Danish hockey turns the corner

By Peter Seeberg

Denmark, a country of 5.4 million people, has never produced any NHL players and its national league has never been regarded highly. For years dominated by foreigners, the league seldom produced players of any particular interest. In recent years, however, that grim picture has been changed to the better. With a national team getting ready for their third straight appearance at the A-World Championships, Denmark is an up and coming nation in the world of hockey.

The Danish Super Best League

The Danish Super Best League currently has nine teams, playing a regular season of 36 games plus playoffs. Eight teams make it to the playoffs, similar to the NHL in the 70s when missing the playoffs was a major embarrassment.

The economics of Danish hockey is shaky at best. Every season at least one club is on the brink of bankruptcy. Salaries to foreign players that are too high is the main reason, but bad management and missed marketing opportunities are also a major concern.

Hockey is a popular winter sport in Denmark and the top clubs have a nice following. The hard core fan base is only outdone by fans of the soccer clubs. Soccer is of course the main sport in Denmark.

Hockey hotbeds are Herning and Esbjerg with Odense catching up, and in Kopenhagen the two clubs Nordsjälland (formely known as Rungsted) and Rödovre.

Overall the quality of the Danish League doesn’t come close to any of the big Euro leagues. Still, there are good players skating around in the Super Best League and it is a good league to start out in.

The Danish national team

The locomotive of Danish hockey is the national team. Under the excellent guidance of Swedish coach Jim Brithén, Denmark made significant strides. The team was incredible close to securing a berth in the 2002 Olympics, but lack of experience proved costly.

Under new coach Mikael Lundström, Denmark finally went from low status to the A group. The A-World Championships 2003 was the first ever for Danish hockey and the team immediately broke onto the world scene with a stunning 5-2 triumph against Team USA. They also managed to get a 2-2 draw against eventual world champs Canada. Danish hockey suddenly rose in reputation both home and abroad.

2004 was not as good of a tournament for the Danes. The Danish team was crushed by Sweden, Russia, USA, Finland and Slovakia but eventually secured their stay in the A group. It was a bit disappointing but nevertheless one should not forget that the main goal is to stabilize the current position and catch up with countries like Austria, Switzerland and Latvia.

The national team is dominated by players who play in Sweden and an increasing amount of young prospects go to Sweden each year. More established players like Kim Staal, Jens Nielsen, Peter Hirsch and Jesper Duus have been instrumental in Denmark’s rise to status as an A-nation and they have all performed very well in Sweden.

The growth in Danish hockey

Danish youth hockey has been a priority for the Danish Ice Hockey Federation and this is beginning to pay off. The junior teams are performing really well. The 2003 U18 WC saw a Danish team challenging hockey greats like Canada and Sweden and outplaying teams from Norway and Belarus. A final ranking at No. 8 was an excellent result, as only the seven “greats” of hockey were ahead.

The clubs are doing a fine job of recruiting young players and with a focus on teaching them the basics, Denmark will eventually produce NHL players. Unfortunately the Danish clubs neither have the money nor the level of play to hold on to their young prospects for very long. They have to move to countries like neighbor Sweden to continue their growth and get the necessary experience to really shine. Until the players are 17 or 18, they match up pretty well with players their age from traditional hockey countries. The next step, however, is taken in the Swedish or North American leagues.

The Future

The next goal in Danish Hockey is to see the first Danish born player get a contract with an NHL team and of course actually play in the NHL. That would be an enormous achievement and finally give Danish hockey development the “approved” stamp.

For years Kim Staal was regarded as the likely candidate, but despite solid performances in Swedish clubs like Modo and Malmö, he never got the call from Montreal. Staal was slowed by injuries in the season 2002-03 and now it seems like his chances with a deep Canadiens organization have all but disappeared. It’s unfortunate for a player who possesses the energy level and enough talent to perform as a third or fourth line forward.

Next in line is recently drafted Frans Nielsen, who was selected at No. 87 in 2002 by the Islanders.
American scouts wants Nielsen to gain more muscle, but they of course witnessed his strong play at the World Championships 2004, where he was very solid and impressed with superior faceoff skills. One or two more seasons with Malmö should prepare him, and Nielsen could get his chance on Long Island. If he falters, players drafted this year are the next candidates. It is difficult however to see either Peter Regin or Jannik Hansen in the NHL in the foreseeable future. Regin is the obvious candidate with his high offensive potential but Hansen has also impressed with his great speed.

Two players eligible for the 2005 draft also seems promising namely Slava Truhno and Morten Madsen. Both are considered can’t miss prospects. Truhno is currently playing with the PEI Rockets in the QMJHL. Madsen is in Sweden with the junior team of Frölunda and has already gained high interest following his great performance at the 2003 U18-WC. With Truhno playing in North America he could take a short cut to the NHL.

Danish players selected in the NHL Entry Draft

2004: Peter Regin, Ottawa, Round 3 No. 87
2004: Jannik Hansen, Vancouver, Round 9 No. 287
2002: Frans Nielsen, NY Islanders, Round 3 No. 87
1996: Kim Staal, Montreal, Round 4 No. 92
1987: Jesper Duus, Edmonton, Round 12 No. 241
1986: Søren True, NY Rangers, Round 12 No. 240
1984: Heinz Ehlers, NY Rangers, Round 9 No. 188

Copyright 2004 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without written permission of the editorial staff.