New-age rookies poised on and off ice

Every generation of legendary hockey players have a rookie card that marked the beginning of their ascent. And the latest crop of rookies hopes to add their name to the lofty list.

They’re here for their close-up, but the spotlight is nothing new.

About 30 NHL hopefuls—including the top three picks in June’s draft—gathered at Toronto’s Mattamy Athletic Centre Saturday morning to have their rookie card photos shot by Upper Deck as part of the NHLPA’s Rookie Showcase, which runs through the weekend.

Before posing for the cameras in their big-league jerseys, the youngsters made the media rounds, answering questions ranging from whether they collected cards as a kid to assessing their chances at earning an NHL job in September.

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While some of these teenagers are still getting used to all this attention, it’s remarkable how comfortable the majority of them seem with all the fuss. That was evident from the initial—and most significant—question of the day, when first overall pick Aaron Ekblad of the Florida Panthers had a little fun with the inevitable query regarding the concussion he sustained while attending Canada’s World Junior Championship summer camp a few weeks ago.

“How are you feeling?” asked the scribe.

“What are you talking about?” said the kid, with a wry smile.

(The answer, by the way, is that Ekblad’s symptoms have disappeared in the past week and he will be good to go when Panthers camp opens.)

Ekblad isn’t the first high-profile draft pick who seems completely at ease with the media and all this hoopla before playing his first professional game. And certainly, it’s not too hard for these kids to get a handle on the stock answers (to stock questions, in fairness) they’ll be facing for years.

But just looking at the body language of these teens tells you we’re in a different world now.

By the time these high-level players get drafted, most of them know as much about microphones as sticks. Sure, there are exceptions and always a few “I can’t believe this is happening” smiles, but the vast majority are anything but wide-eyed.

A lot of that has to do with the sheer volume of events prospects attend now. From development camps with their national programs to equivalent gatherings with their NHL clubs to things like the Rookie Showcase, they learn the drill pretty quick. Beyond that, the blogosphere has made it possible for fans to follow players from such early stages in their careers that, by the time they’re 18 or 19, it’s all almost old hat.

In the hockey world, days don’t get much more dog than the ones that fall in late August. Yet here these guys were, talking to a substantial amount of media while carrying themselves in a nonchalant manner that never belied the levelheaded things they were saying.

And all that before you could find their face on a rookie card.

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