When 23-year-old goaltender Cole Kehler received the phone call on Christmas Eve telling him that the Winnipeg Jets had offered a professional tryout his way, the answer was a resounding ‘yes’.
“I am ecstatic for the opportunity,” Kehler told Game On. “It’s the hometown team, so it’s a pretty cool opportunity to have. I’ve had a couple experiences with a few other NHL camps before, so it’s not my first time around the block. But with this being so close to home, it’s just really special.”
Born and raised in southcentral Manitoba, Kehler played his minor hockey within the town of Altona, population: 4,500. He has since moved to nearby Winkler, where he has begun making daily commutes to the Jets’ training facility – located at the westernmost point of Winnipeg – solely for the purpose of COVID testing.
“No, I haven’t really tracked the kilometres or anything, but it’s got to be about 110 Ks or so to the rink,” the right-hand catching netminder chuckled. “It’s really not that bad; I grab a coffee in the morning and head into town. But that’s just a small price to pay for a good opportunity, right? If that’s what it takes for us to play hockey, then that’s totally fine by me.”
The 6-foot-4, 195-pound backstop has yet to set foot on the ice since spending the earlier months of the COVID lockdown at Winnipeg’s RINK Training Centre. So for now it’s just a drive to and from Bell MTS Iceplex for a quick nasal swab each day. But on Sunday, things will begin to look a little different.
“It’s been tough not being able to skate for a while,” Kehler reflected. “But come Monday I’ll be ready to go. We are doing our physicals and some fitness testing on Sunday, and then the on-ice portion of our camp will open on Monday. Luckily for me, I won’t stick out too much as my gear is still silver and white, not purple and yellow or anything like that.”
Kehler – who knows fellow Jets netminders Connor Hellebuyck, Laurent Brossoit and Eric Comrie through their shared representing agent (Ray Petkau of Alpha Hockey) – will serve as the ‘new guy’ at Jets training camp. Alongside Manitoba Moose backstop Mikhail Berdin, the five goalies make up Winnipeg’s goaltender portion of its training camp invitees, with Kehler being the only one on a PTO.
“Essentially, I look at it as if I’m signing for an opportunity,” Kehler reflected. “If they like how I play, they can sign me if they want, and if not, well, then I end up pretty disposable. I was a free agent going into the offseason, so I definitely was looking for a place to play, weighing my options for the better part of nine months. And then this just fell out of mid-air and it seemed like a great opportunity, so I jumped at it.”
After heading west to play for the Okanagan Hockey Academy in the Canadian Sport School Hockey League, Kehler began his WHL career in 2014 with the Kamloops Blazers – the team that drafted him in the sixth round (123rd overall) of the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft. Things did not exactly go according to plan with the Blazers and Kehler was sent to the British Columbia Hockey League for 2015-16.
Following a season with Merritt of the BCHL, Kehler was dealt south to the Portland Winterhawks, where he suited up alongside Manitobans Cody Glass and Seth Jarvis, as well as fellow Jets training camp attendee Skyler McKenzie. He went 62-33-7 with six shutouts and five assists in 109 total regular season games for the Winterhawks, earning himself a shot at a professional career.
Kehler has since spent the past two seasons within the ECHL. He put up decent numbers in a limited role with the Manchester Monarchs in 2018-19, before taking over the crease of the Fort Wayne Komets last season, where he went 14-10-4 with two shutouts, a .901 save percentage and a 3.05 goals against average. It was in that switch from junior to professional hockey that Kehler found himself making the most significant changes of his career.
“Once you begin pro hockey, you move out of that billet home and you’re basically on your own,” he said. “It’s a lot of little things when you’re learning how to be a pro; staying consistent every day, picking up good habits in practice and in the gym… you just have to be that much more detailed. It’s like that old cliché, every time you go up a level, the hard work really just gets going. It’s almost like you realize that there is another level of work ethic once you get there, and that goes from the ECHL to the AHL to the NHL. It’s a lot of work, but you’re also playing a game, so that’s a lot of fun too.”
As for what the local product is looking forward to the most in this new opportunity, for the 23-year-old, it’s all about the little things.
“Just being able to be so close to home and skating at the Iceplex is going to be really cool,” Kehler smiled. “I haven’t really had the chance to play there since I was back in Bantam, so that’s going to feel a little like the olden days. But any time you get to go up against NHL caliber shooters, that’s just a privilege to get to face those guys. You get to see where you’re at, but at the same time, you’re still pushing for a job. You have to make sure that you’re very competitive against them as well. You admire it and enjoy it just as much, but you work just as hard so you can stay there, and that’s my goal.”