“You don’t even want to know what’s been going on at my house,” said Megan Mitchell, and for once she wasn’t referring to a lively dinner party, a messy cooking class, or a late-late-night fishing session off the backyard dock. Her eyes were bright but battle-weary; they had the sanity-deprived look you might see in a mother of triplets or a junior investment banker. She’d been through some shit.
It’s one thing to share a house with a 6-foot-plus, 200-pound-plus NHL player suffering from what his team gently describes as “flu-like symptoms.” But it’s quite another to have to deal with two of them.
Both of Megan’s roommates had come home from work infected with some sort of superbug — “the norovirus,” is how she diagnosed it — that turned her serene home into a makeshift infectious diseases ward. One was her husband, Willie Mitchell, the 37-year-old captain of the Florida Panthers. The other was 19-year-old Aaron Ekblad, the promising young rookie she sometimes calls her son.
When the Mitchells relocated from Southern California to South Florida this summer, they had no idea they’d wind up harboring a teen. Willie, who was coming off his second L.A. Kings Stanley Cup win in three seasons, knew when he signed a two-year, $8.5 million free-agent contract that he’d be expected to play a veteran leadership role within Florida’s organization. He also knew that the Panthers, with the top overall pick in the recent NHL draft, had selected fellow defenseman Aaron Ekblad from the Ontario Hockey League. What Mitchell didn’t know was just how close — and how close-quarters — they would become.
For Ekblad, the biggest unknown over the summer and on into October was whether he’d make the team at all. The majority of players, once drafted, are encouraged or commanded to return to juniors or college hockey; some of them make it through a handful of NHL games before being sent back down for a few months or years. Bulk up, they are told. Smarten up. Grow up. Then there are the rare birds — the “1 percent,” as Mitchell put it; the Patrick Kanes and Dale Hawerchuks of the world — who make the team immediately and contribute in a meaningful way.1 Being one of them became Ekblad’s goal.
Hawerchuk, a Hockey Hall of Famer who also turned 19 during his rookie season, was Ekblad’s junior hockey coach with the Barrie Colts.
He hit it off with Mitchell during training camp and preseason, and the captain could see right away that the kid had something special, on and off the ice. When Ekblad played his way onto the full-time roster in late October, Mitchell did what he called “the right thing” — he invited the young defenseman to come live with him and Megan. When Ekblad packed up his hotel room and headed over to the Mitchells’ place, Willie and Megan had only just moved into the house themselves.
As accommodations go, it was a jackpot: a big new whitewashed house on one of Fort Lauderdale’s palm-lined canals; long dinners by the pool; delicious and healthful meals made by Megan, who graduated from culinary school when she lived in California. Willie regaled everyone with stories from his 15-year career, his eyes crinkling at the corners as he imitated Jacques Lemaire’s accent or Brent Burns’s mannerisms.
But on this particular Saturday night in South Florida, no one from the Mitchell household — least of all Ekblad — was living the sweet life. Willie was back in the lineup against the Islanders, having already missed a game with the flu, but Megan could tell that he wasn’t his regular self: His skin was pale, his posture hunched. She wished he hadn’t played that night, but knew he was in better shape than Ekblad. The rookie’s perch in the Mitchell nest had turned into his prison: When he managed to get out of bed, it was only to curl up on some towels he’d spread out on the floor.
Megan’s phone lit up with a text from the young patient; it read like a lyric Jimmy Buffett might pen from his deathbed. “Poor Aaron,” she said, as the Panthers and Islanders headed toward overtime. “He’s asking if we have any chamomile tea.”
Since moving in with the Mitchells, Ekblad has snuggled up with their 8-year-old beagle, Pinot, and worked his way into NHL rookie of the year contention. He’s carpooled with Willie and been assigned odd jobs in the kitchen by Megan. He has set out the salad and the silverware, please, and has averaged more than 22 minutes of ice time a game. He’s been on Jet Skis and in fishing boats and on a power-play unit alongside Jaromir Jagr, who led the league in scoring and won two Stanley Cups before Ekblad was even born.
And as the Florida Panthers have tried their damnedest to leapfrog the slumping Bruins and the trendy Senators for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot, he’s got an accomplished teammate to look up to and a built-in network of support.
“It’s like a big brother and sister kind of deal,” Ekblad said. “It’s not like a billet parent, right?” He was referring to his living arrangement back in junior hockey, where teenage players are housed by local families. “A billet parent, you’re still kind of nervous walking around, like, uhh, they’re the boss of you. These guys treat me as an equal.”
In many respects, Ekblad and Mitchell are equals. They’re both Florida Panthers defensemen, both from Canada, and both blessed with raw size: Mitchell is 6-foot-3 and 206 pounds, while the still-growing Ekblad has another inch and 10 pounds on that. They are both, as the hockey parlance goes, total beauties — the sort of thoughtful, honest, affable athletes that reporters, fans, and general managers tend to gravitate toward. In other ways, however, they’re more yin and yang. Mitchell has the longevity, the perspective, the two Stanley Cups; Ekblad has the hockey world as his oyster. Mitchell has the “C” on his jersey; Ekblad has a real shot at winning the Calder. Mitchell knows his role, while Ekblad is early in the process of defining and establishing his.
“I was a late developer,” said Mitchell, whose own path to the NHL included Tier II juniors, the eighth round of the draft, two years of college hockey, and a few stints with the Albany River Rats of the AHL. “And he is, like, the fast track.”
Despite being close to two decades apart in age, both Ekblad and Mitchell are somehow typical Florida Panthers. In terms of NHL tenure, the Panthers’ roster is a barbell, heavy on both ends, or — to get more local about it — a typical South Floridian tableau of near retirees and whippersnapper spring breakers. Forwards include Aleksander Barkov (19 years old), Jonathan Huberdeau (21), and Nick Bjugstad (22); on defense, Ekblad speaks of Erik Gudbranson, who is just 23, as something of an elder. And the franchise has no shortage of actual elders: Just before this year’s trade deadline, the team acquired the 43-year-old Jagr,2 while a handful of players — Shawn Thornton, Brian Campbell, Roberto Luongo, and Mitchell — are 35 or above.
The Panthers’ current top power-play unit consists of four guys ranging from 19 to 22 … and Jagr. Huberdeau noted that he was getting used to playing with Jagr, who often knows exactly where Huberdeau is going to be on the ice before he does himself.
“It’s a nice mix,” said general manager Dale Tallon. “We’ve got the veteran guys who are champions, guys who have won Cups. It’s important the younger guys follow properly and learn how to win. We have a really good group.”
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
During training camp and preseason, Mitchell and Ekblad were put together as partners on the blue line, and the trust between them blossomed even as Ekblad adjusted to the league. “I’m playing with him and I’m out there making mistakes,” Ekblad told ESPN.com’s Katie Strang in early October. “He’s not getting mad at me, he’s not getting upset or showing anger. He’s calm and patient and teaching me what I need to do.”
That rapport extended to long locker-room conversations about their lives outside of hockey, from their Canadian hometowns to the hotels where they both still lived in limbo. On one preseason road trip to play the Predators, Mitchell took Ekblad out to a restaurant called Husk, run by one of Megan’s favorite chefs, Sean Brock.
“A Southern-style foodie dinner,” Ekblad said, projecting vocal air quotes around each word.
“Meg sources me restaurants wherever we go,” Mitchell said.
Ekblad is a confident guy, but he interrupts himself the second he thinks he’s sounding remotely cocky. He didn’t know if he’d make the team, but he knew he absolutely could. At first, Aaron heard through the grapevine that he might end up living with Shawn Thornton if everything panned out. But Mitchell knew Thornton was in the midst of home renovations, and told Ekblad that if he were to make the team, maybe the rookie should come stay at his house.
“I had brought it up with Meg,” Willie said, “and we talked about it briefly, but not in depth. She was kinda … unsure, I guess you could say.”
Hearing this, Megan scoffed and rolled her eyes. “We hadn’t met yet!” she said, looking at Willie with a why-I-oughta grin. “Willie was just coming home and being like, ‘So … let’s have someone come live with us.’ I kept saying, ‘We don’t even have a house yet.’”
Ekblad and Mitchell aren’t the only relative newcomers to the Panthers organization. Just about every part of the team, from season-ticket sales to starting goaltender all the way up to ownership, has turned over recently.3 But this is mostly by design: The team’s latest owner, Vincent Viola, is a man who likes to maintain his edge by keeping others on theirs.
Tallon is a notable exception; he joined the organization in 2010.
Viola grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He was so close to the owners of a local Italian restaurant called Bamonte’s that one helped him get his foot in the door at West Point. A onetime chairman of the New York Mercantile Exchange, Viola amassed his fortune mostly at the helm of a high-frequency trading concern called Virtu Financial. He has a thing for leadership retreats at inhospitable Army barracks or famous battlefields, finding the disorientation and discomfort good for the collective soul.
When he bought the Panthers for a reported $240 million in 2013, the team was a year removed from its first playoff season since the spring of 2000. Viola, his son John, and his right-hand man and business partner, Doug Cifu, spoke about the kind of family-oriented owners they hoped to be — in the vein of the Maras or the Rooneys of the NFL. In his first season as owner, Viola watched as the team tumbled to a 29-45-8 record, second-worst in the league.4
At the same time the Panthers were floundering, Viola’s Virtu Financial was going through some tough times, too. A few days before Virtu was set to begin its road show for an IPO intended to raise some $250 million, Michael Lewis’s book on the world of high-frequency trading, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, was published and featured on 60 Minutes. Virtu’s IPO was quietly postponed amid rising industry scrutiny, then indefinitely shelved. A year later, Virtu refiled and is now aiming to go public sometime this spring.
Matthew Caldwell, the Panthers’ executive vice-president, was a couple of years out of Kellogg business school and working as a private wealth adviser at Goldman Sachs when he first met Viola. (He talks about “Vinnie” with the overworked reverence of an Anna Wintour assistant or Gary Walsh on Veep.) The two men hit it off: Caldwell was also a West Point graduate and had served in Iraq from 2004 to 2005. He grew up in Staten Island and had a fresh shiner from a boxing match when he sat down at one initial meeting with his boss-to-be — who not only understood, but approved.
A year ago, Caldwell left Goldman to work for Viola and the Panthers full time, one of a number of West Point boys on the Panthers’ front-office staff. He is the first to admit that hockey was never his strong suit, but said he was fascinated by the position Florida was in: It reminded him of a case study from his business school curriculum. “The Chicago Blackhawks: Greatest Sports Business Turnaround Ever?” it was called. He’s been trying, he said, to get the professor to consider writing a similar one on the Panthers.
Three days after the Islanders game, which the Panthers won 4-3 in a shootout, the hot zone had cooled, the sick ward was once again a living room, and morale at the Mitchells’ was high. (Back at the rink, the locker room had been sterilized.) “We may have to reel Willie in,” Megan said by way of warning: Her husband, ever the fisherman, had recently bought a boat, and there was no escaping the lure of his latest toy.
“We’re just putzin’,” said Willie, standing out back on the boat alongside two Fort Lauderdale locals, one of them a childhood friend of Mitchell’s former Kings teammate Jonathan Quick. Together they outfitted it with an anchor and discussed the various dashboard bells and whistles.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
“Where’s the deckhand?” Mitchell yelled, and Ekblad materialized from somewhere inside the house. Everyone climbed aboard — everyone except a waggly Pinot, who according to Megan had not been a fan of his maiden voyage a day earlier — and Mitchell steered away from the dock, taking care not to leave any wake.
When he signed a two-year contract with the Panthers on the first day of free agency last July,5 Mitchell had two priorities upon relocating from Los Angeles to Fort Lauderdale: (1) secure a house, and (2) buy a boat. (Megan joked that if he’d really had his way, these two goals might have been one and the same.) The Mitchells lived out of suitcases in a hotel during preseason, toured local real estate, and slogged through the lengthy and annoying process of bidding for a home.
He was one of six players signed by Florida on the first day of free agency, with the others being Thornton, Jussi Jokinen, Al Montoya, Derek MacKenzie, and Dave Bolland. Caldwell said that Bolland’s rich contract, the first the Panthers finalized, “woke up the market.”
Finally, they moved into the house situated on a network of channels in East Fort Lauderdale, and before long Mitchell found a promising lead on a 36-foot Invincible that someone was selling in Colonial Beach, Virginia. He rented a car while the team was in Washington to play the Capitals and made the two-hour drive each way to check it out.
“The guy was actually — he’s a really cool dude,” Mitchell said. “His boy is one of the top motocross riders in the country, and he sold his boat, and now he’s following his kid around.”
Mitchell loves being on the water. He grew up in the far reaches of British Columbia, in a tiny port town with zero stoplights on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island. (His days with the Stanley Cup included a seaplane, a mountain climb, and a rowboat.) “Front yard’s the ocean, backyard’s the forest” is how he described his hometown.
His father was a mechanic, and his mother worked for the B.C. ferry.6 Mitchell spent much of his life on and around fishing boats. He also, along with his sister Chantal, figure skated. It was a skill set that later caused a prep school hockey coach in Saskatchewan to recommend he move from forward to defense: He skated backward far more cleanly than most other guys.
Only this year did they finally retire; Willie and Megan hope their new boat will lure them for a visit. “This is, like, right in their wheelhouse,” Megan said.
Unlike Ekblad, he was not an immediate NHL darling; when you’re picked 199th overall in the eighth round, you’re little more than a cheap call option or scratch-off lottery ticket for a team. “No one even calls you to say you’re getting drafted,” he said. He was taken by the New Jersey Devils, went back to juniors, then spent two years playing college hockey at Clarkson. When the Devils won the Cup in 2000, he was on the taxi squad of young prospects called up to practice with the team throughout the playoffs.
In 2001, he was traded to the Minnesota Wild, where he began dating Megan Saunders, who worked for a Minneapolis marketing firm and lived in his building.7 They were married in the Napa Valley in the summer of 2006, just about six weeks after he’d signed a four-year contract with his favorite team from growing up, the Vancouver Canucks. Mitchell signed with Los Angeles in 2010, and two years later was raising his first of two Stanley Cups.
One of Mitchell’s favorite stories from his time in Minnesota involves a meeting he had in 2001 with legendary head coach Jacques Lemaire. Mitchell had scored a go-ahead goal against the Red Wings, on Dominik Hasek, and was feeling pretty wonderful when Lemaire called him in to chat. “Four scoring chances for Willie Mitchell,” Lemaire mused. “And four scoring chances for the Red Wings with Willie Mitchell on the ice.” He calmly ticked off four Red Wings on his fingers: Steve Yzerman. Brett Hull. Sergei Fedorov. Luc Robitaille. Which four scoring chances might be expected to yield the most success, he asked? He told Mitchell that if he were to expend his energy on his defense, he’d have a long, long career. “I thank God I was a smart enough kid to sit there and take that great information,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell has the kind of hard brow well suited to squinting across seas or glaring from underneath a hockey helmet. But it softens when he smiles, and he was beaming as he piloted his new boat. “Time to put on your mouth guards!” he hollered when he reached the end of the slow-speed canals, where the Atlantic Ocean slaps up against the Stranahan River. It was both a choppy ride and one hell of a way to take advantage of daylight saving sunlight.
Pointing into the distance, Mitchell said that the Bahamas were surprisingly close and that he wanted to take Megan over there on an off day sometime soon. His local buddies exhorted him on to rev the boat even faster, pointing out that the ride would be smoother that way. Ekblad the Deck Boy stood on the port side, feet spread wide like a wakeboarder, and held on for dear life as the boat bucked beneath him. He later admitted that his sea legs were probably better suited for Jet Skis.
Aaron Ekblad is a bit of an evangelist for country music, just trying to spread the good word. Following the boat ride, he’d hung out in the kitchen as Megan, in ripped jean shorts and with her dark curls tucked behind her ears, prepared salmon, farro with tomatoes, roasted cauliflower, and a spinach salad. Now dinner was over and he was queuing up a song by the Zac Brown Band on his phone for the Mitchells and wondering aloud how anyone could resist such an upbeat message. “It’s about having everything you need and nothing you don’t,” he said about the song, “Homegrown.”
NHL teams with precocious young players tend to live by a similar mantra: They want the players to have all the benefits of the big leagues but few of the distractions. Often this means finding their youngest rookies a place in someone else’s home. Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane both shacked up with team executives — Mario Lemieux and Stan Bowman, respectively — at the start of their careers. Jonathan Toews lived with Brent Seabrook. Seth Jones, like Ekblad a defenseman who made his team the same season he was drafted, spent last year living with his mom.
By living with Mitchell, Ekblad hasn’t only gotten the standard example of “how to be a pro” — he’s also been exposed to the sorts of organizational nuts and bolts that some players don’t become aware of until much later in their careers.
“I get a quick download,” Mitchell said. “We talk about that in the car once in a while — y’know, I’m on the phone talking with management people, I’m trying to facilitate, make sure everyone’s on the same page, working the right way and all that. And he’s sitting there right next to me while I’m getting the quick download of it all. So he’s getting to see things and hear about things that most guys who come into the league wouldn’t right away. Which will be great for him, because eventually he’s going to be one of the leaders on the team, just by the nature of how good a hockey player he is.”
It’s not all serious stuff, though. Ekblad and the Mitchells have decorated a Christmas tree together and tossed dough around the kitchen while making homemade pizza for Valentine’s Day. Brian Campbell, Ekblad’s defensive partner, let it slip that Ekblad, still just 18 at the time, once made cookies for the team.
“Meg makes these awesome cookies,” Ekblad explained, “and I just wanted to practice making them. So I was like, you know what, we’re going on a long road trip, I want to make some cookies before we go. I ate, maybe, 58 percent of them.”
“I think we were leaving at one o’clock,” Willie said. “I was doing something upstairs, I come downstairs, it’s like ten o’clock, and these two—”
“Because I pack the night before,” Ekblad interjected, “and he doesn’t.”
“I live on an island,” Willie said. “It’s called island time. Anyway, these two are down there, and I’m like, what the heck is going on. She’s egging him on—”
“This doesn’t really need to be emphasized in the story,” Ekblad said.
“He’s a good sous chef,” Meg pointed out.
“It was a really long road trip,” Ekblad said.
If there’s one thing Mitchell can relate to when he thinks about himself at that age, it’s a particularly timeless decision that most young hockey players make at least once in their lives. “Everyone, when they’re 18 and 19, dyes their hair that shitty, shitty blond,” he said.
“I don’t dye it!” Ekblad protested, raising a defensive hand to his head. “No, not now,” Megan said. “Remember that picture you showed us from juniors?” Ekblad located a photo on his phone of him in a bushy playoff beard and a peroxided scalp, looking like a vagabond drifter version of his usual well-coiffed self.
“So I was still doing the same things he was,” Willie said, “but I was just at a different level.”
Ekblad grew up closer to Detroit than Toronto; his father, David, was such a big Red Wings fan that he named Aaron’s older brother after Derian Hatcher, albeit with a different spelling. Ekblad preferred playing hockey to watching it on TV, and he and Darien, a young goalie, would face off in the basement, shirtless and using real pucks, occasionally drawing blood. His dad, a chartered accountant who is the CFO for a company called Flex-N-Gate, was pragmatic with his advice.
“My dad always said, if you want, you can be two things,” Ekblad said. “You can be a righty defenseman, or a lefty pitcher. Do whatever you want, but those are the two you should be.”8
Ekblad’s recounting of this story led to a flurry of questions from the table about which is his dominant hand — in tennis, in golf, in a game of toss. He’s basically ambidextrous, as it turns out.
He chose righty defenseman. His brother Darien told the Windsor Star last year that Aaron “was kind of like the top dog in his age group right from 7 years old.” At “13 or 14” — he can’t remember — he first sat down for lunch with Bobby Orr. (The legendary Bruins defenseman is now his agent.)
When Aaron turned 15, he became the second player in Canadian history — the first being the New York Islanders’ John Tavares — to earn “exceptional player status,” a special dispensation allowing him to play in the Ontario Hockey League despite being underage. (As honors bestowed upon young Canadian lads go, this isn’t too dissimilar to knighthood.) The Barrie Colts drafted him first overall, and he convinced his mother, a nurse practitioner, that the benefits of leaving home outweighed the concerns.
In the OHL, he competed against players as old as 20. In the summers, he skated with NHL guys from around his hometown, and found himself mostly keeping up. He took his status as the top NHL draft pick as less of an accolade and more of a personal challenge: Making the Panthers’ roster out of training camp was his goal. It’s not an easy task for any first-year player, let alone one who plays on the blue line. But Ekblad plays with a coolness that belies his age. His 35 points this season are the most of any Panthers defenseman.
“You can kinda hide an 18-year-old forward,” said Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell, who has become Ekblad’s regular partner this season. “It’s almost impossible to hide an 18-year-old defenseman. But, you know, you don’t need to hide him.”
Quite the opposite, Mitchell suggested as Ekblad helped him hose down the boat back at the dock. “Your mug should be all over every billboard in Broward County,” he said.
The Florida Panthers have a bit of an image problem: They’re seen as a lesser-than, a team that struggles to spend to the mandated salary floor, a rudderless, drifting boat. Most people probably have no idea where their arena even is. (It’s in the town of Sunrise, about 30 miles west of the Fort Lauderdale shore, and for a short while, it had the enormously fitting name of “National Car Rental Center.”)
At the start of this season, the major headlines revolving around the Panthers were almost entirely focused on their meager attendance: Just over 11,000 fans came to the home opener, and their next game, against Ottawa, drew a little above 7,000. Both set new team record lows.
A more recent March 12 game against the Winnipeg Jets — a game with playoff implications, as the Panthers struggled to catch up to the Boston Bruins for the final postseason berth — drew 9,819 fans, a great many of them rooting for Winnipeg. Entire swaths of seats in the uppermost ring at BB&T Center were shrouded by black banners — some with the Panthers logo on them, others advertising Party City. During the first intermission, there wasn’t much in the way of in-game entertainment, just a few Zambonis circling red-lit ice. The Panthers won the game, 4-2, to remain just barely in the playoff hunt.
To hear Caldwell tell it, this — well, some of it, anyway — is part of the plan. In the past, the Panthers had goosed attendance with tricks such as literally letting people in for free. The team also released a ton of tickets to brokers to sell on the secondary market. Ticket reps had complete discretion to, in Caldwell’s words, “mortgage out the whole place” to make a sale. But the effect of this was mostly to piss off the dwindling corps of season-ticket holders: Why pay all that money when you can get the seat next to you, for pretty much nothing, online?
Viola and his team knew that the optics of cracking down would be painful, but they also felt the situation needed to be completely disassembled before it could be built back up. There’s that line in West Point’s cadet prayer, after all: “Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong.” At the same time, they knew they had to spend money to make money, that the simplest path to a full building and a loyal fan base is on-ice success.9 It wasn’t long ago that the Chicago Blackhawks had only around 3,000 season-ticket holders and no TV contract, Caldwell pointed out.
A change in the terms of the Panthers’ arena lease with Broward County wouldn’t hurt either, if Viola and the team had its way.
They’ve definitely made an effort to enact sweeping change, even if sometimes their attempts feel just an eensy bit off. Panthers games still lack consistent in-arena entertainment, for example, and some of the players’ families have had to lobby for even small touches like convenient parking. Yet a recent “Goal of a Lifetime” promotional contest, in which anyone could compete for a chance to be the team’s backup practice goalie, was a huge success: 1,500 applications poured in for 58 tryout slots, ESPN’s Linda Cohn broadcast her own attempt on SportsCenter, and one of the winners was the brother of Angela Ruggiero, former USA women’s national team star. Still, with both Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya sidelined by injuries and the team trying its damnedest to pursue a playoff spot, you had to wonder if there may have been better use of goalie coach Robb Tallas’s time.
The players appreciate that their owners aren’t absentee, though; Viola routinely comes in to shake hands, look them in the eye, and thank them sincerely after games. Many within the organization were skeptical when the owner decided he wanted to take the team, just days before the start of the regular season, to West Point for a multiday retreat. (“I thought Dale Tallon might have a heart attack,” Caldwell said.)
But it was a memorable experience that included dinners with cadets and a long, hot hike up Mount Thorne in which players took turns hauling an 89-pound rock and a giant log. At the summit, Willie Mitchell was named team captain. “I kinda got blindsided,” he said. “I knew why they brought me here, and my leadership capacity, but I didn’t know I’d be captain.” He told the team he looked forward to scaling more small hills together before climbing the big one someday soon.10
He should know: When he spent his day with the Stanley Cup in 2012, he and Megan brought it to “the top of the world” — Vancouver Island’s Mount Benedict.
On the day before the Winnipeg Jets game, Willie, Megan, and Aaron decided to ride bikes to get lunch at Bahia Cantina, an outdoor bar and grill tucked into the shabby grounds of a Days Inn and overlooking a marina. Their equipment was a greatest-hits collection of the Mitchells’ past stops, a bipedal game of This Is Your Life: a pair of beach cruisers from when they lived in L.A.; a mountain bike from their years in Vancouver.
Practice had ended hours ago, and the Mitchells teased Ekblad for being “hangry.” Megan reached into a leather satchel fixed to the back of her bike and handed him his cell phone, wallet, and a dry shirt, like a mom producing Kleenex from the depths of her purse. Drunken sunburned dudes chillaxed in a small pool nearby, many of them about the same age as Ekblad. Willie and Megan both ate Greek salads while their growing man-child housed a meal-size Caesar and a rack of ribs.
[protected-iframe id=”6bc86e90bebe4b92b082189b219c3d41-60203239-57734549″ info=”//platform.instagram.com/en_US/embeds.js” class=”instagram-media”]
They described the series of events that led to Ekblad moving in. Teams are allowed to play rookies for a maximum of nine games before having to decide whether to keep them or send them back to juniors, and Ekblad had a couple of games left to play. But when Mitchell approached Tallon to offer up his house in the event that Ekblad might make the team — “just to do the right thing,” he said — Tallon saw no sense in waiting to decide, and went to find Ekblad right away.
“He goes, ‘Come here,’” Ekblad said, beckoning. “Straight face. He pulls me in. He’s with one of the assistant GMs, Mike Dixon. He goes, ‘All right, we’re gonna send you home. We’re gonna send you home.’”
Months earlier, Tallon, milking the crowd at the NHL draft in Philadelphia, had taken a long and dramatic pause before calling out Ekblad’s name. (“The Philly fans were a little rambunctious,” Tallon said. “So it was kinda tongue in cheek. It’s show business, after all.”) Now he was messing with his top prospect once again.
“He goes, ‘No, fuck you, you’re staying,’” Ekblad said. “Wait — don’t say he said fuck you.”
“I’m in the shower, showering up, and then you come in,” Mitchell said. “You’ve kinda got your towel, and you’re like, ‘I’m staying!’”
Convincing Megan took a bit more work.
“We had a soft negotiation, I guess you could say,” Willie said, eyes twinkling, “and then at a Halloween party I kind of ambushed her. I’m like, ‘Babe, here’s Aaron, meet Aaron, he’s gonna be staying with us.’”
“No,” Megan said. “You said, ‘You should meet Aaron,’ and then you said, ‘All right, now tell him all your concerns.’ And then Aaron looks at me and he goes, ‘It’s OK, just say it, it’s OK.’”
“If you would have looked at me and said, ‘You know what, it’s not what I want,’ I would have been like, cool, no problem,” Aaron said.
“I wanted it open,” said Willie. “Just like any relationship, any kind of friendship, whatever — you have all the cards on the table, it’s just easier. It’s like family at the house. It’s not like, tiptoeing around. I wouldn’t have liked that, you wouldn’t have liked that, we wouldn’t have liked that.”
With the exception of those dark days spent caring for two flu-ridden giants, Megan has no regrets.
When they got up from the table, Mitchell snagged something that had been left behind atop a napkin dispenser and shook his head.
“Hey, Eks, want your wallet?” he called out, eyeing him with that parental mixture of bafflement and pride.
He tossed him the forgotten billfold. “See what I have to deal with?” he said.