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Aaron Ekblad, Team Canada's 'man-child,' a pillar of strength on the blueline

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Canada's Aaron Ekblad, Nic Petan, Sam Reinhart and Curtis Lazar celebrate Petan's s empty net goal. (Reuters)

MALMO, Sweden Aaron Ekblad stood behind a partition in the media mixed zone and watched intently as teammate Mathew Dumba was being interviewed.

As it turned out Dumba was talking about Ekblad. The pair are roommates together here with Team Canada, so the blueliners have been able to get to know each other quite well.

“He has the body of like a 35 or 40-year-old,” said Dumba of the 17-year-old defenceman. “The guy shaves his chest every week. I can’t believe it, he’s a man-child.”

Standing there, eavesdropping, all Ekblad could do was smile and shake his head. But Dumba wasn’t finished quite yet – there was still more.

“I don’t know, he’s just a huge human being,” said the defenceman, who spent the first half of the season with the NHL’s Minnesota Wild.

“I call him Shrek.”

The response elicited laughs from reporters.

It wasn’t long before Ekblad got his turn to speak to the same group of reporters as Dumba moved down the interview line.

“I’m not sure I like it too much,” said the Barrie Colts blueliner of the ogre-inspired nickname. “I mean I like Shrek, but I don’t think I look like him or anything like that.”

At six foot four and 217 pounds, Dumba’s ‘man-child’ description might be more apt. It’s Ekblad’s first time at the world junior championship, but you wouldn’t know if from the way he’s helped anchor Canada’s blueline along with defence partner Derrick Pouliot.

Even his older teammates are impressed by his poise under pressure.

“I think it’s something you’re born with,” said returning defenceman Griffin Reinhart. “It’s an ability that you have and some players have it and some players don’t – but he’s got it.

“He thinks the game really well. That’s what makes the really great players, great. It’s something you can’t really teach.”

In the Ontario Hockey League, where he’s captain of the Colts, he has also proven to be a leader showing wisdom beyond his years. It’s no surprise Hockey Canada granted him exceptional status to play in the OHL a year early as a 16-year-old. He was taken with the first-overall pick in the 2011 OHL draft and wound up being named as the rookie of the year after a successful campaign which saw him score 10 goals and 29 points in 63 games.

This year with the Colts, Ekblad has continued to contribute offensively as well with 10 goals and 15 points in 29 OHL games while playing for Barrie head coach – and Hockey Hall of Famer – Dale Hawerchuk. When it comes to his own expectations, he keeps the bar set extremely high.

“Some people set goals for themselves that are even keel so that they can meet it,” said Ekblad. “The goals I set for myself are too high to achieve at times - more or less because you can never be good enough. You can never be satisfied with your last game.”

Ekblad is the top-ranked defenceman for the June NHL entry draft in Philadelphia while Reinhart’s younger brother, Sam, 18, is currently the consensus top forward. The native of Belle River, Ont., said playing in the tournament has been an adjustment to what he’s used to in the OHL, but that the experience has provided him with some valuable lessons.

“I’ve just learned that every level it’s just going to get faster and faster and you have to be ready for it,” said Ekblad, a right-handed shot. “You can’t make the same mistakes twice, so you have to take in everything out there and realize you’re going to get better and learn different things every day.”

Team Canada head coach Brent Sutter called Ekblad a “sponge” when it came to taking in new information and soaking up the finer points of the game. The fact that he’s been able to learn from his mistakes so quickly is one of the things Sutter said makes Ekblad such an effective defenceman.

“He’s an elite-level player for a young man,” said Sutter. “He’s a strong guy and he understands the game.

“At the same time there are young kid’s mistakes when you’re playing at this level that are going to happen, but he learns from it… he’s an intelligent player and he picks things up pretty quickly. You don’t have to tell him twice.”

On the back end, Ekblad has been logging substantial minutes – particularly earlier in the tournament when Griffin Reinhart had been out of the lineup serving a three game suspension. But even with Reinhart back, Ekblad has proven himself to be one of the more reliable defencemen at Sutter’s disposal. There’s no doubt he’ll called upon on Thursday in Canada’s quarter-final game against Switzerland to support goaltender Zach Fucale.

“It’s no secret if I say that he plays beyond his years,” said the 18-year-old goalie, who was outstanding in Tuesday’s victory over Team USA. “He doesn’t look 17 out there and he’s been playing very well for the team and that’s good for everyone.”

In hindsight, it’s funny, because Ekblad admits he didn’t think he’d be making this trip to the world junior tournament – let alone be a valued contributor.

“Honestly in September I didn’t expect to make this team,” said Ekblad. “Just the hard work to get here and the hard work it takes to keep on going in this tournament – I’m happy to be playing those kinds of minutes.”

 

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