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COLUMN: Ekblad could be first former Colt to win Cup since 2014

Ekblad's Panthers and McDavid's Oilers face off in Game 1 of finals tonight

One of the Canadian Hockey League’s great promotional slogans — that it is the world’s best development league — plays out in technicolour on hockey’s grandest stage tonight.

A decade ago, led by Barrie Colts defenceman Aaron Ekblad, the top four picks in the NHL Entry Draft were all CHL players. Ekblad, Sam Reinhart (Buffalo/Kootenay), Leon Draisaitl (Edmonton/Prince Albert) and Sam Bennett (Calgary/Kingston) went 1-2-3-4 in that draft.

All four take centre stage tonight when the Florida Panthers host the Edmonton Oilers in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final.

If the Panthers win, Ekblad will become the first Colts alumnus the club developed to win the Stanley Cup since both Kyle Clifford and Tanner Pearson won it with the Los Angeles Kings in 2014. Alex Pietrangelo, who spent the last half-season of his OHL career with the Colts, won the cup last season when the Vegas Golden Knights defeated Ekblad’s Panthers in five games.

Ekblad, overcoming serious injuries from that playoff run, remains one of the leading contributors on the Panthers.

In a media availability earlier this week, Ekblad acknowledged events at the draft a decade ago coming together like they have is interesting, but not particularly important anymore.

“It’s cool. It is,” he said of the 2014 draft class’s top four selections spread between the Panthers and Oilers, before putting it in context:

“At the end of the day, the draft matters for one night. You see guys who were taken in the seventh round who are having fantastic careers — that’s a bit of a lesson. It doesn’t (matters) when you get drafted; you can all end up on the same team.”

Reinhart’s move to the Panthers and Bennett doing the same from the Flames since both were drafted has given rise to that scenario.

It hasn’t been a straight line, but in other ways for Ekblad.

Ekblad was granted exceptional status to enter the 2011 OHL draft and the Colts, rebuilding after a run to the league final, had the first overall pick. The player who arrived had plenty of talent, but his most notable quality was he seemed so much older than 15.

Ekblad was a man-child on skates while still a boy. Now 28, he’s still grown up plenty since then.

He is one of a handful of examples of elite NHL defencemen who have morphed into more of a two-way stud than what was first forecast when he came into the NHL. Ekblad won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie and two years ago had 57 points in just 61 games, but he has never been a serious contender for the Norris Trophy. Two years ago, he finished sixth, the closest he has ever been and likely will ever get to being named the NHL’s top blueliner.

In fact, he’s likely far down the list of best two-way defencemen, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t fulfilled expectations.

Looking beyond Ekblad’s personal story, he and Oilers superstar Connor McDavid have been linked virtually since they first laced up skates but especially since both went first overall a year apart in the NHL Entry Draft.

“I’ve had the joy and pleasure of watching him most of my entire life,” Ekblad said of McDavid. “He’s a year younger but always played up (with older players). It’s going to be fun managing that challenge.”

That pleasure and joy (and challenge) were on display twice at the Barrie Molson Centre a little more than a decade ago. No one could have foreseen — aside from a CHL propagandist — that a mid-week match-up in 2014 between Ekblad’s Colts and McDavid’s Erie Otters would, in a strange sort of way, be a preview of the Stanley Cup final a decade-plus-a-few-months later.

Ekblad had already played two seasons for the Colts and was one of the leaders on a team that had lost in heartbreaking fashion to the London Knights on a last-second, Game 7 goal to the Knights the previous season.

McDavid was a year-plus into his OHL career with the Otters.

The game in Barrie itself that night was not particularly notable — I can’t even recall who won, and the OHL online archives don’t go back that far — but there was a telling exchange between both players near the end. A scrum was developing, and both Ekblad and McDavid came together before they realized who it was they were about to engage. Instead of any roughhousing, they both gave each other a little tap.

I still remember the smile on Ekblad’s face and an equally goofy grin on McDavid’s just-turned-17-year-old mug as they both skated away to their respective benches.

A decade later, there will be no smiles until perhaps the handshake line that will take place sometime over the next fortnight.


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Peter Robinson

About the Author: Peter Robinson

Barrie's Peter Robinson is a sports columnist for BarrieToday. He is the author of Hope and Heartbreak in Toronto, his take on living with the disease of being a Leafs fan.
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