PHILADELPHIA - A young girl sat in the stands cheering on her older brother playing junior hockey in Biel, Switzerland. In the final minutes of the intermissions, Caroline Ehlers, a pretty, fair-haired girl with bright-blue eyes, would hover above the tunnel leading on to the ice so she could talk to her brother, Nikolaj.
To hear him tell it now, their conversations were always one-way and Caroline, in those moments, was more drill sergeant than his 14-year-old sister.
“Get your ass in front of the net,” he said, mimicking his sibling. “You need to score here! You need to keep cycling and moving your feet.”
At the scouting combine at the end of May, Ehlers had some NHL teams laughing when he admitted that Caroline was his main coaching inspiration and the one person who knew his game the best.
“They didn’t believe me,” said Ehlers. “They were laughing, but it’s the truth. It’s kind of funny, but not a lot of people know that my sister has probably had the biggest impact on my career.”
For Christmas, Ehler’s aunt gave Caroline a small blanket. It was white and had the outline of a hockey player in gold and the words “Hockey Coach” written on it.
It’s a little odd when you consider there is already a professional coach in Ehlers’ household. Father Heinz is a former pro player in Europe and the head coach of the Swiss club, Lausanne. His older brother Sebastian, 21, is a player on the Danish national team. His mother, Tina, is the family’s biggest cheerleader, so there’s no lack of advice to be had when it came to hockey.
All of them were there on Friday night when Ehlers was taken in the first round of the NHL draft, ninth overall, by the Winnipeg Jets.
“I was pretty tired because I didn't really sleep last night,” said Ehlers caught up in his post-draft excitement. “It's hard to explain because I was shaking a little bit all day. I was shaking a bit during the draft. I'm happy to finally sit here and be through it and enjoy the time.”
When the announcement was made, Caroline threw her arms around her brother in a big embrace and wiped away tears. Asked to be interviewed, she was too shy and declined.
“Already before the draft my sister started crying,” said Ehlers. “It meant a lot that (my family) were here. They’ve supported me throughout my whole career and having them here is great.”
It was a big day for the family considering it was 30 years ago that Heinz Ehlers had been selected at the 1984 NHL draft by the New York Rangers. Feeling he wasn’t ready to make the transition to the NHL from Europe, the elder Ehlers decided to play pro in Sweden.
“It’s pretty cool when your dad was drafted 30 years ago,” said Ehlers. “I think it’s amazing for me … but I think it’s amazing for everyone being drafted this weekend.”
Hockey has been the ultimate family affair for the Ehlers. When Caroline wasn’t giving her older brother advice, she was busy acting as his player agent getting him prepped for rides home – particularly after a bad game – which proved to be invaluable information.
“She was pretty hard on me sometimes,” said Ehlers. “But she would come down after the game and she would say, ‘before you get into the car, dad’s really mad and mom thinks you played really good.’ So she was a great help.”
The car rides home from the rink after games were the litmus test from which Ehlers was able to figure out whether he had played well enough for his hockey coach dad.
“If I played a good game he would be in a good mood and everybody would be laughing,” said Ehlers, acting out the scene. “If I had a bad game, he would turn down the radio and we would be sitting (quietly) and he would look over sometimes and say, ‘So what do you think?’ and then I’d say, ‘Well, it was an OK game.’
“Oh, yeah? OK,” he said playing the role of his dad, shaking his head disapprovingly.
According to a handful of NHL scouts who took part in team interviews with Ehlers, the young Dane performed exceptionally well. Some of the words scouts to describe the 18-year-old are thoughtful, well-spoken, impressive, polished, dynamic and driven. He speaks six different languages and comes across as composed off the ice as he does on it.
In the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League where he plays for the Halifax Mooseheads, Ehlers has been one of the team’s best players in his rookie season, using his speed and puck stills to set himself apart. He ended up being named the Canadian Hockey League’s rookie of the year. At the awards ceremony at the Memorial Cup in London, Ont., Heinz Ehlers was a proud papa taking video as his son spoke with reporters.
With the Mooseheads, the left winger scored 49 goals and added 55 assists for 104 points in 63 games this season.
“There was an adjustment period, but it didn’t take him long,” says Mooseheads general manager Cam Russell. “It was probably October when he started finding his groove and became a first-line player for us.
“In my opinion, he’s the most exciting player in the draft.”
Russell spotted Ehlers during a scouting trip to Switzerland. He only saw him play once, but the lone viewing left a big impression on the former NHLer. At the time, the youngster was playing pro in the Swiss league’s first division with Biel.
“Playing in that league at 16 and doing what he was doing I knew he was going to be an excellent hockey player,” says Russell.
“Getting away with what he was able to get away with playing against 30-year-old men was something that really blew me away. The speed at which he played at and his acceleration – his composure with the puck and he had an edge as well – it was impressive.”
At 5-foot-11 and 163-pounds, Ehlers could use another year of seasoning in junior to help grow into what is at present a slight build. He said his goal for this summer is to put on some more weight. Having his dad at his disposal has meant that he’s been able to train under the watchful eye of a seasoned coach.
“He’s been my personal coach since I’ve been a little boy,” said Ehlers. “He knew when to push me and when to back off. He worked out with me every single summer until now. He’s had a big impact on me and he’s why I’m standing here right now. I’m just really thankful.”
In the meantime, Winnipeg bench boss Paul Maurice better watch his back when it comes to his coaching job, because Ehlers believes his sister could be gunning for a pro job in the future.
“It honestly wouldn’t surprise me if she became a hockey coach.”
On Friday night, her blanket was replaced by a smart, canary yellow blazer. But, like so many nights before – surrounded by her family – Caroline Ehlers was once again a girl sitting in the stands cheering on her older brother.