POPRAD – On Sunday, Denmark will play Japan for a spot in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. It’s quite an achievement considering that in October, Denmark played in the Preliminary Qualification in Barcelona, against Croatia, Hungary, and Spain.
Although, back then, it was no big surprise that it was the highest-ranked Denmark - 19th on the IIHF Women’s World Ranking - that advanced to the Olympic Pre-Qualification tournament that was played in Valmiera, Latvia in November.
In that tournament, Denmark was the lowest-ranked team, behind Latvia (14), Austria (15), and Italy (18). But disciplined team play and a tiny and feisty goaltender in a plain-black mask named Kamilla Lund Nielsen were the difference.
In Latvia, Nielsen played all three games and posted an incredible 97.5 save percentage and a goals against average of 0.67.
In Poprad, in an even tougher environment, Nielsen has posted equally impressive statistics. Her save percentage after two games is 98.8, and goals against average 0.96. (That’s bad news for Japan who had problems with scoring in their game against Slovakia on Friday.)
The 22-year-old goalkeeper, whose sister Katarina is a forward on the Danish team, is trying to enjoy the ride, and not worry too much, although it gets more difficult as the Olympic dreams gets closer.
“We knew coming in that we’d be the underdogs. We’ve had no pressure, nobody thought we’d get this far,” she told IIHF.com after their first game, a 2-1 win over Slovakia, in which she made 20 saves.
“But now we want to go all the way, of course.”
Nielsen began her career as a seven-year-old in Taastrup, Denmark when a friend of hers, a hockey player, was sick one time and told Kamilla that she could try hockey using her equipment. She did, and she liked it. For a few years she played on a boys’ team, and when she switched to a girls’ team, she also switched from a skater to a goalie.
“To get really good, you have to play with boys in Denmark, simply because the boys’ teams practise more. The girls’ teams practise a few times a week, and play under 20 games a season,” she says.
About two years ago, opportunity knocked on her door when she was asked whether she’d like to have a tryout with Linköpings HC in the Swedish women’s league, “Riksserien”. The club had originally tried to get Denmark’s former national team goalie to sign with them - she played with AIK Stockholm then - but she had decided to retire, and suggested they speak with Nielsen instead.
“I went on a tryout and got the job,” she says.
“The league is a lot better than the Danish league, with many players from different countries. I’ve really taken steps forward, because we practise so much more,” she adds.
Last season, her first with Linköping, Nielsen played 13 games and posted a 91.2 save percentage, fifth best in the league. This year, she’s only played one game.
“I’m backing up Kim Martin, the Swedish national team goalie, so we’ll see what I’ll do. If we qualify to the Olympics, maybe it’s not so good to be a backup goalie on the club team,” she says.
On Sunday, she’ll try to get rid of the first “if”.