Gilian Kohler (middle) skates in the offensive zone during a scrimmage at the Kootenay Ice’s 2017 training camp. (Brad McLeod Photo)

Gilian Kohler (middle) skates in the offensive zone during a scrimmage at the Kootenay Ice’s 2017 training camp. (Brad McLeod Photo)

Gilian Kohler looking to make impact in first season with Kootenay Ice

17-year-old Swiss import forward excited to be in CHL, pursuing his dream in hockey hotbed

Gilian Kohler is well aware that he’s a long way from home.

The 2000-born Swiss forward, who was selected by the Kootenay Ice with the third overall pick at the 2017 CHL Import Draft, couldn’t help but laugh when explaining the differences he’s noticed so far.

“It’s a huge difference between Switzerland and here… everything has so much more media coverage,” he told the Townsman in French at his first media scrum on Tuesday. “It’s a little funny, a little weird, but I’m really happy to be here.”

While the amount of social media posts and the number of reporters outside the dressing room may not be super familiar to him, Kohler knows it’s all a part of what he wants.

“I’m really excited to be here. It’s the best league in Canada,” he told the media in English. “It was a difficult decision [to leave home], but I’m here for my dream.”

Growing up in the town of Sonceboz, Switzerland, Kohler played the past five seasons with the nearby EHC Biel-Bienne program where he was always a top player.

Playing the 2016-17 season with the U20 junior team as an underager, Kohler had 42 assists and 50 points in 43 games and was one of the top scorers 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.

While playing in Canada was always a goal, leaving for the other side of the world at such a young age came with challenges.

“It was a difficult decision because I [could have] played in the men’s league in Switzerland [this] year,” he said. “Not a lot of games though [so] I think it’s better for me to come here and play a lot against good players [where] I will learn a lot.”

According to Kohler, seeing fellow Swiss player Nico Hischier selected first overall by the New Jersey Devils during the summer’s NHL Entry Draft, after having played the season before in the CHL with the Halifax Mooseheads, partially inspired him to come over.

“[It was] amazing [to see Hischier] drafted… he made history in Switzerland,” Kohler said, adding that he had previously played with him on the U-18 Swiss National Team and learned a lot from him. “I watched a lot of [his] games [with Halifax] during the season [and] it was a little part of my decision to come here.”

Growing up, Kohler had a chance to see plenty of NHL-calibre players in Biel-Bienne. Current Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane and Dallas Stars forward Tyler Seguin spent the 2012-13 NHL lockout season with the Swiss ‘A’ league team, which made a big impression on him.

“It was amazing. They are really good [and] it helped me to make my dreams to play in Canada,” Kohler said. “I’ve seen a lot of games with [Winnipeg Jets forward] Nikolaj Ehlers, he played in Biel too, so it was amazing.”

Kohler said that he models his game after Ehlers. As a smaller forward, Kohler emulates his speed and playmaking ability, although he also hopes to develop into a scorer.

“I’m not a big guy, but I’m pretty fast,” he said. “I would like to help my teammates and make good passes, but I have to try and shoot more [too].

“The rinks are smaller [here than] in Switzerland, [so] you have to be fast to play. You [also] have to be physical [which] I think will be good for me.”

While he’s excited, it’s been a relatively slow start to training camp for Kohler. The young forward suffered a minor concussion while playing for Switzerland in a pre-tournament game at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup in early August and has been recuperating ever since.

“Gilian hasn’t been on [the ice] that much [in camp],” said Kootenay head coach James Patrick. “He was off all physical activity for [the past] three weeks, so for him it’s just slowly getting adjusted to getting his conditioning level back up. We’re still at that phase.”

Nevertheless, Kohler did manage to get into one training camp scrimmage game and did not look out of place. By the start of the regular season in late September, Kohler should be back up to speed and ready to take the league by storm.

Kohler and Slovak defenceman Martin Bodak will be Kootenay’s two allowed import players for the 2017-18 WHL season.