Altona’s Cole Kehler has found himself a place to play for the 2020-21 season. This past week, the 23-year-old signed a professional contract with the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose, following a successful tryout at the Winnipeg Jets training camp.
Now having the opportunity to suit up for his province’s hometown team, the 6-foot-4, 205-pound goaltender couldn’t be happier.
“Growing up in Manitoba, I remember being so excited to be able to drive into town to watch a game here or there,” Kehler told Game On. “I remember my birthday present one year was to go watch the Moose play. And now to be a part of that organization here in Winnipeg, it is just extremely special. I am so thankful to even be able to play hockey this year, especially after that big layoff we had. And to be so close to home it is just super cool. I take a lot of pride in being a part of this organization; it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Although still in the honeymoon stage, the former Portland Winterhawks star backstop knows exactly what it will take to be successful at the AHL level. According to Kehler, the early-January Jets camp was an indicator of the high-level that players within the organization bring day after day.
“It was truly a great experience at camp,” he reflected. “Any time you get to attend an NHL training camp, it’s incredibly special. The Jets are a first class organization that treats all of their players extremely well. Going in to Jets camp I was just excited for the opportunity and I wanted to show them what I was capable of as a hockey player. For it to go as well as it did and to be able to come out with a place to play for the season, I couldn’t be happier. It was an awesome experience.”
Working closely with Winnipeg Jets Assistant Coach and Manitoba Moose Developmental Goaltending Coach Rick St. Croix, Kehler has been able to absorb significant pieces of knowledge from two veteran coaches – one of which the southern Manitoba product has a long-standing relationship with.
“I have known Rick for quite a long time,” Kehler reflected. “My first goalie camp when I was eight years old was the famous Rick St. Croix Goaltending School, so I’ve known him quite a long time. I used to go to all of his camps, so it’s kind of neat to have that come full-circle. Now to be working with him again as a pro, it’s definitely really cool and really special. I am just trying to enjoy every minute of it.”
Not only has the former Altona Maroons house league backstop learned from the coaches during his Jets and Moose training camp experiences, but also the many talented players he has surrounded himself with.
“You see the goalies in the organization here and you know that the coaches definitely have a plan,” Kehler said. “I wasn’t brought into camp on an NHL contract so I wasn’t going to be on the taxi squad or anything like that. I had an exit interview after Jets camp and it was all very positive stuff. And at that time it was, ‘Okay, go down to the Moose and keep trying to earn it every day’. Going down was all very positive and just served as a reminder to stay on track. I’m just fortunate enough to get something out of that.”
Following his WHL career with Kamloops and Portland, Kehler 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.
Now fully-immersed in Moose training camp, Kehler has been able to begin building his relationship with his soon-to-be teammates and coaches. Just one day in, he is already looking forward to the start of the new season come February 5.
“The first day of camp was good,” he said. “We obviously still don’t have all of our bodies yet, but that will come soon. It will be exciting once we get the full batch of guys together. But just to be on the ice and officially get things rolling today was a lot of fun. They definitely had us working hard out there, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. It’s fun that we can finally get going here.”
Earlier telling Game On that his PTO with the Jets was an “opportunity to prove himself and earn a shot at a place to play”, Kehler has done exactly that. But according to the well-spoken netminder, the work has really just begun.
“Coming out of camp they told me that they were releasing me from my PTO, but they also made it clear that I was going to go down to the Moose right away,” Kehler said. “They weren’t guaranteeing a contract form me one hundred percent at that point, but luckily the chips have kind of fallen into place here in the last bit, but I am very thankful for it. Now I am just ready to continue going out every day and proving that I do, in fact, belong here with the Moose.”
Oh, and for those still doing the math, the Highway 3 veteran continues to pile on the kilometres on his 2017 GMC, travelling to and from Bell MTS Iceplex from his Winkler home on the daily.
“Yeah, I’m still down south,” he chuckled. “But I think I will probably be living in Winnipeg pretty soon.”
For the sake of potential speeding tickets, the resale value of his vehicle and the always unpredictable Manitoba winter roads, finding a place to live within the city of Winnipeg will undoubtedly be Kehler’s first big purchase following the signing of his new deal.