Detroit's Frans Nielsen, the first Danish citizen to make the NHL, has played at seven top-level IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Herning veteran as reliable as his national team
Nobody expected Frans Nielsen to play 700 NHL games. But nobody expected the Danish national team to stay in the elite division every year since 2003 either.
Now in his 12th NHL season and second with the Detroit Red Wings, the versatile 33-year-old centre from Herning embodies the even-keeled, can-do attitude of his little Scandinavian nation. After all, more than half of all NHL players appear in fewer than 100 career games. But if the first Danish citizen to make this league stays healthy and completes his six-year, $31.5-million contract, he could crack the 1,000-game club.
Nielsen was an unheralded third-round choice of the New York Islanders in 2002 (87th overall), but has become the NHL’s all-time leader in shootout deciding goals (20). Also the all-time leading scorer in Danish NHL history, he’s a consistent shorthanded threat, and his coaches don’t hesitate to put him out on the power play or to protect a one-goal lead. At times, Nielsen has even entered the conversation about the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward.
“He’s been extraordinarily competitive,” said Detroit coach Jeff Blashill, who guided the United States to fifth place at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. “He’s had a role that he’s comfortable with, and he’s got linemates he’s real comfortable with. I think he’s been really, really good. He hates to lose. His play has been a real positive.”
Nielsen set NHL career highs in 2014/15 with 25 goals and 33 assists as an assistant captain with the Islanders. Internationally, the 184-cm, 85-kg veteran has 20 points in 44 games at seven top-level Worlds (2003-07, 2010, 2012). Naturally, he’s thrilled that in 2018, Denmark will host the tournament for the first time ever in Copenhagen and Herning (4-20 May). We chatted with him recently.
How do you feel about the way you’ve played personally this season?
I like my game so far. I’ve definitely struggled a little bit with the points, but I just try to play the same way, and usually it adds up over 82 games.
You scored a goal in your 700th NHL game, a 4-0 win over Edmonton on 5 November. What’s the secret to playing that long?
I don’t know. Stay healthy! I’m very proud I played so many games. Even playing one game in this league is an honour. It’s been fun. It’s gone very quickly, though. 700 games means a lot to me.
What do you like the most about the new Little Caesars Arena in Detroit?
It’s first-class. Getting to be in a locker room like that every day, we get everything we need. There are no excuses. It’s a beautiful building.
Were you surprised by the fast start your old friend John Tavares had with the Islanders?
Not at all. He’s a good player. He’s surrounded by some really good players there too. So not at all. He’s one of the best players in the world, and he’s going to be there for a long time.
What will it be like for Copenhagen and Herning to host the Worlds?
It’s going to be special, especially for Herning. I grew up there. For sure, you definitely want to be here playing in the playoffs, but if you’re not, this is going to be the one World Championship you really want to be part of.
Playing in your hometown, it’s going to be really special – one of those events you’re going to remember. Even after playing hockey, you’re going to look back on your career and hopefully that’ll be one of your highlights.
What is there for fans to do in Herning between the games?
It’s not a big city, but it’ll be warm at that time, and it has a really cosy downtown with lots of cafes and bars and good restaurants. There is definitely stuff to do downtown. There are also some bigger cities nearby, like Aarhus, which is an hour away, and Viborg, which is half an hour away. Plenty of choices for everyone.
You had just turned 19 when you suited up at the 2003 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Finland. It was the first time Denmark appeared in the top division since 1949. What are your biggest memories?
Probably beating the U.S. [5-2] in the first game. We didn’t know what to expect. We expected a beating! But everyone was just so excited. It’s probably still the one game that everyone in Denmark talks about when it comes to hockey, beating the U.S. in our first game back.
Denmark has fewer than six million people, but has never left the top division since 2003. Other countries with bigger populations or stronger hockey traditions than Denmark – like France, Germany, or Belarus – have been relegated in that span. How do you explain it?
I don’t know. I’ve been part of the team a couple of times when we’ve been close [to relegation], but found ways in the end to stay up. So we’ve been lucky a couple of times. But we’ve just got so many players now, especially for such a small country. Even if no NHL players went, we could still put a competitive team on the ice.
They’re doing a great job developing young players, and they just keep coming. It’s fun to see.
The 2010 Worlds in Germany was a highlight, as Denmark made the quarter-finals for the first time. You got two goals in the opening 4-1 upset over Finland. Did you know right then that it could be a special tournament?
Maybe not after the first one. I mean, it was a big win for sure, and also one that you remember. But I remember we definitely got some good goaltending in that game from Freddie [Andersen]. Then we went out and played better than the U.S. in the next game [a 2-1 overtime win]. That’s when we figured we could do some damage in this tournament.
When you were growing up, Brett Hull was one of your favourite players. Is there anything in your game today that you borrowed from Brett?
Nothing! [laughs] You know what? He was a great player, but the reason he became my favourite player was that I wore 16 when I played junior hockey, and I remember asking my dad: “Are there any good players who wear 16?”
We didn’t really follow the NHL closely. It was tough because there was no TV and Internet coverage back then. But my dad said: “Yeah, Brett Hull.” So later on, I got a Brett Hull St. Louis jersey. That’s kind of how it happened.
Mikkel Boedker and Jannik Hansen joined you on the second-place Team Europe at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey in Toronto. Did you make any new friends?
Absolutely. There were a lot of players I played against for a long time, especially a guy like Mats Zuccarello. I was with the Islanders and he was with the Rangers, and we didn’t like each other at all! [laughs] We played a lot against each other internationally too. Norway and Denmark have a big rivalry, and we always bumped heads there too.
Then I got to spend time with him there, for a long time, and suddenly we became really good friends. It was fun. You’ve never seen a team like that. Not all the guys knew each other there, but we came together so fast. It was for sure one of the most fun times in my hockey life.
Looking at what Nikolaj Ehlers is doing with Winnipeg, what does it mean for Danish hockey to have a 21-year-old who is not only entertaining but also a game-breaker?
It’s amazing. He’s really got the full package, and it’s fun to see. It means a lot. For a long time now, you’ve seen the change in the mentality of young guys in Denmark.
When we grew up, we dreamed of playing in the NHL, but a more realistic dream was to play in the elite league in Sweden, that kind of thing. You see the young kids now and they have different goals. They want to play in the NHL. They work that much harder. Especially a guy like Ehlers, he inspires a lot of kids in Denmark.
You spent five years developing in Sweden, four with Malmo and one with Henrik Zetterberg’s club, Timra. As a Red Wing, what’s impressed you the most about how Zetterberg carries himself as the captain?
It’s been really fun. He’s been everything I hoped for. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him have a bad game. He’s just one of those players. He’s not always on the scoresheet, but he always does something for the team. He’s a fantastic leader that way.