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Strapping D-man enters third season with Barrie Colts

By Gene Pereira, Special to Postmedia Network

Barrie Colts defenceman Aaron Ekblad says he has come to training camp in the best shape of his life. MARK WANZEL PHOTO

Barrie Colts defenceman Aaron Ekblad says he has come to training camp in the best shape of his life. MARK WANZEL PHOTO

Aaron Ekblad drove to the net hard, but just as the Barrie Colts defenceman got there he was suddenly hauled down.

He looked at the referee standing behind the net, but the official’s arm never went up.

There was no call.

A disgusted Ekblad picked himself up and began to skate to get back in the play, but not before giving the official an earful for what he thought was a sure penalty.

That kind of intensity on the ice is far from a surprise from the third-year Colts blue-liner.

The topper? It came during the first day of scrimmages at Colts training camp.

Ekblad hates to lose. Never mind a game or shift, he can’t stand it when he doesn’t win a battle for a loose puck.

Word is he was none too impressed with himself when first-round pick Matt Kreis edged him for the fastest time in the fitness testing race on the opening day of camp.

This is a huge year for Ekblad, the second player ever granted ‘exceptional status’ by the Ontario Hockey League.

The first-overall pick in the 2011 OHL Priority Selection, he could repeat the feat at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft next June in Philadelphia.

While most early prospect rankings have Kootenay centre Sam Reinhart (son of former NHLer Paul Reinhart) and Swedish forward Willie Nylander ranked ahead of Ekblad, it wouldn’t be a major surprise if the Belle River native found his way to the top of the draft.

“My mind is not completely on that,” the 17-year-old said of the possibility of going first overall. “Of course, (the NHL draft) is something that is going to be looming over my head the whole year, but it’s important that I focus on being a leader on the ice and working as hard as I can.

“I know at that time I’ll have put myself in the best possible position,” added the six-foot-four, 213-pound defenceman. “Where I get drafted isn’t so much the worry. I’m just excited to be there and, again, I’ll put myself in the best possible position.”

Ekblad continues to improve his game in leaps and bounds.

Right from the first time he stepped on the Barrie Molson Centre ice, Ekblad has been a force on the Colts blue-line.

As a 15-year-old rookie, he was not only one half of the club’s top pairing on the blue-line, with veteran Reid McNeill, he also saw major minutes killing penalties, played some on the power play and when the game was on the line, he was out there.

Ekblad was the easy choice that season to be named the OHL’s rookie of the year.

Last season, he was easily among the best defenders in the game and was one of the major reasons the Colts went to the last second of Game 7 of the OHL final against London.

This year?

Well, just consider Ekblad says he’s in the best shape of his life after a rigorous summer of working out.

Yeah, sounds like Barrie fans are in for a treat.

“It’s the biggest jump I’ve ever had,” Ekblad said of his conditioning. “In the years before (this one), I was a little chubbier ... (and) I wasn’t as fast as I am now. Obviously, that comes with age and maturity as well.

“You realize this is probably one of the biggest years of my life, the biggest jump I needed to make, so I’ve got to be ready over the next couple of years: Do the little things, get better in the gym and get better on the ice.”

The Colts have had some great talent on the blue-line over the years. From Martin Skoula to Erik Reitz and Jeremy Swanson to Alex Pietrangelo, all were among the best OHL defencemen during their junior careers.

Pietrangelo is one of the NHL’s rising stars and was even invited to Canada’s Olympic team summer orientation camp recently. And few would be surprised if he represented Canada at the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.

So yeah, he’s kind of a big deal.

Dare I say, Ekblad may even be better.

Still, it helps the young star that he has plenty of people who’ve been in his shoes and know the importance of staying grounded.

Ekblad belongs to the Bobby Orr group, a guy who knows a thing or too about big expectations and playing defence.

Behind his bench with the Colts, Ekblad has another Hockey Hall of Famer in head coach Dale Hawerchuk.

Winnipeg Jets prospect and former Colts star Mark Scheifele often spoke of how great it was to have Hawerchuk to lean on, to offer advice during a draft year that can easily spin out of control with all the hype.

And just like Hawerchuk was there for Scheifele, he’ll be there for Ekblad.

“We will as the season goes on,” Hawerchuk said of offering advice to his star defender. “Right away, I notice he’s trying to do too much, which a lot of guys do the first few days of camp. Once they learn that the puck moves quicker than they move, they figure that out pretty quick again because you get rocked a couple of times.”

As Ekblad has matured and grown confidence, he’s taken his offensive game to a new level. During last season’s Eastern Conference final against Belleville, it was often Ekblad leading the rush or scoring a big goal when the Colts needed it most.

His shot is a pure rocket from the point and with Ryan O’Connor off to the pro game, Ekblad will take over the role of quarterback on the Colts’ power play this season.

Still, Ekblad prides himself on his play in his own end. The responsibility to first and foremost keep the puck out of his net.

“I wouldn’t say I play a flashy game at all,” he said. “I try to keep it simple as much as possible and confidence is huge. I’m just trying to bring a little more to the table.”

Ekblad is also looking to be a leader. He was named captain of Canada’s under-18 squad at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament last month and helped lead them to a gold medal.

With O’Connor gone, Ekblad says he’d be honoured to sport the ‘C’ and carry that leadership role. “It’s something I’m shooting for, for sure,” he said.

Hawerchuk hasn’t named a captain yet, but he doesn’t deny that Ekblad’s name is in the mix.

“For sure, he’ll get consideration,” the coach said. “He’s a solid citizen, so he definitely has that in his makeup.”

Ekblad says he’s not a huge talker and instead he prefers to lead by example. Sporting the captaincy for Canada gave him the confidence he can do the same for Barrie if given that responsibility.

Even if he isn’t named captain, which it says here would be a surprise, Ekblad plans on providing leadership in anyway it’s needed.

“Being a captain there (at the Hlinka tournament) is going to help me be a leader here,” Ekblad said. “Winning that medal is a huge confidence booster coming into this camp. I heard a lot of good things about myself from the players I played with, so I’m excited to come in here and get the season going.”

For all his intensity, Ekblad is loved by his teammates. It’s kind hard not to, says his defensive partner Jonathan Laser.

“I love playing with him,” Laser said. “I got to play with him last year and he’s a special player and a treat to play with.

“This year is a big year for him,” Laser added. “He got so much better over last year and I see the same improvement over this summer. He’s so good and he just continues to get better.”

Something fans don’t know about Ekblad, Laser says, is his sense of humour.

“He’s a little bit like a goofball,” Laser said with a laugh. “He looks like he’s 16 years old, but he acts like he’s four years old.”

Keeping that sense of humour and regular grin on his face will be important for Ekblad. He’s experienced the hype machine and the expectations when he came into the OHL, but that will go to a new level as the season goes on and the NHL draft nears.

Seldom has Ekblad lost focus. For all his teammates playful insistence that he’s a goofball, anyone who is met him knows Ekblad is mature beyond his years, both on and off the ice.

He appears more ready than ever to take on all the expectations and pressure that will be heaped upon his young shoulders.

Of course, this is a huge year for Ekblad. But for reasons more than just the NHL draft.

Talk to him and it’s not long before he brings up the crushing Game 7 loss to London. He and his teammates came that close to winning a championship and playing in the Memorial Cup.

The Colts are expected to be among the top teams in the Eastern Conference again this season and what better way to head into an NHL draft than leading your junior team to a championship season.

A winning year could, of course, not only benefit Ekblad in the NHL draft, but help teammates such as Brendan Lemieux or Erik Bradford, or help overagers Zach Hall and Mitchell Theoret land pro contracts.

“Of course, (NHL managers) want winners,” Ekblad said. “Our team, if we win this year, obviously that will increase my stock and the stock of other guys on the team.

“The way to do that is to win hockey games.”

And that starts in training camp.

Even if it means letting an official know about a missed penalty call in a scrimmage.

Gene Pereira covers the Barrie Colts for the Barrie Examiner.

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