E ven at a standstill, Kaiden Guhle is the kind of athlete you take notice of. His tall, sturdy frame certainly has a hand in that. He’s also got the kind of defined jawline fictional Premier League manager Ted Lasso would compare to the White Cliffs of Dover. There’s an unmistakable leader-of-men vibe about him, even if he’s still a young man himself. If his profile can make you snap to attention, the picture of him in full flight is lose-your-breath kind of stuff. Big guys aren’t supposed to be the fastest guys, too, but Guhle — especially when he can just pin his ears back and go — is a whiz of well-refined arm chugs and leg thrusts. Whether side to side or up and down, he gets where he needs to go in a hurry. Case in point: there was a clip of Guhle circulating on Twitter in early November, before he was dealt by the struggling Prince Albert Raiders to the powerhouse Edmonton Oil Kings. Typically, if someone calls attention to a defenceman’s work on social media, it tends to be for bombing home a slapper or a coast-to-coast dash. Guhle, however, managed to turn the unglamorous chore of backchecking into such a thing of beauty, people just had to share.
The play started when one of Guhle’s Raiders teammates missed him with a drop pass just inside the Saskatoon Blades blue line. In a flash, the action was headed back toward the Prince Albert goal and when Blades left winger Egor Sidorov received the breakaway pass, his skates were crossing the Raiders blue line while Guhle was just passing over the centre-ice red. As Sidorov raced to chase down the puck that had caromed off his blade and into the Raiders end, Guhle just devoured the half-zone head start, like a predator chasing a less-fortunate link in the food chain. With the second period dwindling and the two players screaming toward the Prince Albert net, Guhle fully extended his stick and thwarted Sidorov’s attempt on Raiders stopper Carter Serhyenko. The puck wound up in the corner to the right of Serhyenko, while Sidorov and Guhle slammed into the end boards. Right at that moment, the horn blasted to signal the end of the frame, adding a sort of dramatic punctuation to the play. “You don’t find guys who are six-two, six-three and 200 pounds who can move like the wind,” says Raiders centre Ozzy Wiesblatt. “He’s extremely shifty, too. I think it’s super rare to find a guy like that, who can play all over the ice, jump up in the play with ease and get back even easier.”
Precisely how rare a find Guhle winds up being for the Montreal Canadiens is something that will only become clear over years. The belief, though, is that this 19-year-old selected 16th overall at the 2020 NHL Draft by former general manager Marc Bergevin has a chance to be a long-term stabilizing element for an organization that has experienced endless upheaval since losing the Stanley Cup Final last July. That team’s defence corps was anchored by Shea Weber, whose ailing body may prevent him from ever taking another NHL shift. His absence has left the Canadiens rudderless at times this season, fumbling through the dark without their trusted guide. The kind of lynchpin Weber was for the Habs is certainly what Team Canada will expect from Guhle when he dons the red-and-white at the upcoming World Junior Championship for the second straight year. Camp wraps today and it would surprise nobody if Guhle is named team captain before the tournament starts on Boxing Day.
The comparison game always comes with its perils, but Habs fans who want to run wild drawing lines between Weber and Guhle have their share of fodder. Beyond a similar on-ice approach and no-nonsense demeanor, they’re both western boys whose formative major junior time was spent being coached by a staff featuring head man Marc Habscheid and assistant Jeff . And hearing Habscheid talk about the heart-and-soul player he had in the Prince Albert fold for more than four years, one has to believe there are echoes of the way the coach may have described the Kelowna Rockets’ “Mountain Man” nearly 20 years ago. “He’s multi-dimensional,” Habscheid says of Guhle. “Very good man and good heart and incredible person. And once the puck drops, he’s playing to win. He gets his eyebrows down and he can be nasty.”
That figures to be wonderful news both for fans of Canadian hockey this holiday season and Canadiens backers dreaming of better days.
W hen two hockey-playing brothers like Kaiden and Brendan Guhle skate the way they can, it’s easy to assume the genesis of their stride lies with a similarly gifted parent. However, Kaiden notes his mom, Carrianne, only briefly flirted with recreational figure skating, and his dad, Mark, “can’t skate a lick.” Brendan, a 24-year-old defenceman with the American Hockey League’s San Diego Gulls, says the boys were kind of breaking ground simply by playing the game. “None of my family has ever really played hockey,” he says. “One of my older cousins was a goalie in the Western League for a few years, but that was about it.”
With a five-year difference between the siblings, a predictable dynamic played out as Kaiden chased his brother around, nosing his way into games that were a couple weight divisions above his class. “We were obviously really competitive growing up, like most siblings are,” Kaiden says. “It was a lot of road hockey and I’d always be the one going in net, he’d always be scoring on me and I’d be getting mad at him.”
Brendan was 16 years old when he left home to blaze a WHL trail with the same Prince Albert club Kaiden would eventually suit up for. At Christmas each year, he’d come home to the Edmonton suburb of Sherwood Park and catch a couple of his little brother’s games. As a 12- and 13-year-old, Kaiden was dominant; and the arrow kept pointing up. “From then on he just took off,” Brendan says.
The elder Guhle — a second-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres in 2015 who has 59 NHL games on his resume — was in the final year of his WHL career in the spring of 2017 when the Raiders — who were rebuilding and had traded Brendan to the Prince George Cougars — won the WHL Bantam Draft Lottery. “I remember getting off the ice and seeing that,” Brendan recalls. “I was pretty excited because I was about 99.9-per cent sure he was going to P.A.”
During that season, Kaiden — already a big kid — had worn the ‘C’ for his U-15 Okanagan Hockey Academy team and led the squad in scoring. As if that wasn’t enticing enough, the Raiders also had the added advantage of knowing Kaiden and his family from the times they came to see Brendan play. That made the choice a slam dunk. “His brother was just a prince of a man and really good player,” Habscheid says. “[The familiarity] helped both Kaiden and the Raiders.”
Despite that family connection, Guhle had to pay his dues. As a Western League rookie in 2018–19, he was a 16-year-old on a squad that was back on the upswing and featured a veteran-laden blue line. That meant there were games when Guhle didn’t see a ton of ice time and the odd one he was scratched from the lineup. That’s a sobering reality for any teenager who’s dominated every level he’s played at, but Habscheid said he never found Guhle in a huff. “Not once did he complain,” Habscheid says. “He just believed in the process and kept working hard.”
The process paid off for both Prince Albert and the player. Guhle dressed for all 23 contests of the Raiders’ post-season run, which culminated with a Game 7, OT victory over the Vancouver Giants to win the league title. Playing a supporting role on the Raiders that year fueled Guhle’s desire to be the man when his time arrived. “That kind of just put a hunger inside of me that made me want to be that guy the team can rely on,” he says. “Once you win once, you want to win over and over again.
The following year — a 2019–20 campaign cut short by the start of the pandemic — Guhle established himself as a two-way threat with 40 points in 64 games. With the WHL playoffs and subsequent regular season hijacked by COVID, Guhle wasn’t back in a competitive hockey setting again for 10 months, when Canada began the process of picking its team for the 2021 WJC in Edmonton. By that point, Guhle had been selected by the Habs in the virtual draft held in October. Still, he was by no means a lock for the squad. “I knew I was going to be one of those guys who, if I had a good camp, maybe I had a chance,” he says. “So I was just banking on that: to have a good camp and make the decision [to cut me] tough on them.”
Guhle cracked the team, lining up as its second-youngest defenceman. As was the case when he was a Raiders rookie, he wasn’t a top-pair guy, but earned the trust of coach André Tourigny and the staff. Canada more or less steamrolled its way to the final, where things suddenly turned sour. A team that had been basically flawless against the other good squads at the event couldn’t find a way to stuff the puck past Spencer Knight, as Team USA blanked Canada 2–0. “There were a lot of emotions once we lost that game, seeing those guys raise the trophy and get their gold medals around their neck,” Guhle says. “It was tough to watch.”
T here was a little exchange from the pre-season that stuck with Rob Ramage. The Canadiens director of player development was watching Guhle at his first NHL training camp in a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. One of the Leafs forwards gave the youngster the business in the corner. Play drifted back toward the middle of the ice, but when it bottled up again along the boards, Guhle made sure to get his return lick in. “It was just good to see the push back,” Ramage says. “He didn’t shy away from that. Sometimes that has to be stressed and taught; that’s not going to be the case with Kaiden.”
As one would expect, some aspects of Guhle’s game will need to be teased out. Specifically, it will be interesting to see where his offence can get to in the NHL. A player of his calibre is always going to put up points in leagues beneath the big show, but Guhle himself is the first to tell you — remarkable backchecks aside — he’s nobody’s definition of a human highlight reel. “I’m not the flashy, dancing-around-the-blue-line type of player,” he says. “I’m more [about] getting pucks on net. Even in the defensive end, just keeping it simple and doing my job.”
Given the overlap in their styles, origin stories and the fact they belong to the same pro organization, the comparison to Weber is a natural one. It’s far from the only potential parallel, though. One scout running comps mentioned the names of Nashville’s Mattias Ekholm and Dallas’s Esa Lindell, two big-bodied blue-liners who’ve earned sparkling reputations for the work they do in their own zones. Ramage actually drew a line to another player connected to Montreal; one who was drafted 12th overall by the team in 2007, but never suited up for the Habs thanks to a misguided move that saw him traded as a prospect to the New York Rangers.
“I think about a guy like [current Tampa Bay Lighting defenceman] Ryan McDonagh,” Ramage says. “I know him well, my son played with him [at the University of Wisconsin]. I’ve always watched Ryan and he was a defender first. That’s how he went into the NHL with the Rangers. And he just became so good defending that [coach John Tortorella] gave him more. He [thought], ‘I can trust this guy, I know what I’m going to get from him.’ I don’t think Ryan plays first-unit power play, but he plays power play. He’s developed into a guy who has put up points and can play that part of the game. Is Kaiden Ryan McDonagh? I don’t know. But I like that he’s going to solidify his defence first.”
Those in his orbit today certainly have no concerns about Guhle’s offensive abilities. Wiesblatt — a fellow 2020 NHL first-rounder — says he’s got one of the best shots from the point in the Dub. And Dave Cameron, Canada’s coach at the WJC, says he plans to send Guhle over the boards constantly. “He’s a first-round pick with first-round skills,” says Cameron. “He’s going to play for us in all situations.”
Guhle actually got a chance to play pro hockey last year, suiting up for — and looking just fine in — three games with the AHL’s Laval Rocket when the WHL season was still on hiatus. But when his junior season finally did start last February, it lasted just a couple games for Guhle thanks to a busted finger. He was basically on a point-per-game pace with a bottom-tier Prince Albert squad this season, registered two assists in his Oil Kings debut on Dec. 3 and now turns his gaze toward a shot at redemption at a WJC tournament that, once again, will be held in his own backyard of Edmonton and Red Deer.
Brendan says he and his brother talk every two or three days and are always exchanging notes about their games. After last year’s gold-medal loss, though, he gave Kaiden a little space. “I kind of left it alone,” he says. “I obviously know his No. 1 goal at that tournament this year is to help the team win it. Anything less than that is a disappointment in his eyes. That’s where his standards are at.”
As a fellow Albertan of the same age, Wiesblatt has known of Guhle dating back to their days as highly touted prospects for the WHL draft. The pair became close during their time in Saskatchewan and while Wiesblatt agrees the expectations Guhle has for himself are a defining characteristic, he says you can’t just label his friend “Mr. Serious” and move on. “I think he gets the rep of being an extreme professional, and he definitely is,” Wiesblatt says. “But just like the rest of us, he’s a kid at the same time. He hangs out with the guys all the time.”
Brendan always gets a kick out of those times when his brother can properly unwind. It doesn’t really happen on the golf course, because Kaiden is pretty maniacal about his game there, too. But when the boys get out on the boat, usually a couple hours north of Edmonton on Skeleton Lake, all the duties that go with being a hard-driving, aspiring pro can be shelved. “It’s so fun hanging out with him on those days because it’s a side of himself he doesn’t get to show that often,” Brendan says.
The ability to take a step back is likely a good thing for any top prospect being breathlessly observed by a Habs fanbase that now finds itself supporting a sad sack team where suddenly it’s all about the future. Brendan isn’t too concerned about how his kid brother will handle the glare. He chuckles a little relaying the thought that it wouldn’t surprise him in the least if Kaiden’s Instagram just disappeared one day. “He would have no problem doing that,” Brendan says. “He’s pretty good at just shutting [things] down if he’s getting a little rattled. He can turn his phone off and just go for however long without it and it doesn’t bother him.”
The conversations around him, of course, will continue as Guhle makes his way up the ranks and inches closer to full-time duty with the Canadiens. As for any talk of one day playing the Weber role on a new iteration of the squad, it’s just another thing that keeps him grinding. “It’s cool to be put in the same sentence as him,” he says. “But I have enough respect for him [to know] I’m not anywhere close to being there yet.”
True. But this kid has been known to get places fast.