Ekblad is vying to be Team Canada's first 17-year-old defender since Ryan Ellis in 2009 (OHL Images)
The way Aaron Ekblad made up ground in order to cover more territory on the ice has been, well, exceptional.
The strides that Ekblad has made over the first half of his draft-year season with the Barrie Colts has affirmed Hockey Canada got it right when he was granted exceptional status to join the OHL in 2011, a year before his puck-chasing peers born in 1996. There was some wondering prior to last season, when Hockey Canada decided there were seven other defencemen more worthy of taking to the Memorial of Ivan Hlinka under-18 tournament, which is played on the 100-foot-wide international ice surface. Fifteen months later, with the U20 squad set to also go abroad, Ekblad is in the mix for a spot on the team's blueline even though he'll be the only undrafted defenceman at Canada's camp this weekend in Toronto. While a 17-year-old can never rest on his laurels, the potential NHL lottery pick will concede it's been a notable transformation over the last 15 months.
"It was a seven day a week thing," Ekblad, listed at 6-foot-4 and 216 pounds, says of the improvement in his acceleration. "I went back to my trainer Erik Brinkman at a place called BodyX. We did a lot of power and strength movements and a lot of things that will help me be more explosive. That was the goal throughout the summer — getting leaner and getting more explosive.
"A lot of the people told me that was my downfall, the thing I needed to work on the most," the Belle River, Ont., native adds. "It's as simple as that."
Team Canada has eight defencemen in camp and will have to cut one, or possibly two if the Toronto Maple Leafs loan 19-year-old Morgan Rielly for the world junior championship. Ekblad, who is fifth in defenceman scoring in the OHL with 10 goals and 25 points over 29 games for Barrie, believes he's learned from the Hlinka letdown in 2012. This summer, Barrie's big man captained Canada's gold medal-winning Hlinka team. Now he could become the rare player who wears the Maple Leaf in U18 and U20 tournaments during the same season.
"It was always a goal in my life," Ekblad says of the camp invite. "Once you get cut from a team it's an eye-opener. You realize there's a lot of work, a lot of effort that you need to put into exactly what you need to do. I figured that out and it's worked so far."
Ekblad has proven his mettle by helping the Colts go deep in the post-season in back-to-back years. No team has had more knee-buckling playoff climaxes than Barrie. In 2012, they lost out to Ottawa in Game 7 overtime in second round. In May, they had a 3-1 lead over London in the final but injuries and suspensions to star players wore down Barrie. The Colts still came within a pinged crossbar of taking a late lead in Game 7 on the road vs. the Knights before Vancouver Canucks first-rounder Bo Horvat, Ekblad's prospective Team Canada teammate, scored a buzzer-beating winner.
For Ekblad, that was something else for the hurt locker, to be turned into hunger.
"It was the ultimate sadness, the ultimate realization that it's over," Ekblad said. "It's a terrible feeling. But obviously it's a learning experience."
1. Most OHL fans know you wear No. 5 in tribute to Nicklas Lidstrom, but who are some contemporary NHL defencemen you watch closely — others who have size, but are mobile and contribute at each end?
"So far, I look at guys like Shea Weber, Brent Seabrook, all those guys who make great first passes and jump up and play defence well. Those are all guys i look at."
2. When you reflect on your first two years in the league, who stands out among the teammates you really learned a lot from?
"I learned the most in my first year from a guy like Reid McNeill. He didn't move on to play in the NHL yet, he's playing in the AHL right now [for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins]. He just taught me a lot about playing defence. He was a very calm defenceman. Didn't play a lot of offensive minutes. He was more of a defensive guy. But he taught me a lot: 'you have to talk out there, you have to help your partner out' and stuff. In my second year I had guys like Ryan O'Connor, as well as [current Winnipeg Jets rookie] Mark Scheifele — one of the hardest-working guys you'll ever meet."
3. What is your favourite road rink in the OHL?
"I love going home to Windsor, I love playing in London (where the Colts competed in the OHL final and won in a shootout during their only visit this season). Big-time rinks to play in, big-time teams usually."
4. What were you and your brother Darien (a goalie with the Chatham Maroons Junior B's who is the elder of the two by 19 months) like when both of you were little?
"He's always been a good mentor to me. Me and him were always similar in size. We used to play on this little basement rink where I would I shoot pucks on him. He wouldn't be wearing any gear other than a blocker, glove and stick. He'd be trying to save them and once in a while I'd throw one off his shoulder."
5. Between you and your billet house roommate Brendan Lemieux, who is tidy and who is messy?
"I'm the tidy one but my room gets really, really messy, like a bomb went off. He's just constantly messy. I'll clean it up once a week but he's just always messy." (Who has the nicer truck, though?) "We've both got nice trucks. He's got the Ford Raptor, I've got the Chevy Silverado. Probably two of the nicest trucks you can get. Mine's more luxurious, his is more off-road."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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