There are those who wonder if the Ontario Hockey League is being too liberal with its application of Exceptional Player status. But for the now-17-year-old defenseman who was the second to burst through those now-open floodgates, the key to exceptional status is the ability to be a normal, functioning, part of a junior team.
“You just have to be physically mature,” explained Aaron Ekblad, a defender for the Barrie Colts, who started the OHL Championship series last Friday against the London Knights. “You’re going to have a lot of guys who are going to be coming after you. You kind of have a target on your back. I guess you just have to stay confident. It’s a lot of mental preparation as well as physical.
“As long as you can stay positive and stay optimistic about every game and be up and ready to go, that’s all you need to be an exceptional player. It’s no different than any other player in the league.”
Ekblad was not the first to obtain exceptional player status — that honor went to John Tavares in 2005. The Belle River, ON native was the first defenseman, though. Since his successful application, the Erie Otters’ Connor McDavid (2012) and Mississauga Steelheads’ Sean Day (2013) have also received the designation. Ekblad said that this is good for the league and doesn’t represent a watering-down of the status.
“It’s great for the league and the players,” he said. “I think for a young player like myself, [Connor McDavid], Sean Day, or even John Tavares years ago, is able to achieve something like that and is good enough and mature enough to come into the league and play a big role on any team, I think it’s important.
“It’s important to have that diversity on the team and to have younger players be able to learn so early and to get that experience coming into the league early is a great opportunity.”
While his contact with Day was limited (“He texted me once or twice — just little conversations here and there.”), Ekblad’s interaction with McDavid was far more involved. And it was the culmination of years of dreaming.
“McDavid is a good friend of mine and we’ve actually talked about this years and years ago before it was even possible in our heads to get exceptional status,” Ekblad added. “We talked about it and I just told him, ‘Stay confident and the league has its ups and downs.’ Every night something bad can happen, so you can’t get too high or too low.
“You have to take everything as a learning experience and remember that you have years to come and one little mistake is not going to ruin your career.”
In many ways, Ekblad was echoing the advice of the man who helped him come to his own decision to apply for exceptional player status. Ekblad counts as an advisor NHL legend Bobby Orr.
“It’s huge. I’ve had him around for quite a while now — at least since I was 13 years old — and he’s definitely a mentor to me,” Ekblad said. “He’s similar to a father figure to me; he’s always there and always willing to talk. He’s been through it all. He’s been in a similar situation, coming into the league at 14.
“When I was considering applying for exceptional status, I asked him if he had any regrets about what he did and he said, he had no regrets. And that kind of helped ease any concerns I may have had.”
Although he’s not draft eligible until 2014, Ekblad said he’s starting to transition into taking a leadership role on the ice. With two solid playoff runs and two outstanding seasons under his belt (10 goals, 29 points in 2011-12; seven goals, 34 points this year — along with nearly a point-per-game performance to date in the OHL playoffs with seven goals and 16 points in 19 games), he feels he’ll be ready next season.
“I’m still learning from the other guys on the team, that’s for sure. Ryan O’Connor and last year Colin Behenna, have been my two captains and two guys that I have been able to learn under. I’ll have an opportunity to step up and take more leadership roles,” Ekblad said. “Here in the playoffs, I can step up when I need to. That’s all I can say, I guess. I haven’t been given that association to a leadership role — but I feel as if my experience coming into the playoffs this year, having lost last year, has been huge and it’s been helping us out.”
Last year, the Colts entered the playoffs as the third-ranked squad in the OHL’s Eastern Conference. After defeating the Mississauga St. Mike’s Majors in six games, they fell in the conference semi-finals to the Ottawa 67's in seven games — a series loss that came after the Colts took a 3-1 lead.
This year, history almost repeated itself in the Eastern finals as the second-ranked Colts took a 3-1 lead on the top-ranked Belleville Bulls, only to have the Bulls charge back to tie the series. Barrie prevailed, on the road, in Game 7 — a fact Ekblad attributed to the team’s experience.
“Without a doubt, we’re learning from winning,” he added. “Last year I learned how to win a playoff series and then losing in seven games to Ottawa helped every guy in that room — having that experience last year definitely helped.”
Ekblad has enjoyed a solid two seasons to date and cuts an imposing figure on the ice — especially considering his 6’5” size. But he’s committed to improving every facet of his game.
“My foot speed is the biggest thing [I need to work on],” Ekblad said. “I’m a big guy and I can push guys off pucks, but my foot speed and being a quick, puck-moving defenseman is kind of my biggest downfall I guess.
“I wouldn’t say I’m slow, but I’m not exactly the fastest guy in the league.”
In the off-season, he’s expecting to put in more hours to improve, but he hopes that off-season’s arrival is delayed a few more weeks.
“Every part of my game, though, can be improved and polished,” he said. “There are a few guys back home that are specific skating guys that I’ll probably go see. I’ll probably go see a figure skating coach too — all of that is great for skating and balance.
“I’m not totally focused on that yet, though. I’m pretty focused on this upcoming game.”
And while that focus on hockey is strong, it’s not absolute. After all, maturity was one of the factors in consideration during his exceptional status. “Hockey’s my main highlight, but I’m still trying to focus on school,” he said. “I always want to have that back-up plan. I’m taking a lot of sciences and math.”
So with two years under his belt, would Ekblad do it all again? There’s no question in his mind.
“Yes, for sure. Without a doubt. It was my decision. It wasn’t my parents or anyone else’s — it was mine and it was a great decision. I’m happy to be here in Barrie, especially to be on our way to hopefully winning a championship,” he said. “I’ve had a great time so far and have played with two very, very good teams. I’ve had a lot of good defense partners over my time, as well. It’s been a good run so far.
“I’ve been able to win Rookie of the Year and some of those other little accolades, which are pretty meaningful, but to win an OHL championship is my main goal and the team’s main goal — and that’s all that I’m thinking about.”