How Chris Pronger helped Aaron Ekblad get back on track

A concussion knocked Aaron Ekbald out for four games in 2015-16, and he didn't return the same player. That's changing this season. Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK -- The sequence still haunts Aaron Ekblad.

It took place nearly two years ago, in January 2016. The puck went to the end boards, and Ekblad went after it. The Florida Panthers defenseman shoveled it in the opposite direction, trying to prevent Edmonton from setting up an attack. A second after he did, Oilers forward Matt Hendricks absolutely crushed him with a leaping hit into the glass.

Ekblad's helmet flew off as he fell to the ice. He attempted to get to his skates. He fell again, concussed by the force of the collision.

Like every injurious hit in the NHL, the play was reviewed by the Department of Player Safety for potential supplemental discipline. One of the leading voices in that department at the time was Chris Pronger, who is now senior advisor to the president of hockey operations for the Panthers. Hendricks would be suspended three games. Ekblad would miss four games with the injury.

Earlier this season, Pronger, 43, sat down for breakfast with Ekblad, 21, for the first time, two franchise defenseman of different generations trading notes. They talked Panthers. They talked hockey. Pronger figured they'd talk about the hit. When they did, he was struck by how much rage Ekblad still carried from it.

"He's still mad. It still irks him, still gets under his skin. He was rolling, and then he's out. That was a big hit," said Pronger.

Ekblad wasn't the same after the hit. That September, Ekblad suffered what many thought was his third concussion, but what he said was severe whiplash. Then, at the end of the 2016-17 season, a hit by Tampa Bay Lightning forward Gabriel Dumont concussed him again, and he missed 14 of the Panthers' last 15 games.

"He was kind of out of sorts. Then he was feeling better. And then he got another one at the end of the year," said Pronger.

Ekblad was infuriated about the Hendricks hit. Not just because it interrupted his season, but because Ekblad was infuriated about the player he had become because of these injuries: timid, tentative, making too many decisions that put himself in harm's way. Not the stuff expected from a first overall pick, as Ekblad was in 2014 for the Panthers, winning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year in 2014-15.

Ekblad didn't want to be that player. Pronger wasn't about to let him be that player.

Concussions are unpredictable injuries. There's no standard timeline for recovery, like for a broken bone. Some players miss four games, as Ekblad did in January 2016. Some players try to work back from them only to realize their careers are at an end, like Pronger did from his eye injury in 2012.

"You get depressed," said Pronger to ESPN in January. "Obviously, when bright lights and loud noises and things like that bother you, you want to be in the dark. Darkness becomes darkness. One begets the other, and then you're always wanting to be in the dark, you're always wanting to be away from people, and you turn into a bit of a loner. You don't want to hang out with people, and you don't want to go out because stuff either bothers you or you just don't feel good."

The uncertainty about when one might return to the ice is part of the anguish.

"You need an adjustment period because you've taken some time off. That specific injury gets talked about more, gets more publicity, because there's not a set timetable for recovery," said Jeff Skinner, 25, of the Carolina Hurricanes, a player who has suffered his share of head injuries.

"Anytime you go through something, you're trying to learn; trying to get better as a player or a person. You get some time rehabbing to get perspective: on how the game is played and how you played in in the past."

How Ekblad played it in the past: too passively. He would invite hits rather than evade them. He would defend with the anticipation of contact, rather than play quickly to lessen the chances for it.

"[General manager Dale Tallon] and Prongs helped. They were adamant about getting the puck quickly," said Ekblad.

His main problem was where to play the puck. Ekblad would frequently wait for an opponent, and then try to make a move when that opponent arrived. Now, he gets back quicker for pucks. "I was worried about getting in there and having the confrontation at the boards, rather than the confrontation up high," he said.

He said Pronger's advice resonated with him. "We talked about how to control the game a little bit more physically. How to avoid the collisions I was taking, last year in particular. We talked about how I can use my stick and protect myself a little bit more," he said.

Pronger said they spoke at length about the spots Ekblad was putting himself in due to bad positioning. "Being on the player-safety side, a lot of those hits weren't the fault of the players that were hitting him. He was turning at the last second or leaving his face exposed to the glass," said Pronger.

In some cases, Ekblad simply wasn't quick enough to avoid the hit. Which is why, like so many of us, he decided to go on a diet this summer.

"People forget how young he still is," said Panthers head coach Bob Boughner, who has known Ekblad since the defenseman was a 12-year-old growing up in Windsor, Ontario.

Alas, metabolism gets one only so far, even for a 21-year-old. Ekblad showed up for the 2016-17 season heavier than he wanted to be and ended up with three significant injuries during that campaign.

"It's preparation. About how not being in great shape manifested itself and maybe put him in those positions. He got tired. He got lackadaisical," said Pronger.

So Ekblad changed his diet this summer. Gone were bad carbs. Bad sugars were reduced. Despite it being the offseason, a time of much merriment for players, his alcohol content was dropped. ("I mean, I'm not completely sober or anything like that. I have a glass of wine," said Ekblad.)

The goal was to maintain his muscle mass, but to significantly reduce the amount of fat on his frame.

"It's a macro-based diet plan. You have to meet your macro number of carbs, fats and proteins. It's tailored to who you are," said Ekblad. "Once you're eating that much per day ... the macros aren't exactly about eating healthy, but more about meeting your carb loads and fat."

He dieted for two months, and the results were what he was looking for. Ekblad entered this season in top shape, and Boughner has rewarded him with a higher average ice time than he has ever received: 23:42 through 24 games, over two minutes more on average than last season (21:48).

"Eky plays heavy, heavy minutes. We use him in every situation. He's playing against top lines every night," said Boughner.

Ekbald's usage was a facet of his passive game. Simply put, Ekblad thought he was protected too much by the Panthers under previous coach Gerard Gallant, who preferred to start his shifts in the attacking zone and kept Ekblad away from tough assignments as a young defenseman.

"I was protected, 110 percent. If you look at the analytics of it," Ekblad said. "I feel 10 times more confident than I have in the last few years about playing against top lines. I didn't really play against them for three years. I got a taste of it last year and struggled. But I feel great this year. I feel I can play against top lines this year. Not with ease, but I feel like I can shut down top lines at key moments."

Ekblad is invigorated by his new responsibilities, is playing smarter with the puck, and he's leaner.

What Pronger hopes now is that he's also meaner.

No, not "meaner" in the traditional, Chris Pronger sense. Ekblad's highest penalty total for a season was 58 minutes. When Pronger was Ekblad's age, he was averaging over 110 PIMs per season. It's one of the reasons Pronger was able to stay away from catastrophic injuries early in his career: an elbow to the face of an opponent was a thorough deterrent. But Ekblad is not that guy.

No, "meaner" in that eye-of-the-tiger sense. Meaner in that Ekblad now has the conditioning to go with his skill set and needs to make sure the reticence that haunted his game last season, as a byproduct of his injuries, is now out of it.

"I think he understands the steps he has to take. But at the end of the day, you can't play timid. You can't play soft. You gotta play your game. Because if you play the opposite way, then you're going to put yourself in those positions to get hurt again," said Pronger.

"You gotta let go. If it was bothering you now, and it's still bothering you, then let it out. You can't let that stuff bother you. I think he's done a good job getting there."