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Dynamic Dane's dynamite dad

Jets rookie Ehlers has hockey in his blood, as a chat with his father reveals

Nikolaj Ehlers gets a hug from family members (including father Heinz Ehlers, right) after being selected as the number nine overall pick to the Winnipeg Jets in the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft at Wells Fargo Center.

BILL STREICHER / USA TODAY

Nikolaj Ehlers gets a hug from family members (including father Heinz Ehlers, right) after being selected as the number nine overall pick to the Winnipeg Jets in the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft at Wells Fargo Center.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/10/2015 (1101 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

He has cracked the NHL at age 19 and already scored his first big-league goal.

Nikolaj Ehlers is causing a stir in Winnipeg as a new member of the Jets and is part of a strong rookie class in the NHL this season.

The dynamic Dane, the Jets' first-round pick in 2014, is also making some waves in his home country and with his family.

This week, Free Press hockey writer Tim Campbell spoke via phone with Ehlers' father Heinz, who was an NHL draft pick and an accomplished player in his own right and is now the head coach of Lausanne HC in Switzerland's top league, the National League A.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/10/2015 (1101 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

He has cracked the NHL at age 19 and already scored his first big-league goal.

Nikolaj Ehlers is causing a stir in Winnipeg as a new member of the Jets and is part of a strong rookie class in the NHL this season.

The dynamic Dane, the Jets' first-round pick in 2014, is also making some waves in his home country and with his family.

This week, Free Press hockey writer Tim Campbell spoke via phone with Ehlers' father Heinz, who was an NHL draft pick and an accomplished player in his own right and is now the head coach of Lausanne HC in Switzerland's top league, the National League A.

FREE PRESS: Your son is in the NHL before his 20th birthday. I imagine it's an exciting time for you.

HEINZ EHLERS: We are very happy, proud and excited about everything that's going on right now. We're following everything very closely.

 

FP: Were you able to watch Tuesday's game from New York, where Nikolaj scored his first NHL goal?

HEINZ EHLERS: It was too late (the time difference is six hours) and we had a game Tuesday night. We saw his first game (from Boston). When we woke up Wednesday, we received a lot of text messages on our phones. We did look (at his goal). The game sheet doesn't say it was nice, but it was sure a nice goal."

 

FP: Have you talked with Nikolaj after the goal?

HEINZ EHLERS: I just told him to text me when he had time. I know, since I'm in the business myself, it's a stressful time and there's a lot to do. We tried to leave him alone for those amount of days he was in New York. It's not easy all the time with meetings, and you have to be doing things with the other players and you don't want to be disturbed by your parents phoning all the time. We keep in touch by text messages.

 

FP: Can you describe how proud of him you are?

HEINZ EHLERS: Of course we are proud, very proud of him. I think from Denmark, now he's the 10th player playing in the NHL. It's still pretty big every time somebody is playing his first game. It's a lot in the papers, too, and on television. They showed the game against the Islanders on TV because they have a Danish player, too (Frans Nielsen). We are very happy and proud of him for having a bit of success right now.

 

FP: What, if anything, is Nikolaj's progress doing for the popularity of hockey in Denmark?

HEINZ EHLERS: It is bringing more focus to the game. It's not like it brings more kids to hockey yet. There are 3,500 to 4,000 players in Denmark. But it does make it more popular on television, and the kids that are playing, they have some people they can look up to.

 

FP: It's noticeable that Nikolaj is very polite. Is there a story there?

HEINZ EHLERS: Yes, I think he is. He's used to travelling a lot, living different places. He grew up in Germany where I played at the time. And people in Germany are very... he went to kindergarten in Germany and it's everything really strict and disciplined. We were five years in Denmark after that and then came to Switzerland in 2007, and the way you have to approach your teachers, it's always "Mister" or "Sir" to the teachers in school. It's very special, and you learn to shake hands every day and when you go somewhere to meet people. I think he learned that stuff from the beginning, to be polite, and that's something that's very important to us — that he shows respect to other people.

 

FP: At 17, your son moved to Halifax to play in the QMJHL. That's a long way from home.

HEINZ EHLERS: That was tough for all of us. He's got a brother (Sebastian), who's three years older, who left also to play hockey. We were a little bit used to it. There's a lot of FaceTime and Skype. The first year he was in Halifax I was there two times and my wife (Tina) was there two times. And he was able to come home at Christmas the first year. It wasn't that bad, but of course we missed him crazy. But we knew if he was going to have a career in North America, that would probably be the easiest way to go and do it. We were ready to sacrifice some of the social life to have him do it. It's been tough and it's still tough and we miss him a lot, but we know that he's in good hands there.

 

FP: Did you see special talent in him as a youngster?

HEINZ EHLERS: I would say that since he first got a pair of skates on his feet. He learned skating in three days. I remember I took him to practices when I played in Berlin and my teammates, they would say, 'How long has he been on skates?' And I told them three or four days. That was crazy. He's always been a really fast learner. Nikolaj used to play (soccer) here, too, on a high level in Denmark and Switzerland. If he would see somebody like Ronaldo doing a trick on television, the next day he would be practising it and trying to do it. I've always seen that he observes a lot from watching older players doing something and he is really quick to adapt. He's got a certain talent for that. I've always told him that's a talent (scoring), but the biggest talent you can have is the will to practise hard every day. I think he understood that, not that he didn't want to practise, but if you want to play at this level where he's playing now, he needs to practise hard every day.

 

FP: You're a coach; do you coach him?

HEINZ EHLERS: He's been, the last two years, home from Halifax and has been practising from middle of May to middle of June with my team here. We organize off-season practices because the players all live here. We go back to Denmark for (summer) and he practised by himself, but (worked) with a personal fitness coach. So I haven't really taken too much part of it. I think he needs to do it his way. If he's asking for my help, I'll try to help him as much as I can. If I watch a game and I see something, we might talk about it the next day, but it's a little bit of a different game over there than here. It's more physical over there so I really don't say too much. Only if he asks me.

 

FP: When you watch him play now, is it as a coach or a father?

HEINZ EHLERS: I probably watch him a little bit too much as a coach. My wife says that (laughs). I'm critical because I'm a coach, that I can see some of the things he's doing now with the Jets. He's not afraid to hold onto the puck, and sometimes that brings him into situations where there could be turnovers down in your own end. But I'm sure that his coaches there will take that away and get those bad habits away from him after a while. And of course when I see him doing something well, I'm very proud that he can make nice plays and goals. So it's both.

 

FP: Will you have any chance to visit Nikolaj soon?

HEINZ EHLERS: We have the (schedule) breaks three times a year because of the national teams. There's a break the first 10 days of November. If Nikolaj is still up there it's our plan to go and visit. They're playing Montreal and Toronto at the beginning of November, so we may go for five days. But we're a little bit on standby because we want to make sure he's going to survive the nine games.

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

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