When Danish goalie Georg Sorensen stopped Switzerland’s Noah Rod in a shootout during the round robin at the 2015 World Junior Hockey Championships, it marked a historic day for hockey in Denmark. For the first time in 16 world junior games, the Danes had won, and became the darlings of the tournament in the process. The players and the coaches celebrated with aplomb and judging by the looks on their faces after that game, they knew the importance of what just happened. But what comes next for Denmark?
What’s Next for Hockey in Denmark?
Denmark has only 25 rinks in the country and just over 4000 players from a national population of approximately 5.5 million. There are currently five full-time Danish NHLers in forwards Frans Nielsen, Jannick Hansen, Lars Eller, Mikkel Boedker and goaltender Frederik Andersen.
In terms of development, many Danish players who aspire to play at a higher level of hockey have flocked to Sweden to further develop their skills such as Nielsen and Eller. From 1992-2014, only 20 players have been drafted in the Canadian Hockey League Import draft, so unlike other nations who have a longer history of players playing the CHL, Denmark hasn’t made much of an impression in the junior ranks in North America.
That has changed in recent years. Boedker had an excellent season with the OHL Kitchener Rangers back in 2007-08 before jumping straight to the NHL. Vancouver Canucks prospect Nicklas Jensen had two solid seasons with the Oshawa Generals. But the real gems have been Portland’s Oliver Bjorkstrand and Halifax’s Nikolaj Ehlers.
Both players were dominant at the 2015 World Juniors and their dominance has spilled over into their CHL play. Bjorkstrand, a 2013 Columbus Blue Jackets third rounder, was the highest scoring player in the WHL this season on a very good Portland Winterhawks team. He is primarily known as a goal scorer as evidenced by his 63 goals this season. He projects as a possible top-six forward.
Ehlers is the second highest drafted Dane in NHL history at ninth overall by the Winnipeg Jets, beaten only by Boedker who was drafted eighth overall in 2008 by the then-named Phoenix Coyotes. Ehlers is the crown jewel in a deep Winnipeg Jets prospect pool. He has drawn comparisons to former Halifax teammate and current Tampa Bay forward Jonathan Drouin for their similarities in hockey IQ, skating and playmaking.
Denmark’s Cinderella run ended in the quarterfinals, being pummeled 8-0 by the eventual gold medal winners in Canada. The tournament was considered a success for them and the nation looks as promising as ever when it comes to producing hockey players but are they destined to be the next Switzerland or the next Germany?
Switzerland has risen in hockey prominence with its highlight being in 2013, where they won a surprise silver at the 2013 men’s world hockey championships. They are producing high end prospects with more regularity and while they aren’t considered to be a hockey power, they are more than capable of pulling off an upset and have given Canada a few scares over the years at the highest levels of hockey, and even defeated them at the Torino Olympics.
On the other hand, Germany is a small hockey nation, much like Switzerland, but have made little progression over the years. The NHL has a few German players such as Christian Ehrhoff and Dennis Seidenberg while Leon Draisaitl was drafted third overall by the Edmonton Oilers at the 2014 NHL draft. But Germany rarely makes noise at international tournaments and churn out very few NHL prospects.
Both countries present potential benchmarks for the future of Danish hockey. Progression in the hockey hierarchy is never quick and Denmark has a long way to go before they cement themselves as permanent fixtures at the highest levels of the game without the threat of being relegated. But their inspiring run at the World Juniors hinted that the groundwork has been laid for Denmark to make their mark in the hockey world.
Main Photo: TORONTO, ON – DECEMBER 27: Oliver Bjorkstrand #27 of Denmark moves the puck against Gustav Forsling #8 of Sweden during the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship on December 27, 2014 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Dennis Pajot/Getty Images)