Nikolaj Ehlers has soared to the heights of NHL superstardom, and even bigger things are likely on the horizon for the Winnipeg Jets' exhilarating winger.
But a friend and former teammate believes it's the small things that mean a lot when it comes to one of Denmark's favourite sons.
"We all know how great of a hockey player he is. You only have to watch five minutes of a Jets game to figure that out. But not everybody knows how humble and how good of a guy he is off the ice. I've enjoyed my time with Nikolaj, absolutely," Morten Green, a retired Danish pro who works as a European player agent and TV hockey commentator, said Friday by phone from his home in Horsholm, Denmark.
Green, 40, played professionally in Europe for 21 years, competed at 19 world championships for Denmark and captained national teams in 2016 and '17 that included a super-swift, highly skilled Ehlers just barely out of his teens.
The whiz kid was clearly raised right, he said.
"I remember Nikolaj came straight to the national team, to our camp in Copenhagen, after his first year with the Jets. We had the night off and he came to me and said, 'Morten, do you think after dinner it would be OK if I left the hotel?' I don't remember if it was his cousin or his brother he wanted to meet. He said, 'I haven't seen him for a year now, so would it be OK if I went out for just one hour?'" Green recalled.
"That says everything about him. He thinks about other people and he felt it was right to come ask me as a captain if he could leave. Obviously, we can come and go whenever we wanted. But he didn't want anyone to think that he was arrogant.
"He was already an NHL player and he came in as a huge name for us. But he was so humble and had a lot of respect for the older players. When we were getting our food, he was always the last in line, and always asking us what he should and shouldn't do, on and off the ice. Just a really good young man."
"He was already an NHL player and he came in as a huge name for us. But he was so humble and had a lot of respect for the older players." – Retired Danish teammate Morten Green
Winnipeg's head coach maintains success hasn't changed the 25-year-old from Aalborg — a city of 215,000 in northern Denmark — one bit.
"He’s always carried himself in a really professional manner. He comes from a hockey family, with his dad (Heinz) being a coach over there. When you watch Nikky around kids or around fans, he’s always very giving. And he’s got time for people," said Paul Maurice. "What’s really brilliant about this is 10 years from now, when he may end up being the highest-scoring Danish player, he’s going to be a figurehead of the sport in that country and he’s going to be able to do so much for young people there.
"That’s the great payoff. They get a really fantastic ambassador who is valued in Canada, valued in his second country, but he will get to go home and improve young people's lives. He’s that kind of person. He’s a good national treasure."
Maurice spoke following the Jets' 5-2 victory Thursday over the Toronto Maple Leafs, a night when Ehlers scored a pair of flashy goals, including a key third-period tally when he caught Mitch Marner — a player he's often compared to — from behind, out-muscled him for a loose puck, darted in and used one hand on his stick to poke his 20th goal of the year behind goalie David Rittich.
"I got a stick on it in our zone and I thought that I could skate him up and try to create a loose puck somehow, and it worked out. I just tried to skate as hard as I could and get my stick on that puck," Ehlers explained after the game. "It created a good bounce for me going towards the net and I just tried to… I play with a pretty long stick, so that worked out for me."
Scintillating stuff, indeed, the stuff Manitoba hockey fans have grown accustomed to since the 2014 first-round (ninth overall) draft choice from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League made the NHL squad out of training camp in September 2015 after back-to-back 100-point campaigns with the Halifax Mooseheads.
He's gone on to produce 135 goals and 302 points in 413 games over six seasons, reaching the 20-goal mark this year for the fifth consecutive time.
Yet, Maurice is more impressed by the 6-0, 175-pound dynamo's overall development in key areas of the ice, not just where offence is generated. He still flies through the neutral zone and can unleash a deadly shot, but his even-strength defensive game has been sound and he's not shy about becoming physically involved.
The great Dane has made remarkable strides since the first time his bench boss watched him perform.
"The first time I saw Nikolaj Ehlers was on video in a playoff series when he was in Halifax, and oh, my God. It was 2 1/2-minute shifts. I think he got kicked out of one of the games by the ref. But dynamic," Maurice remembered. "We were just talking about Nikolaj and the player he’s developed into. He’s a competitive guy, right? He’s battling on the walls. He’s winning battles, he’s throwing hits, he’s just competing to win and I think he’s having a lot of fun.
"The goals are almost secondary. We know he’s going to score. But his game now has evolved where you think this guy is a playoff guy now. Two or three years ago, he was having a hard time in that heavy environment. Now, he looks like he’s starting to thrive in it."
Green firmly believes blossoming into a more complete, reliable player was always in the cards for Ehlers, owing to the hockey smarts passed down from his father, head coach of Denmark's national team.
Heinz Ehlers played professionally for 20 years, including five in Denmark and eight in Sweden, and went on to coach and raise a family in Switzerland. That's where Nikolaj tore it up — with Biel/Bienne of the Swiss junior program — before jumping to the QMJHL.
The elder Ehlers, now 55, was actually selected by the New York Rangers in the ninth round (188 overall) of the 1984 NHL Draft, and he played with Denmark at nine world championships.
Green said he relished the great privilege of playing with both father and son — at the end and beginning of their respective careers.
"Heinz is one of the smartest hockey players I ever played with. He was a very big star in Europe. We were two world championship teams together," he said. "Nikolaj has that hockey sense from his dad. When he came up with us, he was so good offensively, but you could see he lacked that 200-foot game, like a lot of young players do. But now the Jets can trust him in every situation.
"His development has just been so fun to watch. For such a small guy, to have that kind of shot, that's not normal. He has a great wrist shot that comes out of nowhere, with a very quick release, obviously everybody knows his speed but also I think he's shown he can play in big games. He had a great playoff last year with the Jets even though the team didn't go so far."
“He’s been fantastic, right from the first game of the year. It’s like he had something to prove and he’s done that." – Mark Scheifele
Ehlers was arguably Winnipeg's best player in a post-season series ultimately captured in four games by the Calgary Flames last summer, and he's continued that momentum in 2021.
"He’s been fantastic, right from the first game of the year. It’s like he had something to prove and he’s done that. He’s been fantastic for us in both ends, not even just the goal scoring, but battles in the (offensive) zone, getting pucks out, getting in the lane for shots, everything. He’s been doing all the right things and that’s why he’s been rewarded," offered Winnipeg centre Mark Scheifele.
Ehlers is ranked fourth in NHL points by a Dane — behind only Detroit Red Wings centre Frans Nielsen (473), Mikkel Boedker (327) now playing in Switzerland and Lars Eller of the Washington Capitals (313) — but has played significantly fewer games.
He's thrilled with the progress he's made, and what his success means back home.
"You know, (300 points) meant a lot to me. Hopefully, there is lots more to come. I don’t feel like I’m that young guy anymore. I was looking up to the guy like Frans Nielsen, Peter Regin and Jannik Hansen, so to be one of those guys now for a small hockey country like Denmark is pretty special," Ehlers said.
"I am proud of that and I try to go out there and play as hard as I can every single night to show them that their dream can be true. When I go home, I try to spend some time in the hockey schools in Aalborg where I’m from; you can see it means a lot to them. It’s fun and it’s exciting and it means a lot to me."
Michael Sovso, a sports reporter in Odense, Denmark, recently published a book chronicling the exploits of all 14 Danish-born players to suit up in the NHL, and a chapter on the Jets' speedy forward is included.
"When I go home, I try to spend some time in the hockey schools in Aalborg where I’m from; you can see it means a lot to them. It’s fun and it’s exciting and it means a lot to me.” – Nikolaj Ehlers
He said Eller has the cachet of winning a Stanley Cup in 2018 and goalie Frederik Anderson, currently out with an injury, receives hype for playing with the Maple Leafs, but the NHL's undisputed fan favourite in Denmark wears Jets threads.
"In the hockey environment, the other guys are big stars but Nikolaj is tops right now," said Sovso. "Right now, he is a top-10 sports person in Denmark. Clara Tauson, our shooting star in tennis, or Viktor Axelsen, among the best in the world in badminton, and our soccer, handball and cycling stars get lots of attention.
"Ice hockey is a small sport in Denmark, and the media coverage, unfortunately, reflects that. But Nikolaj Ehlers is a star. I interviewed him several times and he isn't only a good hockey player, he is a warm and friendly person."
Assistant sports editor
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