By Jameson Olive
Photography by Billy Coleman, styling by Nycole Sariol
The game of hockey has always been somewhat of a family business for Florida Panthers defenseman Erik Gudbranson. His father, Wayne, is a notable junior coach and innovator in the field of hockey equipment development, while his younger brother, Alex, is a defenseman for the Minnesota Wild. “When we were kids, every night my parents were going to one of at least three different rinks,” Gudbranson says. “It was hectic, but it was a lot of fun.” The Ottawa, Ontario, native played his first game of competitive hockey at 7 years old and would eventually be selected by the Panthers as the third overall pick in the 2010 NHL draft. A shutdown defenseman whose charismatic grin belies his intimidating presence, the 23-year-old blueliner is brimming with confidence as he enters the prime of his career. “There were some hard times and some good times,” a reminiscent Gudbranson says. “At the end of the day, it’s a dream come true.”
“As soon as I could possibly wear skates, my parents put me into them,” says Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad. “My brother was actually two years older than me, so I got to play with his team a lot and that helped me mature at a very, very young age.” Now 19 years old, Ekblad is still playing well beyond his years. The former No. 1 overall pick continues to surpass the already lofty expectations that accompanied his draft stock. A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ekblad is coming off a season in which he set club records for goals (12), assists (27) and points (39) by a rookie defenseman and becoming the youngest blueliner to win the Calder Trophy since Hall of Famer Bobby Orr in 1967. With a long, promising career ahead of him, Ekblad he shares his simple, yet meaningful aspirations for the future: “I want to win a Stanley Cup with the Florida Panthers. Overall, I just want to have a fun, happy and healthy life.”
Growing up in Port McNeill, British Columbia, Willie Mitchell admittedly didn’t have too many options when it came to killing time during Canada’s long, harsh winters. “I grew up in the middle of nowhere,” Mitchell says. “The only thing you did in the winter was go hunting or chase around a piece of rubber.” Luckily, Mitchell chose to pick up a hockey stick instead of a gun, sending the gritty defenseman down a path that would see him play for six different franchises and more than 14 seasons in the NHL. After winning a pair of Stanley Cups with the Los Angeles Kings in 2012 and 2014, Mitchell signed a two-year deal with the Florida Panthers, where he was named the eighth captain in franchise history. Now in the twilight of his career, the 38-year-old blueliner doesn’t take any day for granted as he continues play the sport he loves. “I’m fortunate to still be playing,” Mitchell says. “I’m fortunate to have the journey of it all. The journey of trying to get [to the NHL] is such a rewarding journey once you get there.”
Stylist: Nycole Sariol/MC2 Model Management
Hair & makeup: Faddy/Wilhelmina Artists
Production coordinator: Caro Santorum
Digital tech: Alan W.
Photo assistant: Andrew G.
Originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue.