Nikolaj Ehlers made quite the impression on fans, media, and management since he was taken ninth overall in the 2014 NHL Draft. He first put his speed and skill on display at MTS IcePlex this past July at Development Camp. But he had a hard time getting to Winnipeg after being stuck in an airport in Copenhagen, Denmark, with his flight to Canada cancelled.
“Some people were making jokes. I was drafted by the Jets, then a flight gets cancelled,” Ehlers laughed. “It wasn’t too bad. I knew camp was going to start on Monday and I could get out on Sunday. My uncle came and picked me up and I enjoyed my time at the hotel.”
But it seems Development Camp helped Ehlers get rid of any nerves he felt going into main camp. Of course, his two-goal performance along with notching the shoot-out winner in the final game of the Young Stars Classic helped with that. In total, he had four points in the two games he played in Penticton, BC.
Things were a little more difficult for Ehlers in his first NHL pre-season game. He and roommate Adam Lowry didn’t sleep much the night before; the excitement of playing in front of fans at MTS Centre kept them awake.
“It was amazing. I had butterflies when we went on the ice and the crowd went crazy,” Ehlers said. “Obviously they (the players) are a lot bigger than the junior leagues. You don’t have as much time as you do in junior. It’s tough.”
Tough challenges don’t intimidate Ehlers though. Despite being only 18-years-old, he’s learned five languages: English, French, Danish, Swiss, and German. Those languages came in handy, as Ehlers played junior hockey in Switzerland, and also played for his national team in Denmark.
The 18 year-old Aalborg, Denmark native finds it easy to concentrate on hockey back home. The New York Rangers drafted his father, Heinz, in 1984. Though he never came over to play in the NHL, his career in the game continues today as a coach in Switzerland. Ehlers talked with his father about first coming to Canada to play for Halifax in the QMJHL, and they also discussed the NHL.
“I asked him why he didn’t go over and try, and he said he wasn’t ready. Where I’m totally different, I’m ready every single time I get the chance,” Ehlers said. “It was different times back then, 30 years ago. He also said ‘you have to go over and play no matter what, you have to try and give your best. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t make the NHL. I know you can do it.’ It’s nice to hear that from your dad.”
The advice didn’t stop there for Ehlers, who scored 104 points in his first season with Halifax, which helped him earn the 2014 CHL Rookie of the Year award. During the lockout that affected the 2012-2013 season, the “Dashing Dane”(his QMJHL nickname) had the opportunity to skate with Patrick Kane and Tyler Seguin.
“They helped me a lot and helped with the decision to come over and play. I talked to Kane a lot about size and if I could really play in the NHL someday,” Ehlers said. “He said it doesn’t depend on your size that much, it depends on if you really want to play. I want to play. I love playing hockey every single day.”
The next step for Ehlers is a challenge many young players face when trying to make the step from junior hockey to the NHL: putting on weight. At the draft, Ehlers weighed 160 pounds. He looks to his brother, Sebastian (who is 6’ and 180 pounds), for inspiration.
“I’m going to try and eat as much as I can. My mom is hopefully going to make a lot of food for me. I’m going to try and make a nutrition plan, well not myself, I don’t know how to do that. I’m going to try and put on some pounds,” Ehlers said. “I just want to get better. I want to improve on everything. It’s hard to eat so much that you want to throw up after. I’m trying!”
Now that Ehlers has experienced the city of Winnipeg, and met a number of the other prospects in the system, he can’t wait to become a full-time resident. Besides being friends with the players he skated alongside at training camp, he thinks the players are united by a common goal.
“Like the other guys at the camp, they want to make the team. It’s the same chance for everybody. We all have to work hard,” he said. “My goal is to play for the Winnipeg Jets next season. I wouldn’t be disappointed if not, I would take it as a challenge and get back even harder next year.”