Author's Note: This topic was suggested to me by Dom after he had a discussion with a Danish reporter about Frans Nielsen. I took the Viking by the horns and wrote this article on the current state of Danish hockey.
In the South Park episode "Canada on Strike," the people of Denmark are referred to as the "Canadians of Europe." With the new influx of hockey talent from this tiny Scandinavian country with a population smaller than that of the Boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn combined, it looks as if Denmark is really on its way to becoming the Canadians of Europe.
Continuing on my Scandinavian themed posts, in a way the Islanders are ground breaking here. They were the first NHL team to employ a Danish skater. Frans Nielsen was drafted in the 3rd round of 2002 while playing for Malmo of the Elitserien. Little did we know back then that at the ripe old age of 26, Frans would become the elder statesman of a new influx of talent from the Jutland. Following Frans over first were Jannik Hansen of the Vancouver Canucks, Morten Madsen of the Wild and Peter Regin of the Ottawa Senators. They were quickly followed by St. Louis 1st rounder Lars Eller, former Top 10 pick Mikkel Bødker of the Phoenix Coyotes, and Dallas defensemen Phillip Larsen, who made his NHL debut this season at 20.
Lets take a closer look at the emergence of this somewhat unlikely burgeoning hockey powerhouse.
The Current State of Danish Hockey
Denmark is on the hockey upswing right now. They've been playing in the top division of the World Championships since 2003. 2003 was the country's first time playing in the top international division and peaked with a 10th place finish in 2007. 2007 also saw Denmark's highest IIHF ranking at 12, a position they held until the end of this past World Championships. Unfortunately the high finishes in the WC and IIHF ranking wasn't enough to give them home ice advantage in the Olympic Qualifiers, which went to Norway, Germany and Latvia. Denmark was drawn in the group against Norway, Kazakhstan and France. Norway (With all theirs top players except Ole-Kristian Tollefsen) proceeded to defeat Denmark (Without Nielsen, Regin, Hansen, Bodker and Morten Madsen), Kazakhstan and France, taking their place in Vancouver.
Danish hockey is rising though. They have six legitimate NHLers right now with Frans Nielsen, Peter Regin, Mikkel Bodker, Lars Eller, Jannik Hansen and Phillip Larsen. We here at Lighthouse Hockey know how good Nielsen is, and Regin is developing into a slightly taller version of Frans. Hansen is a useful player for Vancouver. Eller and Bodker both have the chance to be top end scorers in the NHL and have tons of potential. The Stars liked Larsen enough to give him a 3-year NHL deal and give him a baptism of fire towards the end of the season. Expect him to be on the Stars' blueline next season.
There are a couple of highly thought of prospects that haven't panned out as well though. Former Wild pick Morten Madsen and former Blue Jackets prospect Kirill Starkov both failed at making an impact in their attempts at North American hockey. While Madsen has seen success playing for MoDo in Sweden, Starkov's star has fallen precipitously. In two seasons he went from playing in the AHL, to the KHL, then the Elitserien and now will be playing back in Denmark next year. Madsen still has a bright future, at 23 he can make a very productive career for himself in Sweden and playing for the National team.
In this past year's World Championships, the national team also produced some impressive scalps with their victories over the USA and Finland. In spite of arguably the two biggest hockey wins in the country's history, their failure to advance past the quarterfinals and lack of an Olympics actually saw Denmark loose a spot in the IIHF rankings from 12 to 13. Germany, the team that was 13 going into the Olympics, rose all the way to 9 thanks to a purely home ice fueled run to the Semi-Finals of the WC. The WC roster boasted four of the six NHLers (Hansen was playing with the Canucks and Bodker with the Coyotes in the playoffs) and had only four players on the roster over the age of 30.
Denmark is continuing to develop hockey talent. In the past three drafts, they have more first rounders than the Czech Republic, Norway, Slovakia, Belarus, Latvia, Germany and Switzerland, all countries that appeared in the Olympics ahead of Denmark. There are also several prospect that are a year or two away from contributing to their teams in Oliver Lauridsen (Philidelphia, oddly enough playing at St. Cloud State) and draft-eligible prospects Jesper Jensen, Patrick Bjorkstrand and Patrick Hertzberg. They have a legitimate chance to not only be at Sochi in 2014 but surprise some people if they make it there.
The Swedish Proving Ground
While most of the Danish players spend a good portion of their time in youth programs and developmental clubs in Denmark, the best got to cut their teeth in the Elitserien. The first to go was Frans Nielsen, beginning with Malmo and then with Timra prior to signing with the Islanders in 2006. Nielsen credits his time in Sweden as the reason he is such a sound two-way player. In an interview with Chris Botta for Islander's Point Blank back in March he said the following:
They play a lot of trap hockey in the Swedish League, but either way I think it’s the best defensive league in the world. When I first got there, I didn’t know much about defense. In Denmark, I had the puck a lot. But Malmo put me on the fourth line and told me, ‘Just focus on not letting the other team score.’ The Swedes completely taught me how to be a responsible two-way forward. That’s where I also learned how to win faceoffs. By the last season in Sweden, I was top-five in the league. When I first got there, I couldn’t beat anybody on a draw.
Likewise, Regin followed his buddy Franz to Timra in 2005. Regin served a three year apprenticeship with Timra prior to signing with Ottawa in 2008. For his first two seasons, Regin got the Nielsen treatment of "Just play on the fourth line an think about your D kid," but in the 2007-2008 season he was given more offensive opportunities as the center on the 2nd line where he put up a decent line of 12 G/19 A/31 Pts in 55 games. This made him Timra's 3rd highest scorer behind Riku Hahl and Mika Pyorala. Prior to coming to North America this past season, Lars Eller played two seasons for Frolunda in the Elitserien after going through the youth ranks there. Phillip Larsen is also a product of Frolunda's youth system and played in parts of four seasons (He made his Frolunda debut at 16) in the Elitserien prior to signing with Dallas.
Currently there are only three Danes that will play in next season's Elitserien: Madsen, Mads Bodker and Julien Jakobsen. There are several Danish players in the wings playing in either the SuperElit (The top U-20 League) and the J-18 Elit. Sweden will continue to be the place to go for the young Danish player to prove himself.
A couple of Danes have chosen to forgo the Swedish route and come and play in the CHL. This has proven to have somewhat mixed results. Jannik Hansen played for the Portland Winterhawks in 2005-2006 where he put up about a point per game. He's bounced between Vancouver and Manitoba for the past four seasons. Morten Madsen lit up the Q for 100 points with Victriaville in 2006-2007 after leaving Frolunda in the Elitserien. He was unable to translate that scoring success to the pro game and has since left the Wild organization for MoDo. Mikkel Bodker joined Kitchner of the OHL from Frolunda as well and like Madsen has had a tough time translating his offensive ability to the North American pro game.So far it looks like the Elitserien is the better route for Danes to go in order to be successful in the NHL.
The Herning Phenomenon and Familial Connections
The city of Herning is situated almost in the geographical center of Denmark. It is a small city of just under 46,000 people. It is also the home of Frans Nielsen, Peter Regin, Kasper Degn, Mads Kristiansen, Daniel Nielsen (No relation to Frans that I know of), Stefan Lassen, and Frederik Andersen, all of whom were on the 2010 World Championship roster for Denmark. Also born in Herning is former Danish National team player Simon Nielsen (Frans' brother) and rising stars Patrick Bjorkstrand, Rasmus Nielsen, Andres Jensen and Patrick Hertzberg. All these players went thought the youth program at Herning IK Blue Foxes. Not since Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, has a relatively unknown place turn into a hockey factory. How did this small municipality produce so much good hockey talent?
Two words: Frits Nielsen. Frans' Papa can be considered kind of the Godfather of Danish hockey. After a seven year career playing for Herning, the elder Nielsen settled into coaching. In 1984, he took over as head coach of Herning IK, a post he would hold until the 1995-1996 season. Since then he's been intimately involved in player development at the club, seeing one of his sons develop into an NHL player and the other, Simon, represent his country as one of Denmark's goalies at the 2007 and 2008 World Championships.
Frits' two prized pupils, Frans and Regin, continue to give back to the community. They are hosting the youth summer camp in Herning as they begin to groom the next generation of Danish hockey.
Another interesting aspect of Danish hockey is it tends to run in the family, as niche sports tend to do in all countries. Not only do you have the Nielsen clan from Herning but Lars Eller's father Olaf played defense for Denmark and is currently the head coach at a second division club. Mikkel Bodker's brother Mads plays for Rogle, Kenny Jonsson's old club, who were just relegated from the Elitserien this past season. Kirill Starkov's father was a Russian professional player that moved to Denmark late in his career and stayed once he retired. Jannik Hansen's father Bent was a former Danish national Team player as was current national team goalie Frederik Andersen's.
The Future of Danish Hockey
"Denmark probably would have made the Olympics if they had all their guys," said THN European correspondent Risto Pakarinen of the qualifying tourney, which took place during the NHL season. "It's a shame they didn't, they play really good hockey and have several good young players."
That was in The Hockey News' Olympic preview and it is probably true. They had the unfortunate task of facing a Norway team with Mats Zuccarello Aasen, Patrick Thoresen, Mads Hansen, Jonas Holos, Anders Bastiensen and Tore Vikingstad in Oslo. They have a better chance of qualifying for Sochi. Their current ranking of 13th has them one ranking away, and a bad tournament from Lativa, Norway or Belarus from gaining a home ice qualifying round (Olympic qualifying is the top 8 teams, the home nation and then the winners of three qualification stages for the field of 12 nations). A good showing at next years World Championships could catapult them past the rapidly declining Latvia or Belarus for a spot in the 10-12 range.
A bigger concern for the Danes though is the continual poor showing at the World Junior Championships. This past year in the second tier they lost in the final game of their group to Germany, who were subsequently promoted with Norway to the first tier replacing the relegated Latvia and Austria. In the U-18 Championships, they lost to Norway in the Second Tier. The Norwegians were promoted along with Germany again to the first tier replacing Latvia (Again) and Belarus.
The two major stumbling blocks in Denmark's way to becoming a hockey power are the NHL season and the neighbors to the north, Norway. The NHL playoffs coincide directly with the IIHF World Championships. Since Olympic qualification is based directly on performance in the WC, Denmark needs a good showing in each of the WC leading up to qualification. They won't be able to do that if Frans Nielsen, Peter Regin, Lars Eller, Jannik Hansen and Mikkel Bodker are playing playoff hockey. Unlike a Russia, USA, Canada or even a Czech Republic, right now Denmark just doesn't have the depth of personnel to replace those names.
The recurring theme this past year for Denmark was loosing out to the Norwegians to get to the big show, whether it was the Olympics, WJC or the U-18 tournaments. Norway is also an emerging hockey power and has one thing the Danes don't have as much of: money. The North Sea oil reserves have given Norway a large war chest and the national team's appearance at the Olympics have the formerly hockey-ambivalent nation starting to take notice. The biggest publicity Norwegian hockey got was when captain Tommy Jakobsen carried the flag at the opening ceremonies. The biggest advantage the Norwegians have over Denmark is most of their stars play in Europe. While the Danes will have their top six players in North America next year, the Norwegians will have a maximum of three, Zuccarello Aasen, Holos and possibly Patrick Thoresen
So What Now?
The talent gap between the nations in Europe is closing. Danish hockey is on the rise, thanks to a still young generation of talented and skilled forwards lead by "Old Man" Frans Nielsen. One can only hope that they will get the chance as a nation to show their skills on the biggest stage in four years at Sochi (Hopefully not at the expense of Norway).
As of right now, Denmark has a very good chance to surpass traditional hockey powers like Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Belarus and Kazakhstan as the core talent of these countries gets older. At this past year's WC, the Danish team's average age was 26.25 years, but it was only 24.26 if you don't include 42 year old Jesper Duus. The Czechs average age was 27.52, Slovakia 27.62, Kazakhstan 28.44 and Belarus 27.09. Latvia bucked the trend with 25.01, but the only reason they weren't in the relegation round is they were also in a group with Italy. These countries aren't producing the high end young talent they once did since money to the hockey development programs have dried up. Non-traditional hockey countries like Denmark, Switzerland and Norway are producing good young talent and have the potential to pass these countries in the not too distant future.