Danish forward Nikolaj Ehlers (left) gets a Tissot watch as prize for the best player of his team after the game against Sweden at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship from His Royal Highness Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark (right), who will be the patron of the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Winnipeg’s Danish star excited about 2018 Worlds
For fans of the Danish national team and the Winnipeg Jets, very few players in the world right now offer more promise and excitement than Nikolaj Ehlers.
The Aalborg-born winger is just 21 years old, and he’s getting better every year. His ability to make plays at top speed and his puckhandling skills make him a marquee attraction. That’s true even on a Jets team that also boasts exciting young forwards like Patrik Laine, the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship MVP who is Finland’s answer to Alexander Ovechkin, and Mark Scheifele, who won Worlds gold with Canada in 2016 and came seventh in NHL scoring in 2017 with 82 points.
Ehlers jumped from 38 points in 72 games as an NHL rookie in 2015/16 to 64 points in 82 games in 2016/17. Early this season, with three goals in a 5-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers on 9th October, he became the first Jets player to score a natural hat trick since the franchise relocated from Atlanta in 2010/11. (Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa did it during the Thrashers era.)
It’s no wonder the Jets rewarded Ehlers with a seven-year, $42-million deal in October. As they seek their first playoff berth since 2015, their 2014 first-round pick (ninth overall) is an essential piece of the puzzle, and his hard work during the off-season has paid off.
“I feel I’ve taken a big step,” Ehlers said. “I’ve just got to be more consistent and put that into my game. I feel calmer with the puck, and I feel faster. I feel more experienced. And overall, defensively, I’ve taken a big step. It’s something that I’m still working on. It’s something I’ll work on till I retire.”
The 182-cm, 78-kg forward got his work ethic from his father Heinz. The Danish Hockey Hall of Famer, who was drafted by the New York Rangers in the ninth round in 1984, encouraged Nikolaj to develop his game in the EHC Biel system when their family moved to Switzerland in 2007. Currently the coach of the SCL Tigers Langnau in Switzerland’s National League, Heinz Ehlers recently agreed to increase his workload by serving as an assistant coach with the Danish national team for the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship on home ice. His son supports that decision.
“It’s awesome,” Ehlers said. “He was asking me about it, and for me, it wasn’t a problem. If we were going to end up being at the World Championship together, I know the kind of coach he is. I know the kind of father he is. He’s great at both roles. He’s going to bring in some modern hockey, so I think it’ll be a good step for Danish hockey.”
Since reaching the elite division of the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in 2003, Denmark has never been relegated. And this season, there are six Danish NHL regulars besides Ehlers: forwards Jannik Hansen and Mikkel Boedker of the San Jose Sharks, Frans Nielsen of the Detroit Red Wings, Lars Eller of the Washington Capitals, and Oliver Bjorkstrand of the Columbus Blue Jackets, as well as goalie Frederik Andersen of the Toronto Maple Leafs. It’s all a source of pride for Ehlers.
“They’ve been working really hard overall in junior, producing new young players. The coaches are getting smarter. We’re getting coaches from the U.S. and Canada coming over and coaching the elite pro teams. And we’ve got a lot of young guys playing in the best league in Denmark. So it’s amazing the big step we’ve taken and how many NHL players a small country like Denmark has produced.”
Another landmark is looming, as the Danes will host the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship (4-20 May) for the very first time in Copenhagen and Herning.
“They’re both great cities,” Ehlers said. “Copenhagen is obviously the capital of Denmark. It’s amazing. For the World Championship, it’s going to be great. It’ll be the biggest sports event in Denmark. We’re all proud and really pumped. Everybody’s talking about it back home. I’m excited, and whether or not I’m going, I’ll be watching.”
Despite his youth, Ehlers is no stranger to top-level IIHF play. He scored four goals and two assists when Denmark came eighth at the 2016 Worlds, and added four assists in last year’s 12th-place finish.
He doesn’t hesitate when asked for his favourite personal World Championship memory: “The moment that we clinched a quarter-final berth in 2016. We haven’t done that too many times before. It was our second time. It just felt awesome. The boys were pumped. We were all pumped that we were going to go against Finland, and actually, we did really well against Finland [in a 5-1 quarter-final loss that was 3-1 with under three minutes left]. That was a big moment for Denmark, for me, and for the guys.”
With Winnipeg, Ehlers has a clear vision of what it’ll take for the Jets to blossom from a team of promise into a true contender. It’s a blueprint that could also serve the Danish national team well in its quest for a 2018 quarter-final berth – or more.
“Consistency. Keeping this group together. Playing as a team. Playing the game we want to play. Sticking to our systems. We’ve worked hard the last two years to get to where we are right now. Consistency is key for us. We know we can do it. We believe in ourselves. It’s just a matter of going out there and doing it.”