International Ice Hockey Federation

Ehlers has big expectations

Ehlers has big expectations

Danish U20 star flying in pre-WJC play

Published 17.12.2014 08:41 GMT-5 | Author Lucas Aykroyd
Ehlers has big expectations
Nikolaj Ehlers was chosen ninth overall by the Winnipeg Jets in the 2014 NHL Draft and will drive Denmark's World Junior offence in Toronto. Photo: Mirek Ring
You can’t take your eyes off Nikolaj Ehlers for a second. Just ask the defenders who’ve tried to contain the swift Dane at this week’s World Junior A Challenge.

Denmark has sent its national U20 team to the annual tournament in Kindersley, Saskatchewan for a tune-up prior to the IIHF World Junior Championship in Toronto and Montreal. So far, they’ve dominated their second-tier competition at the West Central Events Centre.

Showing why he was selected ninth overall by the Winnipeg Jets in the 2014 NHL Draft, Ehlers is on fire with five goals in two straight wins, leading the way against Canada West (3-2) and Russia (5-2).

He scored a spectacular shorthanded breakaway goal that epitomized his panache against Russia with just one second left in the first period. His hat trick helped the Danes gain a bye into the semi-finals.

The 18-year-old Aalborg-born winger has shone on an all-Canadian Hockey League top line with Oliver Bjorkstrand (Portland Winterhawks, WHL) and Mads Eller (Edmonton Oil Kings, WHL). He was named the 2014 CHL Rookie of the Year after posting 104 points in 63 games with the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads, and already has 47 points in 23 major junior outings this season.

Before the new millennium, it was impossible to conceive of Danish players tearing it up in elite IIHF competition. The diminutive but explosive Ehlers reflects how the world has changed. He was raised and trained in Switzerland, and speaks Danish, English, French, and German.

If he maintains his current torrid pace, he’ll become as big of a Winnipeg landmark as the city’s new Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Still, for now, his main goal is for the Danes to stay in the elite division of the World Juniors. Their last appearance at this level was in 2012 in Calgary and Edmonton.

Continue reading caught up with Ehlers by phone on Tuesday afternoon.

How happy are you with the way your team’s played so far at the tournament?

We’re really happy with the two wins. I think it’s really important for our confidence. But you know, there are still a lot of things we can improve on. The guys who have come over from Denmark are adapting to the smaller ice surface. I think we still need some time, and that’s why we’re playing this tournament. We need to practice a lot. We’re looking forward to the next game.

We already have the best chemistry on this team. Everyone talks to everyone. It’s amazing. I’ve never been on a team with this chemistry. I think being together right now and winning games, it’s definitely helping.

You’ve been on fire personally with five goals in two games. What’s been the key to your success?

I’m playing with two guys who are great players. They play over here too. It feels great to obviously put up some good points, but I can’t just put that all on me.

Playing with Bjorkstrand, he’s a great guy and great player. He gives some great passes and can shoot. He really reads the play well. And Mads Eller is just a fast guy who’s tough. He goes down and hits guys and makes room for me and Bjorkstrand. I could see this line continuing at the World Juniors for sure.

What are the biggest ways that you’ve improved personally in your second season in Halifax?

I think I’ve been getting a little bit stronger going in the corners, getting out of the battles and winning them. I’ve also learned more about the small details of how they play over here. Sometimes you’ve gotta chip and chase the puck and get in. It’s a lot of things I’ve wanted to improve on. It’s really nice that I can feel that I’m getting more used to the game over here.

Earlier this year, you said you were trying to put on weight and said, “It’s hard to eat so much that you want to throw up after.” How is your weight gain program going?

Not bad. I’ve been talking to the Winnipeg Jets about it. They’ve been helping me out really well. I’ve been trying to work out a lot during the week, trying to eat a lot, drink protein shakes and that kind of stuff. So there’s not really much more that I can do to get bigger. I’m trying everything because I do want to get bigger and stronger.

The trainer is the person I’m talking to right now the most. He came to Halifax to just talk to me and our trainer. He helps me with the sort of things that I could eat that I don’t usually think about eating. Even though sometimes you feel like, “Oh, this is getting to be too much,” I still have to do it.

Who are your favourite NHL players to watch?

Right now, I’d probably say Tyler Seguin and Patrick Kane. Not just because I played with them [in 2012/13 in Biel], but they’re putting up a lot of points. Kane is a great player to watch. Everybody loves watching him. And Seguin is a guy who scores from everywhere. Even when I got to play with him in Switzerland, he kept on scoring those goals. He’s an amazing player.

Obviously, I like to watch the guys from Denmark play too, like Frans Nielsen and Jannik Hansen.

Is it hard for you to stay fluent in all the languages you speak?

It’s a little bit difficult, for sure. I haven’t had French in school for the last three years now. But I can keep it at a pretty good level. I’ve had a couple of interviews in French in the Q in the past season. I find it a bit difficult to understand the Canadian French, because I speak the French from France. It’s a lot different. But it’s not too bad right now.

You played on the Danish national youth football team until you were 14. What did you think about what happened at the World Cup this summer?

The game I remember the most is probably the one Germany played against Brazil [a 7-1 romp in the semi-finals], which surprised me a lot. I’m a big soccer fan. I probably watched every game no matter who played. A team like Germany, it’s like in hockey: they played together. They had great chemistry on the field. They just played their game. They played simple and just put the ball in the net. I like the way they played.

What was your reaction when you heard Denmark would be getting the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in 2018?

I think it’s just amazing. It’s something that you may have a chance to be part of. It’s pretty cool to maybe, possibly play in that in your home country. It’s a great opportunity for Denmark to host the World Championship. I’m glad. I think it’s going to help the young players in the country a lot.

Our U18 team played in the top division last year. Things are getting better. Our young players are getting up and playing with older guys. A lot of them are playing in Sweden and Denmark in the best leagues there. We have six guys [in the NHL] right now, which is the most ever. It’s good that you can see an improvement. It means a lot to me, because I love hockey and I love playing for the Danish national team.

At the World Juniors, what needs to happen to make sure that Denmark succeeds in staying in the top division this year?

We just have to adjust to the small ice, and play our game with a lot of speed. Just get through it. We have to win in order to stay up. I think we have a really good chance this year. We have a pretty good team and there are definitely opportunities at the World Juniors. We’re all really excited. We want to go out there and win every game.


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