WINNIPEG, MB - Winnipeg Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers is one of the NHL's brightest young stars. The 21-year-old from Denmark (Ehlers turns 22 February 14th) has been dazzling Jets fans with his speed and skill since being drafted 9th overall in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. Every time Ehlers touches the puck and gets into full flight, you can feel Bell MTS Place buzz in anticipation of what might happen next.
This past off-season, the Jets, and Ehlers agreed to a seven-year, $42 million US contract extension, keeping the speedy winger in a Jets uniform for the foreseeable future. The Hub was able to catch up with Ehlers to talk about how he got started in hockey, his involvement in the community, and why he wanted to stay in Winnipeg.
Where did you grow up and how did you get into hockey?
I grew up all over the place. My dad was a hockey player. That's how I got into hockey. I started playing in Germany when I was a kid and my dad was playing there; then I played in Denmark for five or six years, then in Switzerland for five or six years. I grew up with hockey and loved it since I was a kid because of my dad.
Do you have any other family members who play hockey?
If I told you how many of my family played hockey we'd be here for a long time. My brother plays hockey. My sister doesn't, but she watches a lot of hockey. I've got six cousins who play. My brother's assistant coach is my uncle. I had three uncles who played, and two of them played on the National Team with my dad, so there's a lot of hockey in our family.
Did you follow the NHL when you were in Europe?
You know, I tried to but it's tough because the games are normally at two in the morning so maybe on a weekend we'd catch an early game starting at like nine p.m., so it was hard, but you try to watch as many games as you can because it will teach you something. As soon as I came to Halifax, I watched an NHL game every night, and as soon as I was drafted by Winnipeg, I think I watched almost 50 Jets games that season.
Being in the NHL now, do you still find time to watch many games, and are watching as a fan or a player when you watch?
When I was in Switzerland for a week to visit my dad who's coaching in the top league out there, I went to watch two games. You know, you go there to watch your Dad's team, but while you're watching, you're also learning. Every hockey game you watch, you're going to learn something. I enjoy watching hockey games for the entertainment, but I'm also watching to learn new things.
Your dad played professional hockey and now coaches professional hockey. Does he still offer you advice from time to time?
He still gives me advice for sure. He's a great dad, he's a great coach, and when he watches a game, he still calls me the next day and talks to me about it. But obviously now at this level, I've got great coaches here in Winnipeg that can help me so he doesn't help me as much as he used to. But I definitely still get advice from him."
Before being drafted by the Winnipeg Jets, what did you know about the city?
"I honestly didn't know too much about Winnipeg when I got drafted, but a lot of people said it was really cold. That was probably the first thing I heard, but it's actually not bad at all when you get used to it. The first week I was here, I fell in love with the city. I went and explored, learned about the city, and it feels like home for me now."
Where are some of your favorite places to go in the city when you have some downtime?
I really enjoy going to the zoo, especially when my friends or family come in. I usually take them there. Just getting outside and getting some fresh air and seeing the polar bears and all the animals at the zoo is a great experience. I like going to the Forks. There's always something to do whether it's winter or summer. There are also great restaurants in the city and I like to go to Hy's, or 529 Wellington. Obviously, there may not be as many things to do as you'd maybe find in some of the bigger cities, but for me, it and our busy schedule, having great places in the city that can help me relax is exactly what I love. Winnipeg is perfect for me."
You've been at a few of the outdoor rinks, joining practices with kids and getting out in the community. How important is that for you to be around the kids and to be able to give back?
It's awesome. For me, back home, we never had such cold winters that we could go out and skate on any outdoor rinks. This was the first time I'd been on an outdoor rink so I think I may have been a little more excited than the kids were. Being able to come out in the community and help out and see the kids get all excited, and the parents get all excited - you know, it's awesome."
Now that you're in your third season in the NHL, how has the transition been from the first year until now?
You try to appreciate it as much as you can. I've played against Jaromir Jagr, so for me, that is crazy. I'm playing against guys like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, guys who are unbelievable. Then to have a chance to play here in Winnipeg with guys like (Blake) Wheeler, (Mark) Scheifele, (Patrik) Laine! Every night you get to play against amazing players and people who are legends you looked up to. You do kind of get used to it, but you definitely appreciate it and it's amazing.
What do you remember about your first time on the ice at Bell MTS Place?
I remember coming onto the ice and just how loud it was. I say it in almost every interview, when we come back here and play in front of our fans, the atmosphere is always great, the place is sold out every night, it means a lot to the guys and gives us a lot of energy.
Who's your roommate on the road and who do you hang out with the most on the team?
My roommate is Patrik. We spend a lot of time together on the road. We hang out, go for dinner, play some PlayStation, anything to just keep us relaxed.
Who's better at PlayStation?
I am for sure!
Will Patrik agree with that?
You know what, last year maybe not. I will say at NHL 18, he's a little bit better than me, but overall I'm the better player in everything else right now.
Did you play other sports when you were growing up?
I played Tennis for a couple years in Germany. I played soccer from when I was five until I was 15.
Would you say those other sports helped you develop as a hockey player?
100%. In soccer, you develop speed and muscle in your legs from the running, the sense of looking and seeing everything going on. The footwork has helped as well.
What's your favorite pregame meal?
Spaghetti and meat sauce with some chicken on the side, and whenever when my mom comes to visit it's always spaghetti and meat sauce.
There's nothing quite like mom's home-cooked meals right?
Oh yes, especially when I live alone, and now when my mom comes, she puts a lot of stuff in the freezer for me to have later, so I still get to enjoy some home-cooking now and then.
Lastly, what would you tell people who were thinking of coming to Winnipeg?
Put on a winter jacket and go explore the city. You can go skating on the river, you can go to the zoo, you can go watch a hockey game, you can go to the Forks. There are so many things to do here that people just need to come experience and find out for themselves.
Photos - provided to The Hub Magazine by Jonathan Kozub/Winnipeg Jets