Denmark’s first NHL player, Frans Nielsen, started to skate as a two-year-old boy at the old ice rink in Aalborg. Photo: Jukka Rautio / HHOF-IIHF Images
Danish NHL stars are born with skates on
The fathers of the Danish players in the National Hockey League reveal how it all started.
It almost defies nature that a small nation like Denmark has been able to claim a spot among the world’s elite nations in a global sport and produce 11 NHL players along the way.
This evolution really tells all about the hockey culture in the little Scandinavian country, which will also be hosting the biggest ice hockey nations in the world in May 2018, when the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship is played in Copenhagen and Herning.
One of the most spectacular statistics of the Danish ice hockey evolution is the fact that seven of the present nine NHL players are sons of former professional ice hockey players who have all at some point participated in the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
In total, the Danish ice hockey school has developed 35 second-generation players who have made it to the national team throughout the years. Players who skated in the same path as their fathers. An accomplishment not matched by any other sport in Denmark.
Seven active NHL players, who are sons of former national team players (fathers appear in brackets):
- 1. Frans Nielsen, Detroit Red Wings (Frits Nielsen)
- 2. Jannik Hansen, San Jose Sharks (Bent Hansen)
- 3. Lars Eller, Washington Capitals (Olaf Eller)
- 4. Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs (Ernst Andersen)
- 5. Nicklas Jensen, New York Rangers (Dan Jensen)
- 6. Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets (Heinz Ehlers)
- 7. Oliver Bjorkstrand – Columbus Blue Jackets (Todd Bjorkstrand, despite being an American citizen he played two games for the Danish national team)
In this article four of the proud fathers tell their stories of their kids’ first encounters with hockey.
Frits Nielsen on Frans:
”We still keep Frans’ first skates to this day. The first time he entered a rink was in Samsoegade in Aalborg. He was two-and-a-half years old at the time. Frans was born in Aalborg, so in my mind he is the first NHL player from Aalborg. In Frans’ early years I was a playing coach in Herning and commuted between Aalborg and Herning until few months after Frans had his “debut” on the ice in 1986.
“I think Frans always knew what he wanted to do. He’s never been practising football like most of the other boys. He was interested in ice hockey and street hockey. Later he began playing golf with Peter Regin and Frans’ younger brother Simon. Frans has a good feel for the ball. I think he would have made a good golfer if he had pursued it.”
Frans Nielsen’s first skates. He was two when he debuted on the ice in Aalborg, where his father Frits played at the time.
Bent Hansen on Jannik Hansen:
“As his parents, we always wanted Jannik to skate. We took him to ”Kostalden” (an old and famous ice rink in Denmark) when he was two, three years old. But it wasn’t on the cards at the time, as Jannik chose to play football instead, which he liked very much. Around his sixth birthday he suddenly decided to play ice hockey again. Then he stopped playing hockey and started playing football again. It shuffled like that, back and forth.
“In 1997, when he was 11 years old, he played his first match in Rodovre Skojte Arena. He didn’t know the rules, but he went at it nonetheless and was part of the club’s first junior team that won the Danish championship. Jannik has always had a go-do attitude, lots of willpower and wouldn’t let anything knock him out. I remember the football club tried to lure him back, but hockey won. We didn’t pressure him. It was his choice.”
Olaf Eller about Lars Eller:
“In the very beginning Lars wanted to be a goalie. He was playing around in the basement, pretending to be a goalie, using a cap as a catch glove. Soon the cap got swapped for a real catch glove, and then he played his first game. But the disappointment of no shots on goal from the opposition resulted in Lars never playing goalie again. Even though Lars was influenced by the environment and was dragged to the games since he was a toddler, none of us could be sure he would pick up hockey himself.
“When he was five we attended a Rodovre match, and he would shush his granddad: “Be quiet, grandpa.” Lars didn’t want to be disturbed. At that moment we sensed how it would turn out. A year later we moved across Rodovre, and six-year-old Lars had to switch to a new school and youth club. He didn’t like the new school, and for the first week he sat on the roof of a playhouse in silent protest. We quickly realized that he had to go back to his old school, Tinderhoj, where he liked the teachers and the school in general.”
Ernst Andersen on Frederik:
”While I was still playing myself, I remember Frederik sleeping with my hockey gear next to him. He had just started in school back then. When he was nine he decided to be a goalie. Before that he had played forward in hockey as well as in football.
“Around his 11th birthday he asked me about getting some new catch gloves. ‘If you can do 50 push-ups,’ I replied. My intention wasn’t to be tough on him, but he needed to learn the physicality of the game if he wanted to play. Tenacity and commitment have always characterized Frederik and he could do 50 push-ups in no time and was given the gloves. We, as a family, have always supported him, but never pressured him. He has always wanted it and he has always given a 100 per cent to achieve his goals.”
Danish ice hockey witnessed a historical achievement on the 6th January 2007 when Frans Nielsen became the first Dane to play in the NHL as his team New York Islanders faced the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena (formerly RBC Center).
Jannik Hansen was the second Dane to become part of the NHL, but became the first to participate in the playoffs for the Stanley Cup title in 2007 (for the Vancouver Canucks).
The first Danish player to be drafted was Heinz Ehlers. He was elected in the 9th round of the NHL draft in 1984. 30 years later Heinz witnessed when his son, Nikolaj Ehlers, was picked 9th overall in the NHL draft.
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