COLUMBUS — In his own mind, when a “13- or 14-year-old” Aaron Ekblad sat down across the table from Bobby Orr for lunch, he figured there was a decent chance he was dining and talking hockey with his future agent. But the truth was, Orr already had the job. And really, was there ever going to be a better choice to rep an up and coming young defenceman than No. 4?
Aaron’s father David, an accountant described by his son as “a super smart guy,” had already decided on Orr.
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“I was happy with that, obviously. He’s one of the greatest players to ever play the game. I’m pretty lucky,” said Ekblad, whose outstanding rookie year got even a little bit better Friday when he was moved up to Sunday night’s All-Star Game roster to replace the injured Colorado defenceman Erik Johnson.
It seems that Bobby, the reason this writer wears the number four on his heart to this day, has had an even more profound effect on the young Florida defenceman. “He’s always there, always a friend. Someone you can lean on, and someone you can talk to about the game, or about life in general.”
And so goes the story of last spring’s No. 1 overall draft pick, who has at the same time landed on the Florida Panthers blue line and inside an incubator of blue line experience that even a “super smart” guy like Aaron’s father could not possibly have predicted.
Ekblad does not turn 19 until Feb. 7, yet if you built a franchise defenceman out of spare parts off of Sunday’s All-Star rosters, you would fashion exactly what Ekblad already is: 6-foot-3, 215 pounds; great with the puck, yet likely to be more than tough enough when he does not possess it. He is humble, well-spoken and impossibly handsome; Ekblad can quarterback the power play during the games, then front the team on-camera when it’s over.
There isn’t a tool that Ekblad didn’t bring with him to South Florida, and upon his arrival, there could not be a better environment for those tools to be polished.
You’ve heard of his agent. He could play some. The drive to the rink each day comes with teammate and billet Willie Mitchell, whose family has taken Ekblad in. Mitchell has played 839 games and won a Stanley Cup as an L.A. King.
During most practices, Ekblad has been paired with Brian Campbell, one of hockey’s most underrated, slick and heady defencemen. He’s a Cup-winner from his days in Chicago and will surpass 900 games played this season.
After practice, the Panthers’ TV colourman saunters into the dressing room for a few words. You may have heard of Denis Potvin, he of the 1,060 NHL games, four Cups and three Norris Trophies. In all, the four men from whom Ekblad absorbs the most insight in a given day combine for more than 3,400 NHL games, 11 Norris Trophies and eight Stanley Cup rings.
“I have a great support system, that has made it a little bit easier for me to step in, just play, and enjoy it. Three different generations, you could say,” Ekblad said. “They are all friends of mine, and all have different advice, day in and day out. I see Bobby quite a bit, ’cause he lives in Florida. Every day me and Willie break everything down, when it comes to the games and practices. I learn a lot from him. Mr. Potvin. He is always in the room for media stuff, and we often talk off the record about different things…
“It’s a good support system to have, that’s for sure.”
Orr, though, has clearly left an indelible mark on our young prodigy.
“I am very proud to call him a friend, and he is one of the genuinely nicest people I’ve ever met in my whole life,” Ekblad said.
As for his rookie season, could it be going any better for Ekblad? He leads all NHL rookie defencemen in goals (six), assists (19) and of course points (25). He ranks second in ice time (22:03) and plus-minus (plus-7).
The name Ekblad, though it is not Swedish for “horse,” might just be Latvian for “Franchise.” He surely appears to be that player around whom a savvy GM like Dale Tallon can construct something very worthwhile.
“Trying to find that consistency,” marveled Nashville defenceman Shea Weber. “I was 20 and 21 (as a rookie) — I can’t imagine doing it at 18 or 19. At that time, in junior, I probably thought I was ready. But looking back now, there was no way I could have played at that age. I was just too young, I wasn’t ready.”
This kid? He is ready. And when they announce that U23 team for the 2016 World Cup, you throw Ekblad on that blue line right next to Weber’s teammate, Seth Jones.
Said Ekblad, “I would be very excited and honoured to play if I were asked.”
Polite, humble. Truly, it’s quite a package.