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Aaron Ekblad

Aaron Ekblad was granted exceptional player status, which makes him eligible for the OHL draft a year early. (Photo by Julie Nowicki)

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Aaron Ekblad was granted exceptional player status, which makes him eligible for the OHL draft a year early. (Photo by Julie Nowicki)

Aaron Ekblad is a special player. An exceptional player, actually, a status earned by only a select few.

To be granted early entry into the Ontario League draft you really have to stand out - and not just on the ice. The player must not only be exceptional in games, but has to show academic and social maturity, something Ekblad emanates.

“Being an exceptional player - I don’t think I am an exceptional player,” Ekblad said. “I don’t think that word means much to me.”

On Thursday, Ekblad, a 15-year-old defenseman from Belle River, Ont., became just the second player to be given exceptional status, following the lead of John Tavares in 2005. Suddenly he’s been dropped into the media spotlight as the expectations surrounding him begin to take off.

Even though the 6-foot-3, 200-pounder is a bantam-aged player entering a midget-aged draft, he has played in the ’95 birthday age group for a few years, so the decision to apply for the jump seemed right to him and his family.

Though it wasn’t always clear-cut.

A Feb. 1 article in the Windsor Star on Ekblad noted he had decided not to seek exceptional player status. A little more than two weeks later, however, the process was underway as Ekblad discussed the option with his tight-knit family and decided it was best to take on the next monumental challenge.

 “At first we thought maybe playing at my own age would be good,” Ekblad said, “but we found a way to come together as a family and it was always my dream to be given this opportunity.”

It’s an opportunity that is far from guaranteed after applying, too. It’s worth noting that John McFarland of Richmond Hill, Ont., applied for the status in 2007 after dominating at the bantam level. His ambitions were rejected, though, and he waited until he was 16 to be drafted first overall by the Sudbury Wolves. McFarland is now in his third OHL season and was drafted in the second round (33rd overall) by the Florida Panthers last June.

So who is going to benefit from this decision? The Barrie Colts hold the first overall pick and while there are a few other excellent players available, namely Nicholas Ritchie and Darnell Nurse, it would be surprising if Ekblad didn’t wash up on the shores of Kempenfelt Bay. Still, the Colts haven’t made a decision on who they will pick.

Ekblad does bring a skill set to the table that is craved at every level of hockey: a big, mobile, puck-moving, hard-shooting defenseman. While many big blueliners are most commonly and, perhaps, unfairly compared with Chris Pronger or Zdeno Chara, Ekblad is projected to be in that mold. Nurse is as well, though two OHL scouts said they’d put Ekblad in that class before the 16-year-old member of the Don Mills Flyers because of his mix of hockey sense, athleticism and skill for a player his size.

“It’s kind of hard to find a deficiency in his game to tell you the honest truth,” said Jason Ford, assistant GM of the Colts. “He’s such a great kid and comes from a great family too, so that adds to the overall makeup as well.”

Modest and humble, the now-former Sun County Panther appears more than ready to take on all the challenges that will be presented to him at the next level. He’ll be facing competition up to five years older, which means five more years of muscle mass and high-tempo hockey experience. So to adjust, Ekblad is planning a rigorous off-season training program to make sure he gets off on the right foot wherever he lands next season.

But he isn’t expecting to dominate the league yet, even if the throngs of fans seeking the next big thing in our sport are.

“I don’t plan to overachieve in my first year, but find my way in the league,” Ekblad said.

This is only the beginning for Ekblad. Come September it will be a whole new world for him and a whole new buzz around the OHL. Because of the exceptional player status, all eyes will be on the defenseman now. But these are all challenges Ekblad and his family have seriously considered and ones they feel he is more than prepared to accept.

“Everybody wants to know what’s going on and I’m willing to be accessible whenever I need to be and whatever questions anyone has I’m willing to answer,” he said. “I plan to deal with it and I don’t see it getting in the way of my game.”

THN.com's Prospect Watch focuses on up-and-comers from the AHL, Europe, major junior, the NCAA and even minor hockey destined to become big names in the NHL.

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