SANOK, Poland – Qualifying for the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship in Toronto and Montreal and with the bulk of the players that got them there still eligible, Denmark's U20 team is already planning ahead for next year's push to stay in the top division.
"We have 12 players from this team, many of them leading players, who will play for the U20 national team next year, so our goal is clear and that is to stay in the top division," said Olaf Eller, head coach of Denmark's U20 national team following their unblemished record of five straight wins that saw them win gold at the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division I Group A in Sanok, Poland.
Two games into the Danish U20's most recent promotion success, Olaf Eller wasn't impressed with how his team had started the tournament. A 3-1 victory against Austria followed by a 4-2 win against hosts Poland had resulted with maximum points, but the skating had not been hard enough and the puck movement still left a lot to be desired according to him.
With games against Belarus and Latvia looming around the corner, Olaf Eller, who by his own admission at times might appear to be a bit too nice to his players, must have chosen his words with great care as the response he got from his crop of youngsters were first class. Denmark stormed out in the next two games against their two main rivals and sealed their much-deserved promotion with one game to spare in a manner that impressed their amicable head coach.
"When it mattered the most we were at our best. We played with pace, energy, and with full lines in all our games apart from the final period against Latvia," said Olaf Eller, the father of the Montreal Canadiens’ Lars Eller who is in his second spell as head coach of Denmark's U20.
While Denmark's senior national team have become a mainstay in the top division of the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship since 2003, the results of the nation's two junior national teams are yet to reach the same level of consistency.
Denmark's U18 squads have been yo-yoing between the two top tiers for most of this century, but have at least two consecutive top-level appearances (2004-05) to look back on and will once again be competing at the highest level in 2014.
For the U20 national team, Denmark’s two appearances at the top of the tree of the World Juniors have both ended with straight relegation; first one in 2008 and then most recently in 2012, when two overtime defeats during the relegation round cruelly sealed their demotion.
Now already aiming to go third time lucky, the Danes will touch down in Canada next year with a pool of players where many of them currently are celebrating back-to-back promotions at junior level after lifting Denmark's U18 national team back to the top division last year.
"A number of these players got their breakthrough already a few years ago when they as U16 players played 2-2 against Sweden, and although it is always very hard to compare past and present generations of players I would say that we have a strong team that has taken yet another step with this win, and with the history they have had as junior players so far, they clearly have a chance to be able to compete and stay in the top division of the U20's," Olaf Eller said.
From the team that won promotion from the Division I Group A in Sanok and who will be able to make it on the plane that will carry them to the World Juniors in Toronto and Montreal next year are among others their solid netminder Georg Sørensen and two Sweden-based defencemen based in Sweden, Sonny Hertzberg and Mads Larsen, who bring Denmark stability at the back.
Going forward, Nikolaj Ehlers born 1996 already plays a prominent role in the team, as does Mikkel Aagaard, Denmark's top points scorer in Sanok and last but not least, two players from their current first line, Mads Eller of the Edmonton Oil Kings and Oliver Bjorkstrand, a 3rd round draft pick by Columbus Blue Jackets currently in his second season at Portland Winterhawks and winner of the Best Forward award by the Directorate during the tournament in Sanok.
"The best part of this team is how this team stick together. We have known each other for a long time, played both with or against each other and we are all good friends, so we are all excited to be coming back to play for the national team and too see each other again and that is our main strength," said Mads Eller.
Mads is part of a fine Danish hockey family where he and his six years older brother Lars picked up the game from their father Olaf and started off their development in Rødovre in the greater Copenhagen.
Meanwhile, across the country in Herning, Oliver Bjorkstrand followed in the footsteps of brother Patrick, three years his senior and today a Danish national team player currently at Medvescak Zagreb in the KHL, who both were taught the game by their USA-born father Todd, who had arrived to Denmark as a player in the late 1980s and has also coached Denmark's U20 with success and is a great inspiration to Oliver.
"My dad is really a big part of where I am today. He watches most of my games and tries to help me to improve my game, but as for my own development, I need to get myself stronger, bigger and develop every part of my game in order to be ready for next year's World Juniors," said Oliver Bjorkstrand, who together with Mads Eller already eagerly awaits to take yet another step in their fledgling careers and make Denmark a more permanent feature at the World Juniors.
"Most of the players in our team are used to play in front of 1,000 to 2,000 people, now we will play in Toronto and Montreal in front of full houses with up to 20,000 people. It is going to be a big experience, and we will work very hard to be prepared for it so we can stay in the top division," said Mads Eller.
Final Ranking of the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division I Group A:
1. Denmark (promoted)
6. Poland (relegated)
Click here for scores, statistics and photos from the event.