Sixteen-year-old Aaron Ekblad is the OHL's top rookie (OHL Images)Ability has never been in question with Aaron Ekblad — it was always just a matter of believing how soon he could thrive in the Ontario Hockey League after entering at age 15.
The Barrie Colts defenceman, heralded as a future great blueliner out of Canada, added another accolade on Thursday when he was honoured with the Emms Family Award as the OHL's rookie of the year. In doing so, Ekblad matched the 2005-06 feat of the previous player, current New York Islanders centre John Tavares, who entered the league a year early with the Oshawa Generals after receiving exceptional status. Perhaps more impressively, Ekblad is just the fourth defenceman to win and first since Bryan Berard did so 17 seasons ago.
Such is the fast track Ekblad is on that he's in position to offer advice to the presumptive top two picks in this weekend's OHL priority selection draft. Centre Connor McDavid, whom the Erie Otters are expected to draft No. 1 overall, received exceptional status to enter the league this year like Ekblad did. The Kingston Frontenacs are expected to use to the No. 2 pick on Roland McKeown, a defenceman who's been compared to Ekblad.
"I've been contact with both of those guys recently," Ekblad, 16, said on a conference call Thursday. "They've been asking me questions about confidence. A good piece of advice that [Barrie coach and Hockey Hall of Famer] Dale [Hawerchuk] has always told me is look at the good things. Look back at what's happened that's positive and learn from that. You're going to make your mistakes and you're going to get down on yourself at times, but it's good to focus on the positives. That's the best advice I can give those two."
The 6-foot-3, 207-pound Ekblad tallied 29 points in 63 games while helping the Colts improve from 10th and last in the Eastern Conference to fourth. He was second in scoring among rookie rearguards after London's Olli Määttä, who is two years older and already has two world junior championships under his belt. It wasn't all a smooth ride, though.
Ekblad admitted to being a bit gutted after his Team Ontario, mirroring Canada's national junior team, fell short of the final at the World Under-17 Challenge in early January. The tournament is often a springboard into the second half of the season for first-year players. Instead, the bronze-medal finish set him back a bit, especially since the event was in Windsor, Ont., virtually the hometown for the native of nearby Belle River.
"This Christmas at the U17, that was huge," Ekblad said. "We obviously wanted to win that and coming back [to regular OHL play], it was a little bit depressing. Me and [Colts teammates] Alex Yuill went through that together and we helped picked each other up. That's where Dale came in and said, 'look at the good things.' We did a lot of good things. Sometimes things just don't work out. It happened and it's important to learn from that and carry it on to the rest of our careers."
Ekblad received 70 of a maximum 95 points in balloting by the league's general managers, who could not give their first-place vote to their own player. Kitchener Rangers centre Radek Faksa, 18, was runner-up with 55 points. London Knights centre Max Domi was third with 26. The Guelph Storm's Hunter Garlent, Sudbury Wolves' Nathan Pancel and Peterborough Petes' Nick Ritchie were also finalists.
Faksa was the top yearling point-getter with 29 goals and 66 points. However, he's also two full years older than Ekblad. The Czech Republic native did help the Rangers replace some of the offence they lost when former captain Gabriel Landeskog turned pro at age 19 with the NHL's Colorado Avalanche. The Rangers, though, stayed at the same rung in the standings, repeating their third-place finish in the conference.
The Colts, in contrast, improved by a whopping 51 points. Ekblad was but one catalyst in that, but the strides he made were of a piece with the team's resurgence. He was regularly logging 20- to 25-minute nights by the end of the season's first half. He also helped the Colts finish strongly with 22 wins in their final 34 games. Their six-game first-round win over Mississauga has earned them a second-round date with Ottawa which begins on Good Friday (7 p.m. ET, Rogers Sportsnet).
"It's been a great turnaround season for us and Aaron has been a big part of that," Hawerchuk said. "He's pushed himself to keep up with so-called older boys. He's been a treat to coach, but he's been so dependable for us, playing top minutes against other teams' top lines which are usually 19- and 20-year-olds. He's been one of the key ingredients that's pushed our team to another level and we're so happy that he was available last year. He's made a huge difference in our program."
It's a far cry from what Ekblad experienced when he arrived at training camp last summer.
"I came out and a lot of the older guys had their NHL gear on and stuff like that," says Ekblad, who joined the Peterborough Petes' Matt Puempel in becoming the second top rookie in three years who played for the Sun County Panthers midget AAA program and coach Todd Lalonde. "It was a little bit intimidating. Once I got out there and was able to feel the puck and move on into the [Colts'] Blue-White [intrasquad] game, then the preseason, things started to get easier. I was able to manoeuvre around the ice and my teammates were able to use me confidently and I was able to use them. Things started to slow down."
Ekblad will surely have some buzz for Team Canada before he's up for the NHL draft in 2014. He cited a couple of the Colts' veterans for helping with his transition this season.
"I live with [forward] Norm Ezekiel, He's helped me a lot, he plays a big role, a little bit of a fighter, a little bit of a tough guy. And, of course, Reid McNeill, who's been my defensive partner all year, has been a big help. But the whole team's been huge in helping me maintain my confidence all year."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.