It started out as a great story in 2003 when Denmark returned to the top level of World Championship play. But that appearance was not a one-time fluke. Rather, it signaled the maturation of a hockey program that has flourished in the top level ever since. Still, Denmark cannot yet pretend to count itself among the top half dozen or so countries. Some years it has barely survived demotion, while others it has threatened to break into the quarterfinals. This year, the fine line between success and failure might well come down to one game in the Preliminary Round against Norway.
The future is now for Danish goaltending. Of the three young goalies coming to Switzerland the most interesting story is Sebastian Dahm. Although he was never drafted into the NHL, he went to Ontario to play junior hockey in 2005 and has never looked back. Last summer he signed as a free agent with the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL and started a pro career that might make him the first Danish-born goalie in NHL history. He played at the U20 for Denmark but this will mark his senior debut. Also on the roster are Frederik Andersen, 19, and the “veteran” Patrick Galbraith, 23.
The Danes are making something of a gamble this year by bringing in a group of very inexperienced players. Philip Larsen, just 18 years old, was drafted by the Dallas Stars in 2008 and is seeing his first senior World Championship, and three other players have never appeared at the Worlds previously - Mads Christensen, Daniel Villadsen, and Kasper Pedersen. Herning veteran Daniel Nielsen and longtime national team captain Jesper Damgaard will be counted on heavily, as will youngster Mads Bodker, a veteran of three World Championships even though he’s only 21 years old.
While the defence might be young and inexperienced, the forwards are an impressive group, a true indication of how far and how fast Danish hockey has developed in the early years of the 21st century. For starters, the team has four players who were in North America this past season, perhaps most impressively Mikkel Bodker with Wayne Gretzky’s Phoenix Coyotes. Jannik Hansen played most of the season with the Vancouver Canucks before being sent to the minors, and Peter Regin split his year between Ottawa (NHL) and Binghamton (AHL). Morten Madsen, a 2005 draft choice of the Minnesota Wild, played in Houston (AHL) this season. And then there are the homebrews who have many years of World Championship competition under their belts, namely Kasper Degn, Morten Green, Kim Staal, Thor Dresler, and Alexander Sundberg. Green and Staal led the team in scoring with six points last year, and they, along with Mads Christensen, will have to keep going if the Danes hope to advance to the Qualification Round or beyond.
Continuing their preference for foreign coaches, the Danes have a new face behind the bench for 2009. Swede Per Backman is making his debut with the Danes, replacing Mike Sirant who coached at the World Championships in both 2007 (10th) and 2008 (12th). Backman played for Farjestad in the 1970s and later coached that team to an Elitserien championship in 1997. More recently he coached Frolunda. The only other coach the team has had since rejoining the top pool in 2003 was Mikael Lundstrom, another Swede.
Denmark is grouped with the Czech Republic, Finland, and Norway, and it’s highly unlikely it can expect to beat either the Czechs or Finns, both traditional powerhouses. The Danes will have their sights set on Norway as the country to beat to advance to the Qualifying Round and avoid the dreaded Relegation Round, but given their quality lineup this win should materialize. Finishing in the top eight is unlikely, but a solid 10th or 11th is quite possible.