Aaron Ekblad would like to offer a reminder of a frequently forgotten fact: A mere 38 days separated him from being a normal player in the 2011 Ontario Hockey League draft. If he had been born in late December 1995, not early February 1996, the troublesome "exceptional status" label that's colored the narrative of his career would have never been an option.
"It's hyped up like crazy, but realistically it's a month and seven days difference," Ekblad said in a recent interview. "I was just like any other kid going to play hockey with some older guys. It worked out for me, and it was the right play in terms of development. … To me, it felt normal."
Exceptional status allowed Ekblad to enter the OHL as a 15-year-old, and he was clearly above average. He won rookie of the year honors as an underager and, by the end of his three-year tenure with the Barrie Colts, was considered the league's best blue-liner. He was physically, mentally, and emotionally mature. But Ekblad also raises a valid point about his birthdate and how certain labels can take on a life of their own.
"When he came to us at 15, he transitioned really well," Colts general manager Jason Ford said. Then, Ford added, the crazy comparisons started. "Somebody early on threw out the name Bobby Orr, which is not really fair. When you watch him, he's not that type of defenseman anyway. The person who threw it out there must not have seen him play."
It's all a little ironic nowadays, seeing as there's a strong case to be made that Ekblad is actually underrated and underappreciated at the NHL level. Sure, he created buzz during his Calder Trophy-winning debut with the Florida Panthers. What about in the four-plus years since? He's been largely forgotten amid a slew of injuries and the incremental nature of his development. Perhaps he's simply been out of sight, out of mind.
"He's in Florida. If he were anywhere else on the planet he'd get a lot more recognition," said Willie Mitchell, Ekblad's former teammate and mentor.