Late in the first period, Greg Koehler rose from the Hurricanes bench. He flung his legs over the boards and, for the first time, propelled himself into the heart of NHL action. The moment his left skate hit the ice, a dream was realized. It was Dec. 29, 2000, and he was a big leaguer.
Sitting on the bench most of the period had given Koehler time to take in his surroundings at Columbus’ Nationwide Arena and settle his nerves. By the time he went on for his first shift, he was clear-headed, hungry to show he belonged. He skated forward, crossing the GMC logo in front of the bench before turning toward the offensive zone. Carolina’s Ron Francis, a few strides ahead, raced toward a loose puck in the corner. Koehler followed, his eyes up in anticipation for a pass from his captain. It took eight strides for him to cross the blue line.
“Oh, there he is!” shouted his mom, Cathy Koehler, watching on TV from the family home in Scarborough, Ontario.
But as Koehler reached Carolina’s offensive zone, Blue Jackets forward Steve Heinze’s stick hooked around Francis. The veteran crashed to the ice and slid into the wall. An official blew his whistle immediately. It was a clear-cut penalty.
“Ah, f—,” Koehler thought to himself and instantly turned toward the bench. He wasn’t on Carolina’s power play unit, so he knew his shift was over. There had been other moments in the period Koehler had been ready to take the ice, but something always seemed to get in the way, be it a penalty or a teammate not heading to the bench for a line change.
“Sorry, kid,” Carolina coach Paul Maurice said, looking down the bench toward his new forward. “I’m trying.”
The game stayed tight the rest of the evening. With Carolina chasing the lead against the expansion Blue Jackets, Maurice never called Koehler’s name again. He didn’t get back on the ice. Not that day, and never again in an NHL game.
After four seconds and eight strides, his NHL career was over. His stick never touched the puck.
Since the NHL began tracking ice time in 1997-98, no skater’s career has been shorter than Koehler’s four seconds. Jeff Libby, who played 43 seconds with the Islanders in 1998, is next closest. He and Koehler are the only skaters in NHL history to have recorded only one shift.
The official box score and NHL database mistakenly say Koehler played 46 seconds. But upon review of the game footage provided by the Blue Jackets, Koehler’s memory is correct. He took the ice only once, in the moments leading up to Heinze hooking Francis. Time on ice figures are kept manually, so it’s entirely possible the NHL employees logging 38 skaters’ time in the Carolina-Columbus game mistook someone else for Koehler. Shane Willis, one of Koehler’s teammates in the Hurricanes organization, remembers something similar happening to him. He recalls getting credited for a shift once in Buffalo despite sitting on the bench the entire game.
Mistakes happen, especially when it comes to tracking who is on the ice at an exact moment.
Now 48, Koehler isn’t blown away by the magnitude of making the NHL, nor is he tortured by staying there for less time than it takes to tie a shoe. Maybe, as he believes, the Hurricanes didn’t give him a fair shot. Maybe he got unlucky.
Or maybe he was simply good enough to reach the highest level — to inhale the cold air at ice level for one fleeting evening — but not good enough to stay there. Those are unanswerable questions, though not ones that eat at him.
“I’m not here to cry the blues,” he says. “I have no regrets about what happened.”
As his parents told him in the aftermath of his lone NHL game, he had made it. Of all the kids around the world who grow up playing hockey, only a fraction of a fraction of a fraction play in the NHL. Koehler was one of them. He reached the pinnacle, even if only for mere seconds.
Koehler’s relationship with hockey was a love affair from a young age. He once used a patch of ice frozen on the sidewalk to practice skating until his mom called him inside. He watched “Hockey Night in Canada” every Saturday with his parents. He played ball hockey in the street with his neighbors and brothers and anyone he could find. He woke up every morning looking at a poster of Wayne Gretzky in an Oilers sweater.
When Koehler was 13 and captain of the AAA Pee Wee Toronto Marlies, Hockey Hall of Famer Ken Dryden was in the midst of creating “Home Game,” a CBC TV series that would eventually be turned into a book co-written with Roy MacGregor. Dryden wanted to devote one chapter to youth hockey and the pressures and time commitments that came with it, for the players themselves and for their families. He identified Koehler — with his five brothers, a baby sister and all the resulting chaos — as a perfect subject.
So Dryden shadowed the young Greg as the Marlies prepared for the Quebec International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament. He came by the Koehlers’ bungalow on Amberley Drive almost every day. Once, he got down on his hands and knees to help Greg and his friends retrieve a ball from the bushes so they could continue their game on the street.
Greg was a quiet kid, and Cathy doesn’t remember Dryden being the most vocal, either. Perhaps, she thinks, that’s why he and Greg were able to have good conversations on camera. Dryden captured the essence of Koehler’s youth. He had posters of Alyssa Milano, his celebrity crush, in his room, occasionally changed his baby sister’s diaper and was always thinking about hockey. In the TV episode, “Playing Fields of Scarborough,” Dryden reflects on his own upbringing, how he had games or practiced 75 nights a year and made the NHL because he outworked everyone else. Koehler, meanwhile, dedicated 140-plus nights to games and practice annually.
“As with all prodigies, Greg will go as far as his mind drives him, as his body allows,” Dryden says over shots of the family driving to hockey practice. “As far as his parents scrimp and save, encourage and push him on.”
Dryden caught Koehler during a difficult season. Though he would one day grow up to be 6-feet-2 and 194 pounds, he was tiny at 13. He couldn’t dominate games like he used to. As Dryden pontificates, “at 13, only the stars are left, and the prodigy stops looking like Gretzky.” Greg told his mom he was worried he’d never score again.
During Marlies tryouts the next spring, Koehler walked up to the board that listed players the team wanted to come back for final tryouts. Koehler read over the taped sheet of paper twice, but he couldn’t find his name. He flipped the page over, wondering if there was anything on the back. There wasn’t.
Tears sprung in his eyes. Within one year, he’d gone from captain of the team to cut.
“That kind of crushed him for a while,” Cathy says. “He didn’t really want to play after that.”
Ball hockey in the street never stopped, but Koehler took the spring off from playing in an organized league. Then, the next fall, another area coach convinced him to come out for a skate. That reignited Koehler, and he joined the team, the Wexford Raiders. From there, Koehler went to a team in Niagara Falls and started to grow physically. He eventually earned a scholarship to UMass-Lowell, then signed with the Hurricanes organization after two years. He used his $650,000 signing bonus to pay off his parents’ house, where they still live.
Years later, when reflecting on his NHL debut, Koehler thinks back to that dreadful day at the Marlies rink, the day that he says hardened him and, ultimately, pushed him forward.
“It’s almost like, ‘f— you,’” he says. “‘I told you I could do it.’”
Koehler owed his coach an apology. He was with the Cincinnati Cyclones in his third full professional season, and the staff had put him in a third line checking role. That annoyed him. He was in the IHL, then just one level below the NHL, and believed he should be playing in more offensive situations. One early-season game, his anger boiled over on the bench. He slammed his stick, then threw it behind him in the general vicinity of coach Ron Smith.
“What was that?” the coach asked Koehler in his office after the team’s next practice.
Koehler apologized but also shared his frustration.
“I know I can score 25 goals in this league no problem,” he told the coach.
Over the coming months, the forward proved prophetic. And in the middle of what would end up being a 35-goal season for Koehler, Hurricanes center Rod Brind’Amour went down with a groin injury. Carolina’s prospect pool was thin, and general manager Jim Rutherford and assistant Jason Karmanos went to a Cyclones game on Dec. 28, 2000, to evaluate Craig MacDonald and Koehler, who had good hands and was also willing to fight opponents.
One of the two was coming up.
After the Cyclones game, a 6-1 win, a Cincinnati trainer told Koehler to pack his bags. Smith then called him into his office and told him the news. He was going to the NHL. Ecstasy rushed through Koehler’s body.
“I don’t think it was because of my good behavior,” he jokes now.
The team provided him with a shuttle service from Cincinnati to Columbus, and the next night he walked into the plain, spacious visitors dressing room in Nationwide Arena. He found his stall and pulled a red Hurricanes road sweater over his head. He’d made it.
During warmups, Koehler skated without a helmet, letting the air fly through his hair as he took in his surroundings. He hoped he’d be able to settle his nerves early in the game, perhaps by getting involved in a scrum or laying a big hit. Twirling around the Hurricanes end of the rink, he felt faster than normal. Like an NHLer.
Luke DeCock, then a 26-year-old beat writer for the Raleigh News & Observer, watched from the press box as Carolina’s Jeff O’Neill won the opening faceoff against Geoff Sanderson. Even now, the game remains fresh in his mind.
“The game that Greg Koehler got called up and played a shift in, is still — 23 years later — one of the strangest games I’ve covered,” DeCock says.
Carolina had a sub-.500 record and was struggling to win against lesser opponents, and DeCock had heard rumors questioning Maurice’s job status. That wasn’t a recipe for a minor league call-up to get much ice time. Plus, Maurice didn’t play his fourth line much, even when his job was secure.
“There was so much pressure every night for them to win because they needed those points,” says Willis, who also struggled to get playing time when Maurice first called him up.
Koehler expected “somewhat of a regular shift” in his debut, but that likely wasn’t going to be in the cards with the way Maurice coached. The way the game unfolded led to even less opportunity. The two teams committed a combined 56 minutes of penalties, and Koehler wasn’t on Carolina’s power play or its penalty kill unit. The Hurricanes committed 11 minor penalties in the 3-1 loss, and O’Neill took a 10-minute misconduct for screaming at referee Kelly Sutherland. Maurice was so angry at the officiating that he pretended not to remember Sutherland’s name postgame.
Koehler got lost in the chaos.
Rutherford didn’t end up firing Maurice that night, and the Hurricanes pulled themselves together, getting at least a point in their next nine games and eventually making the playoffs. Koehler dressed for warmups in at least one of the team’s next two games — he remembers Tampa Bay goalie Kevin Weekes, whom he knew from minor hockey in the Toronto area, congratulating him at center ice — but didn’t get into the lineup again. Carolina sent him back to Cincinnati on Jan. 6, 2001.
“I wish (Maurice) would have given me maybe a little bit more opportunity,” Koehler says. “But I don’t have any bitter pills or bitterness about it. There obviously was a reason for it. I just don’t know what the reason was, but I never probably will. And that’s fine.”
Koehler’s path crossed with multiple notable hockey figures. Francis, who drew the hook that sent Koehler to the bench, is the fifth-leading scorer of all time and now runs the Kraken as general manager. Brind’Amour, whose injury led to Koehler’s call-up, captained Carolina to a 2006 Stanley Cup victory and now coaches the team. Maurice is the sixth-winningest coach in NHL history and led the Panthers to a Stanley Cup Final berth over the summer. Rutherford, now the Canucks president of hockey operations, has won three Stanley Cups as an executive.
Francis and Rutherford are already in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and there’s a world in which Maurice and Brind’Amour join them. Their memories of Koehler vary. Francis recognized the name, and Rutherford said he couldn’t recall enough to answer questions about the forward. Reminded of the circumstances around the game, he laughed.
“That’s probably why I don’t remember it,” he says. “Because I don’t want to remember it.”
“I ruined his career, did I?” Francis says when told of the hooking penalty.
“He only played one game?” says Brind’Amour, who remembers Koehler.
Only one game. Only one shift. “A glimpse, and that was it,” Cathy Koehler says. “Done.”
Over the following years, Koehler bounced around the minors, at one point earning a call-up with Nashville. He skated in warmups, but the Predators scratched him for the actual game. Injuries bit Koehler as he aged. After the 2006-07 season, six years removed from his game with Carolina, his career was finished.
Looking back, Koehler wishes he worked harder in the gym during summer training. Other than that, he wouldn’t change much. He has nothing bad to say about the game.
“It gave me a great head start in life,” he says.
Koehler owns barely any physical artifacts from his lone evening in an NHL lineup. He has a photocopy of Hurricanes-Blue Jackets game sheet and the memories that came with it, and that’s about it. He’s not even positive where his jersey is. He believes he might have donated it to UMass-Lowell, not anticipating it would be his only one.
He always thought he’d be back.
Nowadays, Koehler is back in the Toronto area, and also spends plenty of time at an Ontario cottage he bought with his signing bonus. He always wanted to work with his hands, so he’s a mechanic installing and servicing heating and air conditioning units. Wanting a little less wear and tear on his body, he’s hoping to transition to the sales side at some point.
“I’m getting older,” he says. “I enjoy what I do, but at the same time, I’d like to use my brain a little more, my knowledge a little more that way than with the tools.”
Koehler has two kids: a 17-year-old son, Jaxon, and a 14-year-old daughter, Lilly. They both, of course, play hockey. A few years back, Lilly was even a youth player chosen to take the ice before a Maple Leafs game. She stood on the ice for the national anthems, right in front of the starters for the opposing team — the Carolina Hurricanes, ironically.
Greg likes to watch Maple Leafs games and particularly enjoys NHL action come playoff time. He still plays men’s league hockey, too. The beer tastes good, he says with a laugh. It’s cold.
For Koehler, his love for hockey has been a constant since he was a boy. At the beginning of the Dryden documentary, the famous goalie interviews the youngster in his bedroom. Koehler is a handsome kid, with wide eyes and a head full of blonde hair. A collection of trophies sit behind him.
He’s nervous in front of the camera, looking down between thoughts. But he speaks with conviction when discussing his goals.
“Well,” he says, “I want to be an NHL player when I grow up.”
A trace of a smile crosses his face, as if he’s imagining what that would look like, what it would feel like to take the ice in an NHL arena and skate with the best players in the world. His whole future lies ahead of him. He can dream.
(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic. Photos: Jill Brady / Portland Press Herald via Getty Images; Patrick Smith / Getty Images; Getty Images / NHLI)