2013 CHL Top Prospects Game: Bjorkstrand looks to display talent on bigger stage

By Kevin Forbes

Oliver Bjorkstrand - Portland Winterhawks

Photo: Portland Winterhawks forward Oliver Bjorkstrand has benefited from playing with other, top NHL Draft prospects on the Winterhawks' roster (courtesy of the WHL)

Like a number of CHL teams, the Portland Winterhawks have sent multiple players to the Home Hardware CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game this year. Seth Jones has received the majority of the attention as both the captain of Team Orr and one of the top draft-eligibles for the 2013 NHL Draft, while his teammate Nicolas Petan is a familiar name for prospect watchers after helping Canada win the gold at last summer's Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.

But there is another Portland Winterhawk at the Top Prospects Game who flies a bit under the radar.

Oliver Bjorkstrand might not be competing for the WHL scoring lead like Petan or have a World Junior gold medal like Jones, but in his first season playing in North America, the Danish right winger has quickly adapted to become a regular contributor on a deep Portland squad.

Although he was born in Herning, Denmark, Bjorkstrand's father is actually American. Born in Minneapolis, Todd Bjorkstrand played NCAA hockey with the University of Maine in the early 1980's before trying his hand at pro hockey. After a few years in the North American minor leagues, the senior Bjorkstrand moved to Denmark to play with Herning's club team. Almost 25 years later, he is still involved with the team as their GM and Head Coach.

It was in that environment that Bjorkstrand grew up in and first developed a love for the game. The younger Bjorkstrand is ever grateful for his father's influence on his hockey career.

"He's helped me a lot," says Bjorkstrand, "He's coached me since I was a little kid, so he's a big part of my hockey career."

Because of his family's background, Bjorkstrand also has dual citizenship between the United States and Denmark. But when it came to the question of international hockey, the answer was clear.

"I grew up in Denmark, so I always just played with the Danish national team."

Bjorkstrand's last experience with the Danish national team was in December, where he joined the squad at the 2013 World Junior Championships, Division 1, in Amiens, France. Relegated to Division 1 after last year's World Juniors, Bjorkstrand was hoping to help lead the Danes back to the Top Division.

Unfortunately, things didn't go according to plan and Denmark finished in the middle of the pack after the round robin.

"It was a great experience, I love playing for the National Team. Obviously the result for the tournament wasn't that good for us but it was a good experience." Bjorkstrand continues by saying, "We were expected to move up. We wanted to move up. We thought we had a team to move up with, so a little disappointing."

Bjorkstrand finished tied for third in tournament scoring with two of his Danish teammates. In five games, he scored five goals and had eight points.

"I was a player who was expected to go in and score a couple goals for the team to help them win the games. I thought I played good. There were some games where I think I could have played a little better but overall it was a good tournament."

Although only 17-years-old, this is actually Bjorkstrand's second tour of duty with the Danish Under-20 team, having played at the World Juniors last year, as well. Eligible to return again for the next two upcoming tournaments, Bjorkstrand relishes the opportunity to continue to play for his country.

"Ever since I was a little kid, you always watch the National Team play on the television and you want to play for them, so it's an honor."

After the World Juniors, Bjorkstrand rejoined the Winterhawks in late December, with the team still in the beginning stages of a winning streak that has now stretched to 14 straight games.

"We're doing pretty good," says Bjorkstrand with a laugh, "We just have a really good team this year with a lot of depth and really good skill on the team."

Bjorkstrand is in his first year with the Winterhawks, but he admits that he wasn't 100% about playing for them when they originally contacted him.

"They called me up and said they wanted to draft me, but I wasn't sure yet. So it wasn't until after they drafted me that I decided to come over here."

In the end, his decision to come to North America was tied into his desire to be drafted into the NHL, as he explains.

"I wanted to get drafted this year and there are a lot of scouts over here and you can get noticed. So if you want to get drafted higher, you gotta get over here."

For Bjorkstrand, the adjustment from Danish hockey to the WHL has been relatively smooth with only a few small differences.

"Some small things," says Bjorkstrand, "The playing style and a lot of the competition as well. There's some small adjustments but it hasn't been too hard."

Playing mainly with center Chase De Leo and left winger Taylor Leier, Bjorkstrand has 16 goals and 35 points in 36 games for the Winterhawks, leading the WHL in rookie scoring and placing him sixth overall in the Winterhawks' scoring ranks.

Bjorkstrand describes himself as an offense first player, saying, "I'm an offensive player that can go in and score goals when the team needs goals. I can also play defensively when I need to, but mostly offense."

Listed at 5'11” and 166 pounds, he knows he needs to get stronger to continue to find success.

"I need work on my size; I want to gain a little weight. Work a little bit on my defensive game."

Playing for the Portland Winterhawks alongside other high profile draft-eligibles like Jones and Petan, Bjorkstrand has had to deal with added attention and pressure surrounding the team anytime they arrive at a rink. But as he explains, he uses it to improve his game.

"It definitely motivates you to play, to work hard and play hard in the game, especially when you know there's a lot of people watching, it just gets me motivated more."

For Bjorkstrand, there will perhaps be no bigger stage this year than the Home Hardware CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game. Playing in front of a packed arena of NHL brass, scouts, media and fans, a strong performance could really elevate his stock. Bjorkstrand is currently listed as 29th among North American skaters in the recent mid-season rankings released by the NHL's Central Scouting Service, and 72nd overall by ISS Hockey in their January rankings.

Follow Kevin Forbes on Twitter via @kforbesy