For one day, the Florida Panthers’ Aaron Ekblad learned what it was like to be on the other side of the coach-player relationship.
Ekblad, the No. 1 overall pick by the Florida Panthers in 2014 and a two-time All-Star defenseman, served as a guest instructor for the Panthers’ Learn to Play program, which introduces hockey to young kids. For an hour on Sunday morning at Palm Beach Skate Zone in Lake Worth, Ekblad mentored about 50 kids, ages 5 to 9. After a half hour of basic skating fundamentals, the kids broke off into groups and did a circuit of drills with Ekblad making his rounds throughout the session.
The kids were far from perfect. Slips and falls were a common scene.
But with every mishap, the kids got back up with a smile on their face and tried again.
“They weren’t quitting,” Ekblad said. “It’s a great thing for them. Learning that at a young age is important. It’s probably what I took away from it the most.”
In a way, it brought back memories from when he was growing up in Ontario, Canada. He went to camps where big-name players would serve as an occasional guest instructor. Ekblad said he was usually the shy and quiet kid of the group back then despite being bigger than most of his campmates.
Now, the experience has come full circle. His overarching message to the kids during the hour-long session: Keep getting back up.
“You’re on thin little blades on ice with a stick in your hand. It’s not exactly normal,” Ekblad said. “It’s a little bit awkward at first, but I think those kids had a good time.”
Ekblad had a good time on the ice as well, a common scene for the 22-year-old heading into his fifth season with the Panthers. But with training camp still a month away, Ekblad is OK with taking a little more time off before getting back into action.
“Not ready yet,” Ekblad said. “It’s one of the great things about the summertime. You’ve got to take full advantage of it. I’ve been working hard, skating, working out and stuff like that, but we’ve got four more weeks left of heavy training and that’s when I’m going to be ready.”
The Panthers will need their ace backline player ready, especially if they want to build on their strong finish from last season.
After opening the season with a 19-22-6 record heading into the All-Star break, the Panthers went 25-5-3 down the stretch to finish with 96 points — and missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs by a point.
“It was all justified struggles,” Ekblad said. “We had a new coach. We were all getting used to each other. I think we’re going to hit the ground running this year and have a much better opportunity.”
The Panthers open their seven-game preseason schedule on Sept. 17 with a doubleheader against the Nashville Predators. The regular season begins on Oct. 6 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“It’s the love and passion of the game,” Ekblad said. “Maybe some of these kids won’t have that same love and passion that I have or other players have, but they’ll have it for something else in life. They’re trying to find their way in life and what they like to do. I know that at that point in life I didn’t know I was going to be a hockey player but I did have a lot of passion and excitement and love for the game. I carry that with me every day.”
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