Aaron Ekblad pauses on the other end of the phone. He lost his train of thought, he says, because he’s navigating a chorus of angry honks, stuck in traffic. He shrugs it off, keeps any road rage to a low simmer and resumes talking.
It’ll take a lot more than someone cutting him off on the highway to rattle him. That’s Ekblad for you. Since his early teens, his life has delivered nothing but change and/or unexpected roadblocks. As he reminds Daily Faceoff, he essentially left home for good at 15 when he became the second player ever to earn exceptional status in the OHL and play there as an underager. To borrow an expression he uses: he rolled with the punches. After the Florida Panthers made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, he sustained a concussion at Canada’s World Junior development camp that August, putting his health in doubt weeks before his first NHL training camp. He rolled with the punches. He sustained another concussion in spring of 2017 and that season ended in March for him. He rolled with the punches.
Even when he suffered a devastating broken leg on a freak play late in the 2020-21 season, he found a way to battle back in time for 2021-22 training camp. He did the same this past season when he endured another leg injury, costing him the final quarter of the Panthers’ record-breaking regular season and his best shot yet at a Norris Trophy. The sum of Ekblad’s career tells us he’s one of the NHL’s elite defensemen, a Calder Trophy winner and a star contributor to the reigning Presidents’ Trophy-winning franchise, but getting to where he is today has meant being knocked down and popping back up repeatedly.
But at 26, he can handle the haymakers. As has become a trademark for him since even his rookie year, he carries himself with a grizzled poise. He looks back at the start of his career and quips, “I was a kid then and I’m still a kid,” an ironically mature observation. He says he’s comfortable in his own skin, he knows who he is and he feels lucky to have bounced back from adversity.
“Anybody who’s been in my situation with multiple injuries back to back years, it comes with the territory of what we play,” he told Daily Faceoff. “There are times when I’m not the most professional or the most perfect with my attitude about it. When you’re injured or constantly rehabbing, it’s easy to say, ‘Screw this,’ or, ‘I don’t want to be doing this.’ But at the end of the day, it’s what you love, and you power through, and good things come of it.
“A lot of guys have gone through it and a lot of guys have had it a lot worse than me, and that’s the way I’ve looked at it. I’m blessed to be playing a game that I love and making the money that I do, and I try to keep that attitude up whenever I’m in those situations. At this point I’m kind of a pro when it comes to battling back from injuries and knowing what I have to do to stay in shape and come back stronger.”
From Ekblad’s perspective, the recoveries have been a war of attrition, fighting through any defeatist impulses, but the struggle has been largely internal. To those around him, he’s epitomized the determination required to make it back. That’s what allowed him to rejoin the Panthers in time for the 2021-22 playoffs and log close to 24 minutes a game across two rounds.
“His singlemindedness, his attention to detail, his work ethic, both in the severity of the work when he was here working, the frequency, his discipline, was remarkable,” said Panthers GM Bill Zito. “And he never complained. He never felt sorry for himself. He just said, look, it happened, OK, I’m going to do everything I can to get back and to help the team. And it was impressive.”
That mental strength and ability to adapt are what make Ekblad a natural leader. Zito calls him a “magnet” who draws others to him and will take on a leadership role organically in any situation. As Ekblad puts it, “I don’t think leadership is heavy lifting.” He doesn’t feel a burden when he’s rallying teammates to a group chat or taking them out to indulge them in his many hobbies, from golf to deep-sea fishing.
Even a born leader like Ekblad, however, wasn’t prepared for the news that blew up his world this summer. It changed things for the Panthers on a deeper level than any injury could. The trade call came through Friday night, July 22. The Panthers, reeling after being swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round of the postseason, went all-in on a personnel overhaul, acquiring star power forward Matthew Tkachuk from the Calgary Flames. The excitement over getting Tkachuk was palpable but, for a career Panther like Ekblad, the anguish over losing superstar left winger Jonathan Huberdeau and stalwart defenseman MacKenzie Weegar in the trade trumped any euphoria in the moment. They weren’t just teammates he tolerated professionally. They were two of his absolute closest friends on the team.
Huberdeau had debuted in 2012-13, two seasons before Ekblad, and the two had overlapped as teammates for eight seasons. Upon arriving in any new city, Ekblad said, he and ‘Huby’ would immediately drop their bags and find a dinner spot together. Weegar was Ekblad’s most common defense partner. He now wonders “who I’m going to spend time with now that Huby and ‘Weegs’ are gone.” So how did Ekblad find a way to process such an unexpected change?
“There is a correct way to answer that question, and that would be, ‘It’s a business and I’m sad to see (them) go but happy with the return. Realistically, yes, I’m very happy with Matthew as a player. I think he’s going to be great for us. But sad doesn’t even cover it when it comes to the two guys that we lost. They’re great friends of mine. I played with them for a really long time. It’s all part of the business, but at the end of the day it was a shock to see them go and to lose them as teammates. I’m going to try and stay as close as I can to those guys. They’re great friends and good people and I’m going to miss them a ton.”
Ekblad speaks almost longingly about who Huberdeau was, not is, as if grieving a friend whom he’ll never see again. But Ekblad knows he has to shake off the sadness and welcome the change. That’s where his natural leadership comes in. That’s where Zito was counting on buy-in from the guys wearing letters on their jerseys, from Ekblad to Aleksander Barkov.
“I think at some point it’s important for the success of the group that the leaders embrace the change as a positive,” Zito told Daily Faceoff. “I don’t think I needed their permission, but I do feel I certainly respect them as human beings first and as leaders and as significant drivers of the culture. So it’s important to them to understand and to embrace change.”
Roll with the punches. Shake it off, fire up the group chat and start getting to know the new Panthers, because there are a lot of them. Among the notable names gone from Florida’s Presidents’ Trophy roster: Huberdeau, Weegar, Mason Marchment and trade-deadline rentals Claude Giroux and Ben Chiarot. The new arrivals include Tkachuk, Colin White, Rudolfs Balcers, Nick Cousins, Marc Staal and Chris Tierney. It will be a busy training camp for Ekblad, getting his new teammates up to speed and forging a relationship with a new head coach in Paul Maurice.
All that after a summer that was just as busy away from the sport for Ekblad. In late July he married his partner of seven years, Dr. Dayna Mastronardi, in Miami. It was a wedding between two people who unknowingly grew up about 20 minutes from each other: Mastronardi in Leamington, Ont., and Ekblad in nearby Belle River, Ont. They met about 1,100 miles away in Florida, at a bar in Fort Lauderdale when she was on a family trip. She did all the wedding planning, he said, and, as per his motto, he rolled with the unexpected and had an amazing time.
The question had to be asked: for someone who tends to be unlucky with injuries and has to learn a lot about his body, does it help to be married to a doctor? Do Ekblad and Mastronardi try to keep their careers separate or does he come to her with anatomical questions?
“We have anatomical conversations,” Ekblad said. “In some cases where I’ve gone to the doctor and get the surgeon and they give me a diagnosis, I can go to her and be like, ‘Does this make sense? Explain it to me on a deeper level that I can understand in layman’s terms.’ That’s usually where it helps.
“Obviously I’m not old, I’m not saying I’m old, but as you get older you start feeling random pains in places where you don’t really know what that thing is. And I just ask her, and she’s like, ‘Oh, that’s your liver.’ Or, ‘That’s your kidney.’ And I’ll be like, “Oh, interesting, I wouldn’t have known that otherwise.’”
He even points out that, if he needs stitches or anything minor like that, she can save him a trip to the ER. Sounds like a marriage perfectly suited to help him adapt to whatever maladies come his way.
The way he sees it, he’s lucky, not unlucky. Yes, inopportune injuries have cost him a chance at some individual hardware, and it’s been a turbulent offseason. But he’s found a partner he loves, he’s playing the game he loves and he feels his star is rising.
“I’m happy with my career,” he said. “I’ve never been perfect, never will be perfect. I’m never satisfied. I work my butt off to get better every year. Trajectory wise over the last five years, it’s been better and better every season. And I’m just going to try and continue that into this year. I never put pressure on myself – never put undue pressure on myself that is too much or more than I can handle. I just set goals for points and assists and goals and what I want to accomplish as a defenseman.”
And there’s no telling what the current version of Ekblad can accomplish in a full season. He was dominant enough last season that he finished sixth in the Norris vote despite playing just 61 games. Per natural stat trick, over the past three seasons in 5-on-5 play, he grades out in the 94th percentile in goals per 60, the 95th percentile in primary assists per 60 and the 97th percentile in points per 60. He’s right there with the game’s elite.
So does the true superstar season finally happen for Ekblad in 2022-23? Maybe. He’s certainly good enough. But if it doesn’t, and more obstacles come his way, he’ll roll with the punches. It’s what true leaders do.