Hockey East can recognize a star when it sees one.
Greg Koehler starred in Ken Dryden’s Home Game documentary eight years ago. Earlier this month Hockey East named Koehler the season’s first Rookie of the Week.
The road from video fame to collegiate success, however, proved a rocky one for the UMass-Lowell freshman. At 13, when Ken Dryden and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) came calling, he was captain and a leading scorer for the Marlies. One year later the Marlies cut him. After another two difficult years, he left home at 16 to get his hockey career back on track.
At the time, Dryden’s words from Home Game sounded eerily prophetic:
“These are the best 13 year-old players in the world. Yet in five years most will be out of hockey. Burnout, they’ll explain, theirs or their parents’; an injury; a coach who didn’t like them; a body that didn’t grow.”
When CBC chose Greg Koehler (pronounced Kee-ler) for “The Fields of Scarborough,” the second episode of Home Game, he fit the part perfectly. He came from a large family of five brothers and a sister, a topic central to that story. But the 13-year-old provided CBC more than that. His photogenic good looks — blonde hair and a winsome, shy smile — would translate well onto the TV screen. Perhaps even more importantly, he was no bit player on an obscure team. Koehler was captain and traditionally the top scorer on the Marlies, the most famous youth team in Toronto.
Koehler also provided an unexpected angle.
He was struggling.
“When I was younger,” said Koehler, “I was usually bigger than everyone else. But by the time I was 13, everyone had caught up and a lot of guys had passed me.”
Even though he did stand a head shorter than his teammates and goals came harder than in previous years, Koehler still captained the Marlies to the finals of Quebec’s fabled Le Colisee tournament in front of over 14,000 fans and the CBC cameras.
“It’s every kid’s dream to win that tournament,” said Koehler. “But even though we lost in the finals, it was still a great experience.”
After the cameras left, Greg Koehler remained the same quiet kid he’d always been. He still did his homework, played baseball, and dreamed about someday playing in the NHL.
“I’d been really excited that Ken Dryden was doing the video,” said Koehler, “but I was a pretty shy kid. Once the cameras came in front of me, I acted shy pretty much throughout the whole video.
“When I watched it,” he said, “I was a little embarrassed seeing myself on TV. Even now I get a little red-cheeked. But it was a good time.”
“We had a lot of fun doing Home Game,” said Cathy Koehler, Greg’s mother. “It was a great opportunity and I think it was good for him. He was a quiet kid so I didn’t think it would go to his head.”
Greg’s appearance in Home Game did have a dark side, however. Its emphasis on Koehler’s lack of size and reduced scoring prowess pigeonholed him with some people.
Cut by the Marlies
The next year a new Marlies coach cut him before even the final tryout.
“I was totally shocked,” said Koehler. “When I went to see my name on the list for the next tryout, it wasn’t there. I was in tears.”
“I always thought he’d be a Marlie for life,” his mother said. “How do you cut your captain, your leading scorer, and your best plus-minus player?”
Only Greg’s father, Ed, saw it coming to any degree. “I was surprised, but I wasn’t surprised. There was a kid who had played with Greg, but had always been in Greg’s shadow. The kid’s father was coming back to help coach the team and [it all turned into] politics.”
No longer a Marlie, Greg joined the Wexford Raiders. As luck would have it, Dave Prentice, whose son now plays at Union College, was not only a Raider coach but also an accomplished motivational speaker. The pairing worked wonders for the discouraged teenager.
Greg still wasn’t growing, however. He had the hands and a great head for hockey, but continued to get knocked for his lack of size.
Eventually, the family decided that Toronto was no longer in Greg’s best hockey interests.
Niagara Falls and The “O”
“I really didn’t want him to go,” said Cathy Koehler. “But Home Game seemed to focus a lot on how small Greg was, so my husband just felt that if he got away from it all, it would be better for him.”
“I just told him that sometimes this was what hockey was all about,” said Ed Koehler. “And I asked him if that was what he wanted to do. I figured it was just a matter of time before he started to grow again. And he had the kind of intensity that once his size took over, he’d be back to where he should be.”
Greg left and played a year with the Niagara Falls Devils, leading the team in scoring.
“It ended up working out well,” he said. “It was probably the key turning point for me. I’d had a slow start in midget, so when I played well at Niagara Falls and got time on the power play, it really boosted my confidence.”
He also began to grow again, a cause for celebration among the Koehlers.
His improved play and size, however, created a new, thorny issue.
Greg’s Niagara Falls coach called the Koehlers and said that an Ontario Hockey League (OHL) team had suffered some injuries and wanted Greg to play for them. Playing for an OHL team renders a player ineligible for NCAA hockey.
“Like every other 15- or 16-year old,” said Greg, “my dream was to play in the OHL.”
But the Koehlers stuck to their guns.
“We were making the choices,” said Ed Koehler. “No way he was going to play in the “O”. Every Canadian kid’s dream is to play in the “O” because all of the glamour. But now Greg looks back and can see that some of the guys he played hockey with and who went to the “O” haven’t [made the big time]. These guys have no education to fall back on and they’re not going to do very much with their lives.”
Greg now agrees. “Playing junior B and college looked like second-best [at the time], but now I’m really happy with the decision.”
After the year of new-found size and increased confidence, Greg returned home to play for the North York Rangers and then eventually for Brampton, where UMass-Lowell spotted him.
Success at Lowell
Greg immediately hit his stride at Lowell, picking up points in five of his first seven games. He earned Hockey East’s first 1996-97 Rookie of the Week award for his two goals, including the game-winner, and two assists in a weekend series against Boston College.
“I was kind of surprised at the award,” he said, “but I’m not even thinking about that. I’m just here for the team and hope I can help the team every day.”
Size no longer concerns Greg, although, like most athletes, he still wants to get stronger. He now stands at 6-2, 195 pounds.
He still clings to the same hopes he held when he was 13 and speaking into Ken Dryden’s videocamera.
“Playing in the NHL is every kid’s dream,” he says now with a smile. “That’s still definitely one of my main goals.”
Greg Koehler has proven his doubters wrong before. He just might do it again.