EDMONTON – Despite being labelled as "a one-man wrecking crew", Denmark's fight to avoid relegation at the IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship will be an united team-effort.
"We have arrived here as underdogs and might not have the greatest chance of winning the tournament. But we have a good group of guys working very hard for each other to try and stay in this division and I believe we will do it," forward Nicklas Jensen tells IIHF.com ahead of Denmark's return to the top division after a three-year hiatus.
It was an overzealous local Canadian radio commentator, who earlier this week described Denmark as very much a one-man team, as he warmed to Nicklas Jensen's gallant performance during Denmark's 8-0 loss to Sweden in a pre-tournament warm-up game in Olds, Alberta, where the 18-year-old Dane, back to full fitness following a groin injury, at times almost single-handedly caused havoc in the Swedish defensive zone with the post twice denying him from getting on the scoresheet.
Humble in defeat following the game against their Scandinavian neighbours, a level-headed Jensen quickly dismissed claims of Denmark's U20 being just about him and pulled out, quicker than his own trademark wrist-shot, names of a handful of fellow peers from the current Danish U20 roster that will be worth keeping an eye out for during the next week and a half: "Thomas Spelling, Anders Schultz, Nicolai Meyer, and the Bjorkstrand brothers, where the youngest of them, Oliver is born 1995."
Denmark, winless in their warm-up games preceding the tournament, including the most recent 5-1 defeat against fellow top-division newcomers Latvia, has opted for a squad with physical and aggressive prowess. Head coach Todd Bjorkstrand's roster was the first European participant to set their foot on Canadian soil in order to make his team gel ahead of the country's second appearence in the top division, where the players will be ready for a different style of hockey compared to last year when Denmark won the Division I tournament in Bled, Slovenia and promotion back to the big boys.
"Last year we were one of the favourites to go up, so we played a more offensive game then. In the top division we have to work harder in the defensive zone and it's also very important for us to score on the chances we are given," says Jensen.
Although far from being a ”one-man wrecking crew”, team captain Jensen is the linchpin of this year's Denmark team. Selected 29th overall by the Vancouver Canucks in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft and currently leading the Oshawa Generals in the OHL in scoring, he is on the doorstep to fulfilling an ambition he had since barely being out of his nappies.
"I grew up dreaming to play in the NHL,” says Jensen. ”I started to play hockey when I was three. Back then it was mostly my dad who taught me how to skate way before I started to play organized hockey."
Nicklas' father, Dan Jensen, born and raised in Ontario with proud Danish roots, had arrived to Scandinavia from the OHL in the summer of 1989 to play top-flight hockey in Denmark. He soon married a local woman and stayed put, becoming a mainstay on defence for Herning, where he played over 500 regular season games and also featured in ten World Championship tournaments with Denmark before hanging up his skates in 2005.
Showing great promise from a very early age, Nicklas made his senior debut at the tender age of 16 for the Herning Blue Fox in Denmark's top division during the 2009-2010 season. Scoring an impressive 26 points in 34 games won him the Rookie of the Year accolade, before he decided to take the opposite career route to that of his father, when crossing the Atlantic and continuing his development in the OHL with the Oshawa Generals.
"My dad had told me all about the OHL. The hockey is great, and I get to learn to play Canadian-style hockey and it's also a great place to showcase yourself if you one day wish play in the NHL,” says Jensen, who feels moving from a senior league in Scandinavia to a junior league in Ontario has benefited his game.
"In Denmark the players are professional men, with imports from mainly Sweden, Finland and North America. In the OHL, it's all young kids with talent to go further. It's tough to compare men against boys. The Danish league was good, but the skill level in the OHL is better," says Jensen.
Jensen characterizes himself as a player with mainly offensive skills: "I am a goal scorer who can protect the puck well and also be creative with it.” Now in his second season with the Generals, he is also quick to admit he dedicates a lot of work in becoming a more all-round player in order to make his childhood dream reality.
"If I want to make it to the NHL, I need to improve my game in the defensive zone, and I have been working very hard on that for some time now," says Jensen.
Jensen is the third Dane to have been drafted in the first round. The other two – Lars Eller (2007, #13 overall by St. Louis) and Mikkel Bødker (2008, #8 overall by Phoenix) – both played prominent roles during Denmark's previous and so far only outing at the IIHF U20 World Championships in 2008.
Playing in Pardubice and Liberec, Czech Republic, the Danes then narrowly lost against Slovakia and also put in commanding performances against the Czechs and Canada in the group stage, before losing their relegation-round matches, which sent the Scandinavians down one tier with their promising crop of players that also included current Frölunda netminder Frederik Andersen and Philip Larsen of the Dallas Stars.
Although the roster might not look as eye-catching at first sight, the boys in red-and-white will be able to gain invaluable experience playing on a bigger stage when taking on the USA, the Czech Republic, Canada and Finland at the 16,839-capacity Rexall Place in Edmonton. And quite possibly yet another gem will be unearthed from an emerging hockey nation that has come a long way in the last few years.