his family to reside while he plays hockey during the season. It's become home, and he wants nothing more than his fellow Nashvillians to fall in love with the game just like he did all those years ago.
"It's a no-brainer to try to give back as much as you can, and this is something that comes close to heart for me," Ekholm said. "The fun I've had with hockey, all these youth tournaments and then playing games, making friendships, I mean even today 10 of my best friends are from when I played hockey at a young age. I guess that's kind of why it's close to my heart."