HALIFAX— Nikolaj Ehlers has never been short of advice when it comes to playing hockey, having grown up around the sport.
His father, Heinz Ehlers, is a former pro player in Europe who was a draft pick of the New York Rangers in 1984. After his pro career, he moved into coaching and he’s currently head coach of HC Lausanne in the top Swiss league.
Ehlers’ older brother, Sebastian, 20, plays hockey professionally in their native Denmark and has represented his country nationally at the world junior championship.
But, according to the Halifax Mooseheads forward, there’s one person that holds the most sway when it comes to breaking down his game.
His 14-year-old sister, Caroline.
“She’s actually my head coach at home,” said Ehlers, who was selected by Halifax with the sixth overall pick in June’s CHL import draft. “She watches every game and she really knows hockey. When I come home she always says, ‘You did that wrong or you did that right.’ She’s amazing.”
As you can imagine, hockey talk pretty much dominates the discussion around the Ehlers’ dinner table.
“We’re not talking about anything else other than hockey when we’re at home eating,” Ehlers said. “My mother, she loves hockey, because my father has been playing for so long, too. When I get home I have three head coaches to talk to – it’s OK, but it can be pretty tough too.
“Sometimes I get tired talking about hockey.”
When Caroline speaks, however, Nikolaj takes notice and puts her advice to good use.
“I listen to her,” said the 17-year-old. “She sees stuff that nobody else sees. She should actually be a hockey coach.”
For his rookie campaign in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League this year, Ehlers will have to settle for Halifax Mooseheads head coach Dominique Ducharme and staff instead of his sister. The reigning QMJHL and Memorial Cup champions took the skilled, speedy Danish forward with their top import pick out of HC Biel in the top Swiss league, where he had been playing pro against men as a 16-year-old.
Ehlers said he spoke with some of his Danish countrymen – Oliver Bjorkstrand of the Portland Winterhawks and Mikkel Boedkker of the Phoenix Coyotes – to learn a little bit more about what to expect in the Canadian Hockey League. They both told him that the CHL was the best option if he wanted to play in the NHL one day.
“It was between going to Sweden and wanting to come over (to North America),” said Ehlers. “I decided to stay in Switzerland for another season and stay over there. I think it was a really good decision to stay there. I just feel like it’s better for me to come over because it’ll give me a better chance to get drafted next year in the NHL draft.
“I think it’s very good hockey here, I just need to get used to it.”
The leagues in Sweden are continuing to be a heavy draw for many Europeans looking to develop their game without moving to North America. Last season, Danish star Nicklas Jensen left the Ontario Hockey League's Oshawa Generals after two seasons in order to play for AIK in the Swedish Hockey League.
"Being around adults and living a professional life makes Sweden a great hockey league to play in," said Jensen, a first round pick of the Vancouver Canucks in 2011. "The decision was made to push myself to become a better hockey player. At the end of the day I want to be here (in North America) playing in the NHL."
Still, Jensen believes the CHL is a good route for Danish players wanting to make the jump to the next level.
"It's becoming more and more popular to come over here and play in the Canadian junior league," said Jensen. "A lot of young Europeans think about that as a route to making their dreams.
"Denmark is not the strongest country in hockey, but it's getting better and will continue to get better. But if you want to push to make the NHL, you probably have to move away at a young age."
Moving to North America was just the next step in Ehlers’ development after spending six seasons in Switzerland. Playing in the Swiss leagues not only gave him the opportunity to stay closer to his family, but provided him with an opportunity for better development.
“You always think, ‘What would have happened to me if I had stayed in Denmark?’ But I think it was good for me to get to Switzerland and play there,” said Ehlers, who speaks six different languages. “It’s really good hockey there and I’m glad that I’ve been playing in Biel for the last six years.”
Like many other Europeans, the biggest adjustment for the 5-foot-11, 163-pounder so far has been getting used to the smaller North American ice surface.
“It has been really tough,” said the left winger, who can also play centre. “It was hard at first because in Europe you have more time to have the puck and watch (the play). Here it’s so fast, the play is so fast, I have to get better at it to play here.”
The nice thing for Ehlers is that he hasn't had to make the adjustment to North America alone. In Halifax he's been joined by Swiss import Timo Meier, who was taken by the Mooseheads with the 12th overall pick in the import draft. Still, it has been hard moving away from his family.
“Of course it’s difficult,” said the native of Aalborg, Denmark. “But I’m getting used to it now. I’m Skyping with my family a lot so it’s OK."
Now that he's in Halifax, Ehlers said there's no question he made the right call in leaving home for North America.
“It’s a great organization,” said Ehlers of the Mooseheads. “There are a lot of great players. It’s really fantastic. I’m glad that I came over and made this decision. I don’t regret that at all.”