World Jrs

Masters: 'Shrek' bolsters Canadian blue line at WJHC

Mark Masters
1/1/2014 8:24:49 PM
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MALMO, SWEDEN - Mathew Dumba has been rooming with 17-year-old Aaron Ekblad during the World Junior Hockey Championship and has noticed something about his younger teammate.  

"He has the body of like a 35, 40-year-old. The guy shaves his chest every week. I can't believe it. He's a man-child. He's like, I don't know, just a huge human being. I call him Shrek," said Dumba while a bemused Ekblad stood a few metres away shaking his head.

Dumba isn't the first person to notice that Ekblad, along with Kootenay Ice forward Sam Reinhart - a top contender to be the No. 1 pick in the next NHL draft, seems to be growing at a ridiculously fast rate.   

"The Shrek thing actually started with Boone Jenner when we were playing against the Oshawa Generals back in the day," explained Ekblad, a 6-foot-4, 216-pound defenceman, who plays for the Barrie Colts in the Ontario Hockey League. "A couple of the guys, [including] Michael Dal Colle, picked it up and a guy on my team, Brendan Lemieux, picked it up and some other guys started calling me that and it kind of caught on a little bit.

"I'm not sure I like it too much, though."

Wait a second. Is Ekblad not a fan of Shrek, a 2001 movie named for the main character, a large green ogre voiced by Mike Myers?   

"No, I like Shrek," Ekblad says not missing a beat. "I'm just not sure I look like him."

The quick-witted Ekblad, the second of now four players granted exceptional status in the OHL allowing them to be drafted at age 15, thinks just as fast on the ice. Despite being the second-youngest player on Team Canada, he has been among the top minute munchers while playing alongside Pittsburgh Penguins 2012 first-round pick (eighth overall) Derrick Pouliot. Ekblad has learned a lot from the Portland Winterhawks blueliner.

"Wow, poise, he's got so much poise and patience with the puck," Ekblad said. "He can hold onto the puck and just wait for the other guy to move and pull it back, pull it back ... paying attention that's what I've learned: just be more patient and poised with the puck and things will work out."

Being paired with Pouliot allowed Ekblad a chance to ease into an event normally dominated by 19-year-olds. 

"He's so good with the puck and so poised with it that it kind of lets me play more of a defensive game," he said. "I can kind of support him and let him do his thing and I'll be behind him if he makes a mistake or something like that."

But Ekblad would not be able to maintain his prominent role on Team Canada without an ability to adapt quickly. Head coach Brent Sutter has already shown the leash will be short with players regardless of age as 16-year-old Connor McDavid found out on Saturday. He was stapled to the bench after a pair of penalties in a loss to the Czech Republic and started the next game, Monday against Slovakia, as the 13th forward.

"With young kids mistakes at this level are going to happen," said Sutter, "but Ekblad learns from it. He's a sponge for the game. That's what happens with an intelligent player: they pick things up quickly. You don't have to tell him twice. He gets it pretty quick."

"If he does something a little off he'll correct it right away," Pouliot said. "That's what you have to do at this tournament and it shows how mature he is that he's able to make those switches on the fly."

The latest tweak Ekblad has made has to do with the defensive side of his game.

"I didn't block a shot in the Czech game, which was one of the things I've been focusing on a lot since then," the Belle River, Ont. native said. "In the U.S. game I had quite a few blocks and tried to focus on making sure no pucks are getting through to the net."

At Wednesday's practice, Ekblad and his teammates drew the ire of Sutter for a sloppy start to a drill. And Ekblad received the message loud and clear.

"You can never be too precise. The takeaway was: let's get pucks on the stick. Let's do things right and things will work out for us."

Ekblad has remained even-keeled even as Canada stumbled at times during the round robin.

"It's been a roller-coaster of emotions throughout this entire tournament so far," he admits.

It's also been a learning experience.

"I've just learned that at every level it's going to get faster and faster and you have to be ready for it. You can't make the same mistakes twice. You have to just take in everything that happens out there and realize you're going to get better and learn things every day."

Ekblad is relishing this opportunity, because he didn't think he was going to get it. Back in September he considered himself a longshot to make the squad after not being among the 35 players invited by Hockey Canada to a summer evaluation camp in Lake Placid, NY.

And now here he is kibitzing with Dumba, who has been playing in the NHL this year with the Minnesota Wild.

"He's a good guy," said Ekblad. "There's not much to say about him. He likes to just be a weird guy once in a while."

"What?" Dumba, who was standing beside Ekblad in the interview area, exclaimed in mock horror. "What is this guy talking about? I can't even do these interviews."

Both players laugh along with the assembled reporters.

"Yeah," Ekblad says with a sigh, "we have a good time together."

Aaron Ekblad (Photo: The Canadian Press)


(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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