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As a teenage rookie last season, Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad moved in with teammate Willie Mitchell — a veteran player nearly twice his age — and his wife, Megan.
BL: Katie, how was it that Aaron came to live with Willie and his wife Megan?
[Willie] started coming home and telling his wife that Aaron was unlike most other 18-year-olds.Katie Baker, Grantland
So he started coming home and telling his wife that Aaron was unlike most other 18-year-olds. And his wife had never met Aaron, so she was a little skeptical. But they finally wore her down, and now she refers to Aaron as her son.
BL: While playing junior hockey, Aaron, like many other young skaters, lived with a host family. But he says living with the Mitchells is different. How so?
KB: He said living with the Mitchells is a lot more like living with a big brother and sister. They respect him as an equal. They rib him a lot, and he gives it right back. But he doesn’t have that sense where he feels like he's having to tiptoe around them. They make him feel welcome, they cook him delicious meals, and they take him out on the boat and try to knock him off.
BL: Well, they cook him delicious meals, and they let him cook too. He makes cookies.
KB: Yeah. Willie Mitchell’s wife Megan went to culinary school in California and graduated, so she’s a phenomenal cook. So I think she’s kind of inspired that in Aaron. His defense partner Brian Campbell told me that when he was still 18-years-old in the fall, he got on the team plane with a barrel full of cookies. When I asked Aaron about it, he was kind of embarrassed that anyone had told me the story but he said, you know, Meg makes these delicious chocolate chip cookies and he wanted to learn how to make them, so he woke up one day before a long road trip and went down to the kitchen and Meg helped him make a batch of cookies.
BL: After your story was published, you tweeted, “The undisputed MVP of my Grantland story is the great Megan Mitchell.” I'm not sure I'm at all surprised by that. This was really something, that she managed to do.
KB: Yeah. Megan Mitchell, she takes care of these boys — her husband and her makeshift son — even when they had a terrible flu when I first got there, and she was kind of the nurse in the sick ward.
And not only that, she also has a role in terms of the team. She sort of has been a representative of many of the families because the team has relatively new ownership. So she’s one of those people that’s not afraid to go to ownership and say, “We need closer parking for the families — they have strollers.” She really has a role that makes you realize how important the families are to professional athletes.
BL: Willie Mitchell and Aaron Ekblad obviously have a lot in common. They’re both defensemen and they play on the same team and they live in the same house. But there is one crucial distinction it seems to me between them. Whereas Willie Mitchell took the long road to NHL stardom, Aaron Ekblad got there in a blink of an eye. I mean, this was a kid who everybody knew was gonna be a 19-year-old sensation in the NHL.
[Aaron] even said once that he lives vicariously through Willie, which I think is hilarious considering he is such the future of not just the team, but even the NHL.Katie Baker, Grantland
But yeah, Aaron is considered the future of the franchise, and Willie is more of a defensive defenseman — a role player — and he talks about how, you know, when you’re someone like Aaron, you’re given more of a leash to be creative on the ice, to skate up on offense. But at the same time, he’s able to see what it means to be a role player and be a leader without being a flashy player, which is what Willie does. And I think that’s been a really important learning experience for him.
BL: Well, when you’re Aaron Ekblad you’re not only given more of a leash, you’re given a heck of a lot of money — millions of dollars — up front. I wonder if Willie is ever scratching his head and saying, "Boy, I wish I had come along later when the paychecks were bigger."
KB: It’s interesting because from Aaron’s perspective, he is almost jealous of Willie sometimes because Willie has this rich history, and he has all these NHL stories about playing for Jacque Lemaire. And Aaron sits there and laps it all up, and he even said once that he lives vicariously through Willie, which I think is hilarious considering he is such the future of not just the team, but even the NHL.
Aaron Ekblad went on to win the NHL’s rookie of the year award. He no longer lives with Willie Mitchell — he’s moved into his own apartment. But sometimes after games, Aaron hangs out with Willie and Megan … at their place.
This story originally aired on March 28, 2015. This week it appears again as part of Only A Game's "Celebration of Home."
This segment aired on November 28, 2015.
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