ZURICH-KLOTEN – Of course, you can never say that any country’s hockey history revolves around one man, but if you could, you might say that everything about modern hockey in Denmark does, indeed, revolve around captain Jesper Damgaard.
Consider that his international resume reads like this: three World U20 Championships (C pool), six senior World Championships (B pool/Division I), and all seven top level World Championships since 2003 when the country re-appeared in the top group for the first time since 1949. As well, Damgaard has been national team captain the last ten World Championships.
“I started skating when I was seven years old, with friends from school and my two brothers, one older, one younger,” he related. “When I was 16, we won the league championship. Our coach was Fritz Nielsen, the father of Frans Nielsen who is with the New York Islanders now. He moved on to coach in Sweden and asked me to go with him, so I played in Malmö for seven years.”
It was during his Malmö years, 1993-2000, that Damgaard developed into the country’s top defenceman and leader. Big, disciplined, and calm under pressure, he was essential to any success his national team had. Playing in Malmö, in the Elitserien, gave him far more experience than he could have gained in his home league.
“Of course, you always dream of playing in the NHL, but for me it was more about becoming the best possible player I could be,” he noted. “I enjoyed Malmö very much.”
But by 2000, he was 25 years old and looking for a change. “I wanted a new challenge and to do something different,” he admitted, “so I went to Germany and played with Revier Löwen Oberhausen for two years.”
Damgaard later returned to Sweden, with MODO Örnsköldsvik, and later played again in Germany and Switzerland before returning home in 2007 to play with Rødovre. Along the way the national team improved steadily and impressively, in large part because of one factor.
“Danish hockey has developed an enormous amount largely because of a Swedish coach named Jim Brithen – he was my coach in MODO when I was there. He developed a national program for players starting at age 14, so many players grew up together and developed together. It got such a great reputation that every kid who played hockey in Denmark wanted to be part of it.”
The result was that in 2002, the team surprised even itself by making a giant leap to the top pool for the next year, the first time since 1949 it would face teams like Canada and Sweden.
“There are two career highlights for me,” Damgaard noted. “The first came in 2002 at the World Championship Division I. We didn’t have the best team – we had some injuries – but we beat Norway and were promoted to the top division for 2003. That was huge. The other highlight was when we beat the U.S. 5-2 in our first game. That was a very important moment in the history of Danish hockey.”
Indeed, the talk of Denmark’s return in 2003 was the ridiculous 47-0 loss it suffered to Canada in 1949, the worst result ever at the top level. But when the puck dropped in 2003, the Danes proved they could play with the big boys and shocked the Americans. Later in the tournament they played Canada, the gold medalists, to a 2-2 tie, the Canadians having to rally with a second-period goal to earn a point in the standings.
At the other end of the spectrum is one big disappointment in Damgaard’s and Denmark’s history – a 5-3 loss to Norway this past February at the final stage of the Olympic qualification tournament.
“Of course, it was very disappointing not to qualify for the Olympics in Vancouver because that was probably my last chance. We had a 2-1 lead in the game against Norway, but we didn’t have a full team, either. We had four players in the NHL, and they were the most talented, our goalscorers.”
No matter. By the time Sochi 2014 rolls around, Damgaard will be only 38 years old, so he has time to realize his Olympic dream yet, even though he doesn’t acknowledge as much. “I’m 34 years old now, so I’m just taking it one year at a time.”