When the Ontario Hockey League's bigwigs granted Aaron Ekblad exceptional player status last spring, they might as well have painted a bright, orange bullseye on his back.
You expect the other players to welcome the 15-year-old with open arms, invite him to a campfire singsong for a few verses of Kumbaya?
Heck, no. Not in a league where players are scratching and clawing, sweating and bleeding, to realize a dream of playing in the NHL. You brand a player "special" and you're putting him in the crosshairs of every other teenager lined up across from him. His mettle will be tested.
It happened to John Tavares, the first and only other member of the OHL's exclusive early entry club, when he jumped into the league with the Oshawa Generals in 2005.
Ekblad, who went first overall to the Barrie Colts in the OHL draft last spring, has found out two games into his junior career exactly what his status, which allowed him to play a year earlier than his peers, will bring.
"There's a little bit more to deal with than some other guys but you have to play through it," he said. "It's a high-paced game. If I take a hit to the head, that's just the way it is. I feel great in this league. I feel like I belong, just like everyone else out there.
"I'm just trying to work my hardest, keep working every night. That's all I can ask for myself."
Good thing Ekblad is 6-foot-3 and 207 pounds. He'll probably need all of his natural gifts to survive the pounding he can expect for during his rookie season.
Colts coach Dale Hawerchuk, who played in the OHL as a slight 16-year-old before going on to a Hall of Fame career with the Winnipeg Jets, agreed that Ekblad's status will he held against him by veterans looking to take him down a peg.
"He's a big guy, too," Hawerchuk said. "They think: 'You're coming into this league, you think you're going to show us how (to play)?' You've got to find your way. I remember playing at 16 and 150 pounds. Sometimes it's dodgeball. You've got to use your brains.
"They've been trying to run him because he's supposed to be a special player. Special players have got to learn guys want to take the body on them."
Target or not, Ekblad isn't letting the physical play get to him. He's already shown flashes of the talent that has led to him being compared to Chris Pronger and even, believe it or not, Bobby Orr.
Even though he's the youngest player in the OHL and plays a position considered to be the toughest in hockey to master, he's already settled in. It took Ekblad almost no time to gain the confidence of his coaches and, really, what he has shown is just the tip of the iceberg.
"You can argue he's our most dependable defenceman (already)," Hawerchuk said. "He's not just offence or defence, he's a little, well actually, tall general out there. He's very poised.
"I think if you ask any coach at any level, if you can throw out a defenceman that you can depend on offensively and defensively, he'll play a lot of minutes."
Maple Leafs prospect Sam Carrick, fresh off a solid showing at Toronto's rookie camp, has been named captain of the Brampton Battalion.
Carrick, a fifth-round pick of the Leafs in 2010, has never been a big point-getter-- 21 goals and 42 points in 2009-10 are a career high --but he's been around the block a few times and plays a gritty, team-first game that coaches love.
"This is my fourth year so I know what to expect," the 19-year-old forward from Stouffville said. "I can answer any of the questions the younger guys have. I'm just trying to do my best to lead by example."
Carrick's older brother, Jake, played four years in the OHL, finishing up with the Windsor Spitfires last season, while little bro' Trevor is a rookie defenceman with the Mississauga St. Michael's Majors. And yet another Carrick, Josh, a defenceman with the minor midget Markham Majors, is coming down the pipe.
The Oshawa Generals were likely banking on 19-yearold sniper Christian Thomas being sent back by the New York Rangers but coach/ GM Chris DePiero probably exhaled when it finally happened Saturday. The son of Stumpy was held pointless in his debut against the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds but, geez, the kid has 95 goals over the last two seasons so those kind of nights will be a rarity this season.
The Gens are still waiting to see if the Vancouver Canucks send first-rounder Nicklas Jensen back. Jensen has already signed with the Canucks but is likely destined for at least one more season in Oshawa.
Guelph Storm rookie forward Tyler Bertuzzi, a fourth-round pick in 2011 and the nephew of Detroit Red Wings forward Todd Bertuzzi, has made quite an impression already. The 5-foot-9, 150-pound dynamo has fought in each of his first three OHL games ... Colts forward Tanner Pearson is the OHL's player of the week. In two games, the 19-yearold from Kitchener had five goals and three assists ...The Kingston Frontenacs picked up 18-year-old defenceman Kyler Nixon in a deal with Barrie, sending a sixth-round pick the other way ... Talk about all in the family: Dylan Hunter, the son of London Knights coach Dale Hunter and nephew of general manager Mark Hunter, has joined his former team as an assistant coach. He played five seasons for the Knights starting in 2001 ...The Canucks sent defenceman Frank Corrado back to the Sudbury Wolves with an NHL contract tucked in his pocket. The 18-yearold from Woodbridge, a fifth-round pick by the Canucks in 2011, signed an entry-level deal last Friday ...The L.A. Kings returned forward Tyler Toffili, who was tied for the league scoring lead last season, to the Ottawa 67's Sunday. Toffoli had a league-best 57 goals in 2010-11 ...The Boston Bruins made four teams happy by sending forwards Ryan Spooner (Kingston), Jared Knight (London) and Alexander Khokhlachev (Windsor), plus defenceman Dougie Hamilton (Niagara) back to junior. Spooner is rumoured to be on the block, though, and Knight returned from the Bruins camp with a groin injury.