TORONTO -- Whether Aaron Ekblad likes it or not, his decision to enter the Ontario Hockey League at age 15 has opened him up to more scrutiny.
Since being granted "exceptional player" status by the league last week, the big defenceman has tried to distance himself from the exceptional part of his situation.
"I don't see myself as someone special," Ekblad said modestly at the OHL's development camp over the weekend.
That statement runs contrary to the facts at hand. Having celebrated his 15th birthday a little over a month ago, Ekblad already stands at six foot three and 200 pounds. On top of that, he is a strong student and demonstrates a maturity beyond his years.
Were it not for all of those things, the native of Belle River, Ont., would never have been welcomed into the OHL.
In fact, he's the first 15-year-old to be granted special status since Hockey Canada took over the review process a few years back. One of the key things that organization's independent three-man panel takes into account is whether the player can handle expectations.
"If we label him with that exceptional player, the committee knows and Hockey Canada knows that you've just put that added burden on that kid," said Brad Pascall, Hockey Canada's vice-president of hockey operations and national teams. "But I think that's really what the process is all about -- identifying his maturity level, his family support, his education, his background in just being able to deal with media scrutiny and fan scrutiny.
"You've got to look at all those factors and do what's best for the kid."
It's a pretty intensive process.
Ekblad and his parents handed in paperwork to the Ontario Hockey Federation ahead of the Feb. 15 deadline, setting in motion a five-week review that included everything from interviews and psychological examinations to the submission of reports from teachers, hockey coaches and scouts.
The young defenceman even had to write an essay detailing why he wanted to start his OHL career a year early.
"After reading it, I don't know if I could have written an essay that good," said his agent Darren Ferris of the Orr Hockey Group.
John Tavares was the last 15 year old admitted to the OHL in 2005 -- a review that was handled by the league. After that, the responsibility was given over to Hockey Canada, which turned down its first application from John McFarland in 2007.
The system has come a long way since Jason Spezza played for the Brampton Battalion as a 15-year-old in 1998.
"Jason Spezza didn't have to go through this," said Ferris. "It was just a matter of, at that time, if you lived in the area you could play for the team and live at home. I went through that with (Spezza).
"But there wasn't this process, which I think is great right now because you're able to evaluate the kid's mental ability as well as his skill level on the ice."
OHL commissioner Dave Branch had lunch with Ekblad and his parents Dave and Lisa prior to a decision being made about the player's application for exceptional status. It was an opportunity for both sides to ask questions and get comfortable with one another.
"Very impressive," Branch said of the meeting. "Aaron truly is mature beyond his years and has a number of goals that he wishes to pursue."
The next step will come at the OHL draft in May. The Barrie Colts hold the first overall pick and are likely to select Ekblad -- "They've shown interest, but nobody has said `Hey, this is who we're picking,"' according to Ferris -- as that franchise looks to rebuild following a 15-49-4 season.
There are some observers out there who don't like the exceptional status rule, with one scout suggesting it comes with too much "hype and nonsense."
However, Spezza believes it's a step worth taking.
"The only downside is (scouts) watch you for so long, it seems like when they watch you they find things wrong with your game," said the Ottawa Senators forward. "Jay Bouwmeester went through it a little bit. It's just one of those things. But for his development, I think it'll probably help him.
"They'll probably pick apart his game a little bit more than they would if he only played two years junior then got drafted, but I think for game development, it's worth it for him."
Ekblad won't be eligible for the NHL draft until 2014. By then, Spezza figures he'll have a leg up on most other kids the same age.
He expects Ekblad to be a bit of a target.
"You just have to be kind of mentally prepared more than anything for the grind and for guys running you a little bit and trying to make a statement, but it can be done," said Spezza. "As long as you're ready for it, I think it's a good move by the league because he probably doesn't have a lot to gain by playing with kids his own age."
Ultimately, everyone associated with this case seems to have arrived at the same conclusion.
Ekblad has been playing with older kids the past couple years and amassed more than a point per game in midget-AAA this past season. Ferris remembers watching him play for the first time.
"I had that same feeling when I first saw Jeff Skinner or Taylor Hall or Jason Spezza," he said. "Every so often you have a special kid that comes along."
Added Branch: "He's a very special young man. I think he'll prove that in the years to come."
With files from Chris Yzerman in Ottawa.