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Ehlers a role model for young Danes

"I know kids are looking up to me because I was once that kid"

by Aaron Vickers @AAVickers / Special to WinnipegJets.com

COLOGNE, Germany -- The impact he can, and does, possess isn't lost on Nikolaj Ehlers.

It's the same one that impacted him as a youngster growing up in Denmark, a country that has produced but 12 NHL players to date.

Ehlers understands he can help grow those numbers.

And help hockey in his home country.

"I know small kids are looking up to me because I was once that kid," said Ehlers, who completed competing in his second World Championship with Denmark on Monday. "I was looking up to Frans Nielsen and I'm still looking up to him and all the other players. I understand that. I want to be a good role model for them, because those guys were to me.

"I don't feel a big pressure, but I like to see myself as a role model for them."

Pressure or not, he is.

At just 21 and through 154 career games with the Winnipeg Jets, Ehlers ranks fifth all-time in NHL points among those from Denmark at 102. Nielsen, a 33-year-old forward who was the first Danish citizen in the NHL and has played 685 career games over an 11-year career with the New York Islanders and the Detroit Red Wings, leads with 390.  

Ehlers' importance, like his point totals, will only continue to rise.

"He's a special one," said Jan Karlsson, head coach of Denmark's entry at the 2017 IIHF World Championship. " He plays hockey on a level on his own. He's a tremendous player.

"He's so important because he's the next generation NHL player. You have Frans Nielsen and these guys, Nicklas Jensen…but Nikolaj is a young guy and the younger guys watch Nikolaj. He's doing good.

"They want to battle so they can be as good as him."

Flattering, no doubt.

"Of course," said Ehlers, who had 25 goals and 64 points in 82 games with the Jets in 2016-17 to set a single-season record amongst Danes. "I've worked hard to be at the place that I'm at now so it's pretty exciting that small kids look up to me.

"There's no going around that."

It's one of the reasons Ehlers takes such pride in representing Denmark internationally.

Another is the sheer enjoyment.

"You love it," said Ehlers, who has represented Denmark internationally at the U16 level, at the World Under-18 Championship, twice times at the World Junior Championship and now twice at the World Championship.

"You come home and you play with all these great guys. There is something…it's hard to explain. Being able to put on the jersey and represent your country, it's something you can be proud of. Whenever the team wants you to come play…for me I'm 21 years old. I'm young. I have energy. I want to come home. And it's always exciting and great to be with the guys.

"I love it."

There were parts this time around, though, Ehlers didn't love.

The result, for one.

After a tournament-opening loss to Latvia and setbacks to the United States, Russia and Sweden, Denmark failed to qualify for the tournament's quarterfinal with just seven of a possible 21 points earned.

He wasn't satisfied with his performance, either.

"We wanted to make the quarterfinals," said Ehlers, who finished with a team-leading four points -- all assists -- and was named one of Denmark's top three players by the coaching staff. "We didn't want to go home already but it's the way it is now. There's no going back. It sucks right now, but it's the way it is.

"Personally, I didn't have my best tournament. My first four games were, to be honest, (poor). Personally it wasn't good. The team, we lost the first game against Latvia, which is a huge game for us. We threw points away against them. We threw points away against Slovakia. It wasn't a great tournament for us. But we know there's no going back now.

"We're going to forget about it and look forward to next year."

Ehlers already has.

He plans to take the lessons learned at the World Championship, and apply them to make himself better next season.

For the Jets, and should he be called upon, Denmark again.

Because he understands the significance of his role with both.

Budding superstar in Winnipeg.

A role model in Denmark.

"I'm trying to go out there and do my best and just be a great guy on and off the ice and try to talk to the kids as much as I can because I was pretty excited when the big guns were talking to me," Ehlers said.

-- Aaron Vickers, Special to WinnipegJets.com

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