Norwegian prospects in North America

By Grethe Kvernes

Joakim Jensen

For a
country with a long history of excellence in winter sports, Norway has produced
surprisingly few hockey players. The Norwegian hockey league, UPC-ligaen, is
still dominated by import players, and the national team has enjoyed relatively
little international success. A couple of Norwegian players have earned some
accolades in the Swedish and German leagues, but only one player, center Espen
Knutsen, has spent significant time in the National Hockey League.


With well
over 300,000 registered players at different levels, soccer is far and away the
dominant sport in Norway, a country of 4.4 million. Hockey lags far behind with
only a little more than 6,000 players. One of the major reasons for this
discrepancy is the number of available ice rinks. There are less than 30 indoor
hockey rinks in Norway, and in the southern and northern regions of a country
that stretches nearly 1,100 miles north to south, there are no rinks. This
makes hockey a regional sport with limited recruitment.


Norwegian Ice Hockey Federation (NIF) recently launched an initiative to
improve this situation. Over the next decade, NIF hopes to double the number of
indoor rinks and bring hockey to new areas of the country. To aid this process,
the Norwegian government has initially promised to contribute substantial
funding for the first 12 of those rinks, making construction quite likely. If
this initiative is successful, and recruitment increases, Norway should
eventually become more competitive internationally.


Even with a
limited talent pool, there are still some up-and-coming Norwegian prospects
currently playing in North America that are worth noting.


Marius Holtet and Ole-Kristian Tollefsen are both playing
in the American Hockey League this season. Holtet is the highest drafted
Norwegian ever, having been selected in the second round, 42nd
overall, by the Dallas Stars in 2002. The aggressive winger was Norway’s
leading scorer at both the 2003 and the 2004 International Ice Hockey
Federation’s U20 Division I World Championship. He spent the past three years
playing for the junior and farm teams of the Swedish team Färjestad, but never
saw any time with the main club. The Stars finally decided to bring Holtet to
North America and signed him to a three-year contract in the summer of 2004. He
will start his North American career with the Houston Aeros, the Stars’
American Hockey League affiliate.


a 6’2 stay-at-home defenseman, was selected in the third round, 65th
overall, by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2002 National Hockey League entry
draft. Later that summer, Tollefsen was also selected ninth overall by the
Brandon Wheat Kings in the Canadian Hockey League import draft. Tollefsen spent
two seasons with the Wheat Kings, and served as alternate captain in his second
year. During his time in Manitoba, the blueliner was also called upon by Team
Norway on several occasions. He captained the Norwegian U20 team at the 2004
International Ice Hockey Federation’s World Junior B Hockey Championship, and
he was the youngest player on the Norwegian roster at the 2004 International
Ice Hockey Federation’s Division I World Championship.


“[He’s a]
gritty kid who’s shown a lot of character coming to the Western League and
playing hard. Looks like he’ll have a chance to play,” Columbus General Manager
Doug MacLean told Hockey’s Future just a few months before the Blue Jackets
signed Tollefsen to his first National Hockey League contract in the summer of
2004. Tollefsen has started the 2004-05 season with the Syracuse Crunch, the
Blue Jackets’ American Hockey League affiliate.


In addition
to the two prospects currently in the American Hockey League, two other
Norwegians are playing in the Canadian Hockey League.


Mathis Olimb is a center with good offensive
skills. He spent most of the 2003-04 season playing for Manglerud Star, one
of the teams in the Norwegian top league. At only 5’9 and 165 lbs, Olimb lacks
the size so many professional scouts seek. He was not selected in the 2004
National Hockey League entry draft, but was ranked 129th among
European skaters. He was, however, a first round selection in this year’s
Canadian Hockey League import draft. Olimb was selected 56th overall
by this year’s Memorial Cup hosts, the London Knights. He saw minimal ice time
with a Knights team deep with talent and was traded to the Sarnia Sting 10
games into the season.


Joakim Jensen made his debut in the Norwegian top
league as a 16-year-old in 2003. The 5’11 right wing was the 12th
overall selection in this year’s Canadian Hockey League import draft. Jensen
was selected by Baie-Comeau, a team that two years ago had another Norwegian
import on their roster, Patrick Thoresen.
Thoresen had 108 points in 71 games for Baie-Comeau in the 2002-03 season,
but was passed over by National Hockey League teams in several drafts and is
now playing in Sweden.


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