Aaron Ekblad receives the Jack Ferguson Award as the OHL's top draft pick. (Aaron Bell/OHL Images)
BARRIE, ONT. – A little bit of history was written Saturday night just off Mapleview Drive when Aaron Ekblad, the first player since John Tavares to be granted exceptional player status and early entry into the Ontario League, notched his first goal (and point) of his junior career with a point shot on a man advantage against the Niagara IceDogs in a wild 8-6 win.
“It’s good to get out of the way,” Ekblad said after his seventh game of the season. “I was really looking forward to this opportunity to get that goal - the power play helped me out of course.”
And so begins the journey for the towering 15-year-old defenseman out of Belle River, Ont., who was the first overall pick by the Barrie Colts in the OHL's draft this past summer. To see him on the ice against 20-year-olds and facing top prospects such as Niagara’s Dougie Hamilton (picked ninth overall by Boston this past summer), you’d never guess he was the youngest player out there, not just because of his imposing size, but also because of the calmness with which he moves the puck.
There’s still a lot of learning and improvement ahead for Ekblad of course and the last place team in the OHL a season ago has done its best to incorporate him into an environment where development and winning is priority No. 1.
It’s a new era in Barrie full of promise and potential. The team added Jets prospect and point-per-game scorer Ivan Telegin from Saginaw in the off-season, though he’s currently nursing an injury. Barrie also brought in experienced OHLer (and THN.com insider columnist) Gregg Sutch from the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors to impart his wisdom on the team as it begins its climb back towards the post-season.
“One of the most important things I’ve stressed is the winning environment,” Sutch said. “Everything done off the ice and on the ice, practices, how you work out, that all comes together into winning. You can’t have sloppy practices, you can’t have sloppy workouts, you can’t have a sloppy routine, everything has to be to a tee if you’re a winning team.”
Playing on Barrie’s top defense pairing, Ekblad is being given every opportunity to shine by coach Dale Hawerchuk. After hearing about the challenges the OHL would present him and being coached on them for a number of months, Ekblad is quickly finding his comfort zone early in the season.
“Since that first game I’ve been confident in myself and my game,” he said. “The coaches are too. They put me out in key situations where I can prove myself and that’s what I’m trying to do.
“The last couple of games (Hawerchuk) is just telling me to ease into it. Work hard at the beginning and just make simple plays - and if I do that I’ll be able to produce offensively and defensively.”
The early returns are certainly impressive. As a defenseman, Ekblad’s stats won’t be as attention-grabbing as Tavares, who set a new goal-scoring record in the OHL during his days as a junior. On the contrary, the more inconspicuous Ekblad is the more successful his growth as an all-around player will be. He’s a different kind of exceptional player because of the position he plays.
If you happen upon a Colts game this season, though, it’s hard to miss Ekblad’s size. It’s also easy to forget he’s not eligible for the NHL draft until 2014.
“You have to remember he’s only 15 years old so it’s amazing what he’s doing right now for his age,” said the 19-year-old Sutch. “I know I wasn’t doing that well when I was 16 and I came in as a first-rounder. I’m very proud of him so far.”
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web editor. His column appears regularly only on THN.com.
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