According to EHC Biel coach Mike McNamara, Gilian Kohler is a “quiet kid who leads by example” and has a great skill set and mind for hockey.

Kootenay Ice ‘getting a gem’ in Gilian Kohler according to EHC Biel coach

Mike McNamara says WHL will be adjustment for diminutive forward, but he could very well excel

It wasn’t the ending to summer hockey that Gilian Kohler was hoping for, but nothing will stop him from coming to Cranbrook ready to work.

Kohler suffered a minor concussion in a pre-tournament game at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup in Breclav, Czech Republic on Saturday and subsequently returned home to Switzerland.

The Kootenay Ice’s top pick at the 2017 CHL Import Draft scored in the first period of his nation’s game against Belarus, but after the hit to the head, it was decided that it would be safest for Kohler to rest.

According to his father Denis, he did not lose consciousness and the injury will not affect his departure for Canada on August 25.

“The doctor said that he could take the plane [home from the Czech Republic] and he’s already feeling much better,” Denis told the Townsman on Tuesday afternoon. “Of course, he needs rest, but it’s not posing any problems.”

Although Kohler is no doubt disappointed to not be playing at the prestigious U18 tournament, where his fellow 2000-born EHC Biel teammate Valentin Nussbaumer has been tearing it up with a team-best four points in three games, he is still excited as ever about what lies ahead.

“[Playing in Canada] has always been his dream,” Denis said. “He is very happy to be coming. He knows that the WHL will be difficult and he’ll have a lot of work to do, but he’s ready and he’s excited.”

Kohler’s selection, third overall by the Ice, was a major step in a journey that began when he was three years old learning to skate at a local natural, outdoor rink. He soon learned to play hockey and would spend hours practicing every day.

As a kid growing up in the town of Sonceboz near Biel, Kohler idolized the players on EHC Biel, their local National League A team. During the 2012-13 NHL lockout, the team added NHL stars Tyler Seguin and Patrick Kane, who further fueled his desire to reach the highest level.

Always a top player in the club’s minor hockey system, Kohler worked his way up to spending the 2016-17 season as a full-time member of the junior Biel U20 squad. In 43 games, he had eight goals and 42 assists and was one of the top point-producers in the entire league.

In January and February, he started receiving attention from CHL scouts and was eventually contacted and then selected in June by Kootenay’s general manager Matt Cockell.

As the current coach of the EHC Biel NLA team and the former manager of their youth program, Mike McNamara knows Kohler well and is optimistic that he will be successful in North America.

“Gilian is not very big, [but] he’s a real little power packet, you know, one of the fittest kids in [our] whole organization,” McNamara told the Townsman on Wednesday. “He’s really, really fast, [with a] good skill set [and] he comes off the wing with a really quick release shot, which he should probably use a lot more.”

While McNamara said that, as an unselfish player, Kohler had more of a playmaker role last season, he believes that he could easily develop into a scorer.

“He’s got a real, sweet, quick release,” McNamara said. “[He has a] very short stroke, which is what you need today. It’s hard to know where he’s going to shoot the puck. It comes off his stick really quickly.

“I hope that he makes a goal with himself [in the WHL] to shoot the puck six times a game. I think if he keeps putting the puck on net, he’ll score [more].”

What McNamara spoke most highly about, however, was Kohler’s character. Purely in terms of work ethic and desire, the coach is certain that the young forward has what it takes to play in any league.

“[The Ice] are getting a gem from the point of view of [his] hard working [nature] and [being] a kid who really takes care of himself and who takes the game seriously,” McNamara said. “He’s one of those ‘first on the ice, last off the ice’ kind of kids.”

The most-likely challenge for Kohler is adapting himself to playing Canadian hockey, which is on a smaller ice surface and can be a more physical and dangerous game.

“I’ve played in the Canadian junior league and it’s mean,” McNamara said. “Kids are out there and when they hit you, they want to hurt you. That’s something in Switzerland that you don’t see as much.

“[Kohler] will have to be aware that there are guys out there that would like nothing better than to knock his head off.”

While McNamara acknowledged that was, perhaps, an exaggeration, he knows that Kohler will not shy away from confrontation and physical play.

“Gilian is not afraid,” he said. “He’s not a big kid, but if the puck is there, he’s going to go and get it. [But] he’ll have to be smart and he’ll have to make sure that he protects himself and doesn’t put himself in vulnerable positions where he’s taking hits for nothing.”

Having played in junior as a midget-aged player last year and having spent time with the Swiss national U18 team recently, Kohler should be prepared for the WHL.

“He practiced with [the men’s NLA team] very regularly [last year] and you wouldn’t have picked him out as a junior player. He holds his own out there,” McNamara said. “[During our summer sessions], he looked very good. A number of my players remarked, ‘Wow, Kohler could play with us right now.’”

Although McNamara admits that it is definitely a loss for EHC Biel to have Kohler leave for North America, as he would’ve been in line to play some games in the first division this season, he is very eager to see him realize his dream.

“I’m confident that [the Ice] will be happy with him. He’s a great kid, he works really hard, he’s an unbelievable teammate … it’s just a question of adjusting.”

While the Ivan Hlinka tournament may not have gone as planned, Kohler’s WHL dream is still fully intact and he should start making a name for himself in Cranbrook very soon.