No hockey nation has improved more this millennium than Denmark, which has begun churning out big-leaguers who are having a serious impact with their NHL teams.
When Frederik Andersen made his debut in a relief appearance in October, he became the first Denmark-born-and-trained goaltender to appear in a game in NHL history.
When he reeled off six straight victories, he became the first goalie from any country in 20 years to win his first half-dozen games. But when he was sent to the minors in mid-November despite eye-popping numbers, he was hardly the first player to lose his NHL spot as a victim of circumstance.
You see, the Anaheim Ducks have three NHL-caliber goalies and only two spots available and Andersen, with his then-1.66 goals-against average and .943 save percentage, could be moved to the minors without clearing waivers. But that should not diminish his accomplishment, nor should it go unnoticed his home country is beginning to produce some pretty darn good NHL players.
Until 2007 when Frans Nielsen debuted with the New York Islanders, Denmark had produced exactly one NHLer, and that was Poul Popiel, who was born in Denmark but played all his hockey after he moved to Canada as a young child. Including Andersen, however, a total of seven Danes have played in the NHL this season. And that doesn’t include Nicklas Jensen, the Vancouver Canucks first-round pick in 2011. Nor does it include Oliver Bjorkstrand, who was chosen in the third round by the Columbus Blue Jackets last summer and is in the top five in scoring in the Western League with the Portland Winterhawks.
It could be argued that Denmark and Norway are really the only two European countries to actually improve on the world stage in the past 15 years. Despite losing an Olympic qualifying berth to Slovenia last year, the Danes were promoted to the top pool in the World Championship in 2003 and haven’t been relegated since.
Nielsen, the top NHL scorer ever from that country, is part of a contingent from the town of Herning, one that is a relative hockey factory in Denmark. Andersen, Peter Regin, Jensen and Bjorkstrand also come from there. Nielsen said the difference for Denmark came in the 1990s when the country imported coaches from Sweden, who taught players there what it takes to become truly elite. Despite having just roughly 4,200 registered players and 25 indoor rinks, the Danes began to believe they could play at a higher level.
To be sure, the Swedes have been an enormous influence on Denmark. In fact, every player who has played in the NHL from Denmark has played in Sweden at least one season at the pro or junior level. Andersen, Philip Larsen, Lars Eller and Mikkel Boedker all played in the Swedish League with Frolunda before coming to North America. In 2011-12, Andersen had eight shutouts for Frolunda, breaking the team record set by Henrik Lundqvist back in 2003-04.
“The mentality has changed,” Nielsen said. “It used to be a lot more lax. When guys turned 15 or 16, they started going out with the girls and drinking. But we finally started to figure out that if we wanted to go to the Swedish League or somewhere else, you’ve got to start being a pro at an early age.”
And that was taught to them by the Swedes. Nielsen remembers going to Malmo, Sweden to play junior as an 18-year-old and in the summer working out in the morning, going back home for a nap and returning to the rink for another workout in the afternoon.
“All week, the whole summer,” Nielsen said. “It was really hard work.”
But as Nielsen blazed a trail, other players saw what he was doing and began to follow. Regin is two years younger than Nielsen and forged his way to the NHL through Malmo. Others, such as Jensen and Bjorkstrand, were both sons of former pro players who played in Denmark and each went on to play in the WHL.
Another Dane, Oliver Lauridsen, played at St. Cloud State University and Jannik Hansen also played for the Winterhawks, but none did so without apprenticing first in Sweden.
It makes one wonder what could have been at the 2014 Olympics. Slovenia is a great story and its odyssey to Sochi has been an inspiring one, but Denmark would have been a more formidable opponent. But none of its players, with the exception of Andersen, was available for the qualifying tournament because they were all playing in North America.
And Nielsen said there’s another reason why his hometown and country are producing NHL talent. There is almost no emphasis on team play or winning, but there is on developing individual skills.
“Playing defense and blocking shots and things like that are a mentality you can learn when you get older,” Nielsen said. “Skating and shooting and stickhandling are the things you learn when you’re young.”
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. To read more from Ken and THN’s other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.