2008 WJC: Denmark’s showing still a milestone

By Joeri Loonen

The 2008 World Junior Championships in the Czech Republic are seeing an unfamiliar face as Team Denmark makes its debut among the elite.

Although Denmark doesn’t hold an impressive record at the elite level (both senior and junior) the fact that they’re putting their noses against the window is not as surprising as it might seem.

The past few years Denmark has quietly upgraded their level as a closer look to the world rankings show. The Danish senior team has climbed up to spot 12 with a top10 spot more likely than a drop outside the top 15.

The Danish U20 juniors were just a ‘tertiary’ hockey team one seven years ago playing in the Division II (two levels below the elite). The country which holds just 2,214 registered junior players quickly gained ground. In 2003 they debuted in Division I. Following a fifth place that year, they immediately competed for the medals locking a pair of silvers and a bronze before hitting gold last year.

To cap a wonderful year, the Danish U18s also earned promotion to the elites while the seniors managed to reach their goal: avoid relegation from the elite level.

The success on junior level didn’t go unnoticed by the NHL scouts either. Whereas Danish hockey fans hardly ever saw native players skate in the top leagues in North America, last year two Danish born players made their NHL debut: Franz Nielsen (NYI) and Jannik Hansen (VAN). On top of that, Lars Eller was the first Dane to be selected in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft when picked by St.Louis 13th overall.

That the draft success wasn’t a fluke can be underlined by the fact that 18-year-olds Mikkel Boedker and Philip Larsen are strong candidates for being selected early on in the 2008 draft.

Boedker, a skilled right winger, is currently fifth in scoring for the Kitchener Rangers in the OHL, averaging nearly a point per game. He was selected fifth overall during the CHL entry draft and so far not to any regret.

Defenseman Philip Larsen has already dressed up for 13 games for Västra Frölunda in the highly-regarded Swedish Elitserien. Although still without points, the young Dane is sucking up the valuable experience he is taking from playing against veteran players.

With Sweden, one of the main contributors to the Danish success is mentioned. With the domestic league level still not among Europe’s elite, the best Danish players (both seniors and juniors) move across the Oresund Bridge which connects both metropolitan cities Copenhagen (Danish capital) and Malmö (in Sweden).

Playing in a better league under more experienced coaches, the Danish national teams have profited enormously throughout the past decade. It resulted in more players testing the waters in North America as well. Other than Nielsen and Hansen, Denmark produced the likes of Kim Staal, a 4th round draft pick of Montreal who played one year for the Milwaukee Admirals before returning to Sweden. Morten Madsen (MIN) and Kiril Starkov (CLB) are trying to make name for themselves in the NHL.

Despite possessing perhaps the most talented generation in its history, Denmark would have a mountain to climb to retain their elite status at the U20 level. Ever since switching to a two-up/two-down system, introduced by the IIHF back in 2003, the promoted teams already found themselves relegated a year later.

Added to that Denmark is in a potent group containing reigning champions Canada, last year’s fourth placed Sweden and hosts Czech Republic. Slovakia completes the quintet.

Three games into the tournament the Danes are still winless. They regrouped nicely after a horrible start against the Czechs which saw them fall behind 2-0 after less than four minutes. Eventually a two-goal comeback rally ended when the hosts netted the 5-2 midway the final period.

“This game showed our inexperience at this level,” Team Denmark coach Ken Babey explains. Babey has earned his credits for successfully running the SAIT Trojan men’s hockey team in the ACAC the past 21 years. He has also coached several Canada teams during tournaments in Europe.

Babey: “We want to be the hardest working team of the tournament. Other than that it would be great if we could have some more Ellers and Bodkers on the team. That would really help Denmark take the next step in their development.”

In its second game Denmark took a shocking 1-0 lead over Sweden early in the game. It was as far as they would get as Sweden dominated the game and skated to a blowout 10-1 victory.

The Slovaks are the most likely candidate to join them in the relegation round robin.

Whereas most teams benefit from 19 year-olds at the World Juniors, Denmark’s squad is actually one of the youngest in the tournament with just eight 1988-borns. Included in this years team are two 16-year-olds including the youngest player this tournament.

Born July 30, 1991, Sebastian Svendsen is the next big hit coming from the country which most popular sports are soccer, handball and cycling.

He has been ripping up the Swedish U18-league for his team Frölunda and he has recently been promoted to the U20 team for which he scored his first goal already.

With three more years of eligibility, expect Svendsen to become one of the leading players on the Danish U20 team in the next few years.

Frölunda, together with Linköpings HC, form the main foreign contributor to this Danish U20-roster with three players each. This could have been four if 16-year-old Mark Mieritz was selected. Like Svendsen, this young Dane recently made his debut for the Frolunda U20-team for which he tallied once as well in the pair of games he played.

Other than trying to avoid relegation, Denmark had other motivation at the 2008 World Juniors.

“We want to win respect from the traditional hockey countries,” goaltender Frederik Andersen said. The netminder was an integral part of the team that won gold at the U18 World Championships Division I last year.

“I feel we’ve been missing this respect a little,” Andersen added coming from a small country.

The future looks bright for Denmark although their junior programs might hit a setback if they would relegate from the elite level. Nevertheless, the experience gained during these tournaments is that valuable and will help raise the popularity of the sport back home. Combined with the stream of talents coming from Denmark it’s only a matter of time they will be back among the elite.