Ehlers sparks Danes to Olys

Nikolaj Ehlers hasn’t gone so far as to publicly implore Gary Bettman to free up NHL players for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

But the flashy Winnipeg Jets winger needs a big assist from the NHL commissioner and the rest of the decision-makers to make his Olympic dream come true.

Ehlers sparked Denmark to its first Olympic berth during a recent qualifying tournament in Oslo, compiling five goals and nine points during triumphs over Slovenia, Korea, and host Norway.

He fired the insurance goal with 3:12 left in regulation in a 2-0 triumph Sunday over the Norwegians to secure the spot. Now, he’s anxiously awaiting word on whether or not he and some of his union brethren will head to China in February to compete with their respective national teams.

“The waiting sucks. This is a dream come true for me and a for lot of other guys. We all want to go. There’s no question, there’s no doubt. We want to be able to call ourselves Olympic athletes,” Ehlers told the Free Press Tuesday. “I really hope we get this figured out and we’re allowed to go because it’s not just about us, it’s about growing the game. You go play the Olympics with the NHL players, that’s how you grow the game of hockey. I hope that we’re allowed to go and it’ll be exciting.”

ESPN hockey writer Emily Kaplan reported just days ago the NHL, NHLPA, International Ice Hockey Federation and International Olympic Committee are nearing an agreement that would allow Ehlers and several of his Jets teammates — likely Mark Scheifele (Canada), Kyle Connor and Connor Hellebuyck (U.S.) — to participate in the event.

NHL players were not granted permission to compete in the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

So, the 12-team field has been set. Denmark, Latvia and Slovakia join Canada, the United States, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Czech Republic, Germany, Switzerland and China, which automatically qualified as the host country.

Denmark joined the International Ice Hockey Federation in 1946, yet had never reached the Olympics.

Ehlers shared the extraordinary experience with his father, Heinz, head coach of the Danish national squad.

“It was amazing. It’s the first time I’ve had him as a coach, the first time he’s had me as a player. So, being able to go out and do something like we did Sunday and then have your dad there, it was pretty special. It’s something we’re never gonna forget,” said the six-year NHL veteran, who has scored at least 25 goals three times for the Jets.

“He was the same way with me as he was with all the other players. It’s no secret that me and my dad talk a lot about hockey and if he sees something during the game he doesn’t like, he tells me, which is the way it should be. It’s like with any other coach. But when you think about it after the games are done, it’s pretty cool.”

The 25-year-old from the northern city of Aalborg is now off to Spain with his folks for a well-deserved, week-long vacation. Afterward, he’ll resume on- and off-ice training at home before flying to Winnipeg around Sept. 18, a few days before the start of Jets training camp.

He was still buzzing three days after the momentous moment.

“We were sending in our sizes (Tuesday) for our Olympic clothes that we all get and we’re still pretty fired up. The great feeling is definitely still there. It was pretty emotional after the game for everyone, and now it’s just a lot of joy and excitement,” said Ehlers, who has represented Denmark at several internationals tournaments, with little success. “This is the first time we’ve won something, so that’s pretty incredible.

“When we were at this tournament five years ago, we thought we had a good chance of winning and going to the Olympics, but we lost our first game (5-2 to Belarus) and the hope was kind of gone. We’ve got some guys who have paved the way — guys like Frans Nielsen and Peter Regin and Mikkel Boedker — for the young guys like me, so to be able to help them achieve this dream when it might be their last chance, that’s pretty amazing.

“That’s why it was maybe a little more emotional, but it was a lot of fun and we deserved it. We played hard, we played the way we wanted to, we had good preparations throughout the summer and we definitely deserved that spot.”

Indeed, the Danes took a regimented approach during the leadup to the four-team qualification tournament, congregating for three-day training sessions no fewer than five times over the summer.

Ehlers, who has a knack for exploiting the opposition with his ability to shimmy and shake at top speed, did so without the aid of a large ice surface in Oslo.

“We played on a small ice surface, pretty close to NHL rinks, and the width was actually a little bit smaller than NHL. So, it was different. It was a lot more intense, a lot more hitting, really physically. It worked out and we won,” said the 2014 first-round NHL pick.

The national program has continued to make strides in recent years, however, none compares to booking a place among the world’s elite

“Hopefully, it has a big impact in Denmark. That’s also one of the reasons we play hockey. You want to, especially in Denmark, make hockey bigger. With the results we’ve been able to make the last couple of years — quarterfinals at the (2016) world championship, having the world championship in Denmark in 2018, winning against Sweden for the first time ever at (the 2021) world championship, and now going to the Olympics — it’s pretty incredible,” said Ehlers.

“We want to open people’s eyes and get them to look our way and, hopefully, get a lot of young boys and girls to play the game. It’s exciting for us but it’s exciting for hockey in Denmark. It’s about growing the game. You go play in the Olympics with NHL players, that’s how you grow the game of hockey.”

Ehlers has closely monitored the work of general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff during the off-season and is ecstatic about moves to retain the services of several of his teammates and add some key pieces to the roster.

“We have that core group that’s been together for the last six years, and then when you bring in guys like Brendan Dillon and Stas (Paul Stastny) and (Nate) Schmidt and you’re able to bring back (Neal) Pionk and Copper (Andrew Copp), that’s exciting news for us. I think everyone is pumped to get back and go to work, and give ourselves a chance to go far this year,” he said.

“Last year, even though we won the first round it was still a disappointment. We did think we had more in us and we weren’t able to go out and do that, so the guys that were here last year are going to come back with a little more bite and we’re going to do well this year.”

And he’s psyched about performing in front of a raucous, capacity crowd at Winnipeg’s downtown arena, following a 2021 campaign drastically altered owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Even playing up in Norway these three games, we played in front of 2,500 people and that was so much fun. Hopefully, we can get as many fans in as possible without any problems and get our hockey community fired up again in Winnipeg,” he said. “It’s a lot more fun when you have fans at games, and I’m sure they’ve missed watching hockey. So, I’m pretty excited about it and I hope Winnipeg is, too, and, hopefully, we can go out and get people to smile again. It’s exciting, for sure.”

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Assistant sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

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