Panthers' top pick Ekblad welcomes father's guidance
In the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft, several young players added to their respective families' considerable hockey legacies. But there was no bigger name than Aaron Ekblad, the top pick by the Florida Panthers who credits his father, David, with helping him get to the NHL.
So in a draft filled with sons, brothers and nephews of NHL players, how did an accountant from Southwestern Ontario raise one of the world's top defensive prospects?
"He seemed to thrive on his own and didn't really need any push from me. I certainly don't want to get in the way of the coaches. You see how that goes sometimes," David Ekblad said. "I never really worried about it and just enjoyed the ride."
It might seem like a surprising philosophy from the father of a No. 1 pick, especially considering some of the company Ekblad kept at the 2014 draft in Philadelphia.
Like Sam Reinhart, William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen, each the son of a longtime NHL player and selected second, eighth and 22nd, respectively. Or No. 3 pick Leon Draisaitl, whose father, Peter, played professionally in Europe for 18 years. There's No. 10 pick Nick Ritchie, whose brother Brett is a Dallas Stars prospect, and John Quenneville (No. 30), the second cousin of Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville and nephew of Boston Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk.
A goaltender in his youth, David Ekblad stopped playing hockey when he was 16, but he's enjoyed plenty of success. A certified public accountant by trade, he is the chief financial officer of Flex-N-Gate, one of the United States' largest suppliers of products and systems for the automotive industry.
The elder Ekblad already had an indirect connection to pro sports through the company, which is owned by Shahid Khan, who also owns the Jacksonville Jaguars of the National Football League. Now he's the father of a future NHL star, an idea he never even considered just a few years ago.
"I play senior men's hockey. We joke that the mailman might have been involved or something," David Ekblad said. "I don't have the talent that he has, certainly not in hockey. I haven't really researched all the backgrounds of all the draftees, but I'm certainly no Reinhart or Nylander."
David Ekblad's limited hockey background aside, he still receives plenty of credit from his son, who remains poised to compete for a job in training camp despite sustaining a concussion last month while playing in an exhibition game for Canada's world junior team.
"I always credit my dad, for sure. He's one of the people I always turn to for advice in the game of hockey, even though he never played," Aaron Ekblad said. "Putting a stick in my hand, giving me a house with a perfect basement for shooting, overall supporting me every step of the way. He never was a coach and tried to stay away from the bench. All in all, a very enthusiastic, supportive, intelligent person."
Aaron Ekblad may not have inherited his hockey prowess from his father, but he does possess dad's size. Standing 6-foot-3, David Ekblad would also like to think he had a hand in Aaron developing the calm demeanor that earned as much praise from scouts as his mobility and hard shot.
Those traits came in handy in 2011, when Hockey Canada granted Ekblad "exceptional player" status, allowing the native of Belle River, Ontario to begin his junior hockey career in the Ontario Hockey League as a 15-year-old. The situation was further complicated for David and his wife, Lisa, when Ekblad was selected first in the OHL draft by the Barrie Colts, a team located 250 miles away from home.
"Even at that age, he had kind of a will of his own and knew what he wanted to do," David Ekblad said. "We each had a list of pros and cons and Lisa had a long list of cons and not too many pros. We sat down and went through them with Aaron. He had a good answer for every single one. He was able to convince his mother that this is good for him and he was going to be OK. He hasn't looked back since."
Playing for Hockey Hall of Fame member Dale Hawerchuk in Barrie, Ekblad won the Max Kaminsky Trophy last season as the OHL's best defenseman. Another Hall of Fame member, Boston Bruins great Bobby Orr, eventually came aboard as an agent and consultant.
Considering the legendary names surrounding his son, David Ekblad is perfectly happy stepping aside when it comes to on-ice matters.
"In terms of hockey, I'm sure he's going to Dale Hawerchuk or Bobby Orr. At least I hope he would," David Ekblad said. "We think of him as Aaron; we don't think of him as the hockey player. When he comes home, we treat him like anyone else. I expect him to cut my lawn and do things. Not that he always does, but nothing has ever changed."
David Ekblad may not be able to share a wealth of hockey knowledge with his youngest son, but as a Flex-N-Gate employee for more than a decade, he's happy to impress upon his son the importance of responsibly handling his money.
"That's my background. We've educated him along the way and shown him this guy went bankrupt and that guy made a lot of money and they didn't treat it properly," David Ekblad said. "If he gets that opportunity, I want to make sure he sets himself up properly for life."
Other than that, David Ekblad's influence on his son's hockey career is fairly limited. But elements of Aaron Ekblad's upbringing can be found here and there. If nothing else, David Ekblad raised an intensely loyal young man.
When asked to make a preseason Super Bowl pick, Aaron Ekblad picked the Jaguars, who have won six games in the past two seasons.
Why? Because dad works for their owner.
"He obviously doesn't know much about football," David Ekblad laughed.