HAMBURG – The northern territorial neck of Germany serves as the European continent’s arm into Scandinavia, stretching right into what becomes Denmark’s Jutland, the country’s largest body of land mass.
This section of Germany consists of the free Hanseatic city of Hamburg and Schleswig-Holstein, territories that have shared a truly long and at times tumultuous history with their neighbour to the north, having even been part of Denmark at various points in time over the past 1,300 years.
For the city of Hamburg, there are few remnants of the most recent Danish period of rule, which lasted roughly 400 years in some parts of town, but it’s not uncommon to see the odd Danish café or fashion store, streets featuring Danish architecture of a bygone era, and to hear the language right downtown as tourist shoppers make their way through a myriad of shopping and eating options.
Curiously, the city district of Altona, one of the more colourful and lively areas in town, was the Danish crown’s last bastion of influence in these parts as Otto von Bismarck was assimilating principalities into what would eventually become what we now know as Germany – and Hamburg was indeed the final essential piece to this puzzle of his.
Fast forwarding to the present, it’s been none other than Hamburg Freezers general manager Stéphane Richer, who has tapped into this historical connection in a manner no other German hockey club in modern times ever has.
Just in time for the 2011/2012 season, he acquired the Danish national team players Jesper Jensen and Daniel Nielsen. One season later, Jensen was off to Sweden’s Allsvenskan, but replaced with another national team member, Julian Jakobsen. With both Nielsen and Jakobsen remaining, Richer then acquired long-time MODO forward Morten Madsen in preparation for the 2013/2014 season. And with the season only three weeks old, all three are proving to be key ingredients in what many pundits feel is one of the DEL’s top addresses.
At this early juncture in the season, IIHF.com had the opportunity to catch up with all three to talk about a variety of topics revolving around their life in the German DEL.
To begin, how’s life here in Hamburg and what factors played a role in your decision to come here?
Daniel Nielsen: I’m in my third season here after having spent a number of years playing in Denmark. I feel Hamburg is a real nice city, we’ve got a good hockey team and it’s close to Denmark. I only saw positives in making my decision to come and play here, so the decision was really easy for me.
Is your family still living back in Denmark?
Daniel Nielsen: No, they live here with me.
And how about you? Julian, this is your second season. What were the main factors in your decisions to come here?
Julian Jakobsen: I played three seasons for Södertälje in Sweden. We got relegated after the second season and I ended up staying there and playing in the Allsvenskan, the second-highest league in the country. When I got the opportunity to come here, it seemed like a pretty logical decision. For me it was a better league that features better players. There were never any doubts about that and I felt I was at a point in life where I wanted to try something new. Like Daniel said, it’s really close to Denmark here and the family, well they’re not around, but they’re still pretty close by. So it was an easy decision for me to pick Hamburg as my team.
What about you Morten? You’ve spent a number of seasons with MODO in Sweden and let’s be honest, life in Örnsköldsvik differs considerably from life in a city like Hamburg. They must be two different worlds.
Morten Madsen: They are, they really are.
Daniel Nielsen: Morten actually lives in (the outer district of) Halstenbek.
Morten Madsen: Yes, ok, I’m technically outside of Hamburg.
But you’ve had a chance to see some of the town’s more important sites?
Morten Madsen: Definitely. And it’s like Julian and Daniel said, for me coming here was also a bit about getting closer to my family. I’ve been away for ten years now. I’ve normally only gotten to see them a few weeks a year and this way, there’s a much bigger chance that they come down and I get to see them more often. That was one of the big reasons.
And then there was the need for something else. I mean sure, I like Sweden, but it was time for something new and maybe, hopefully, a chance to develop into a better player this way.
Now you three are here in your neighbouring country of Germany. Daniel has been here the longest, but how are things going with the German language?
Morten Madsen: ‘Kein Problem!’ [No problem.]
Julian Jakobsen: It’s a little up and down. This is my second year here and when it comes to the grammar and stuff, I find that pretty tough. I’ve been understanding more words and picking up more from sentences I hear. It’s getting better I think. In fact, I’m probably going to be going with a few of the other teammates to a German lesson a little later today.
So the Freezers are actively helping the foreign players learn German through official classes?
Julian Jakobsen: They really did last year but it kind of fizzled out in the course of the season. Then this season a few of the players kind of took matters into their hands and expressed renewed interest to the team in taking classes again. So the team set it up and we’re going every week. It’s really pretty nice that we have the opportunity to go and learn the local language.
Daniel Nielsen: I have been here for three years and I still speak very little German. I understand more than I can speak, but in the locker room, the coaches and all of the players speak good English and the fact of the matter is that not so much German is spoken.
Then English is actually officially the team language?
All three: Yep. Yes. Definitely.
Daniel Nielsen: I’d really like to be able to speak German.
Morten Madsen: It is a tough language to learn, but we actually all had in school at one point. I guess it’s different for each of us how much we remember from those days.
And in Denmark, I believe you actually receive a number of German television stations?
Morten Madsen: Well we did and do, but you just don’t find yourself watching those stations unless you have a specific interest in seeing German stuff or taking in the language.
This situation is very unique, because this is the only team in Germany with three Danish players. Very few are even here in the professional ranks of Germany whatsoever. But as special and unique as that is, this club is actually most heavily influenced by another rare dynamic: French-Canadians. This is seen from manager Stéphane Richer to a coaching staff featuring Benoît Laporte and Serge Aubin to goalie coach Vincent Riendeau and youth program coach Boris Rousson to several players in the team like Philippe Dupuis und Mathieu Roy. Is this something that popped out at you when you joined the team? Is it perhaps something everyone on the team is aware of and talking about or is it completely irrelevant?
Morten Madsen: Well, we’ve got our own Danish mafia going on now, so we’re good. (laugh)
Daniel Nielsen: I think the only difference between Canadians and French-Canadians is that they sometimes speak French to each other, naturally. Otherwise, it’s not something I’ve ever even given a thought to.
Morten Madsen: No, I wouldn’t say it sticks out. To us, they are simply North American hockey guys. I don’t mean that to generalize them or anyone, but as European players, these are North American work colleagues and that’s how we see them.
The city of Hamburg is geographically very close to Denmark, yet the ice hockey scene here has relatively no tradition of ever having featured Danish hockey players. Then Daniel, you and forward Jesper Jensen came a few years ago, then Julian last season and now Morten this season. Obviously the general manager has a strong opinion of Danish players and what they can do in this league. Why do you think there’s never really been a strong relationship between Hamburg teams and Denmark or even German teams and Danish players although the two countries are neighbors and so close to each other?
Morten Madsen: I think, mainly in hockey, just 10-15 years ago, we in Denmark weren’t really a producer of hockey players with that supposed international quality. I believe Danish ice hockey has simply developed so much over the last ten plus years that we’ve become a pretty good provider of talent and prospects. We’ve got a good few guys in the NHL. We also have prospects that are actively playing well in North America and Sweden.
Daniel Nielsen: And then we have to take into account that there’s a bit of tradition in Denmark that the young players who exhibit an above-average level of talent almost always go to Sweden for the higher level of junior program development available there. They traditionally go to Sweden and take it from there instead of going to another country like Germany.
Now what about your friends and family? Do they come down here regularly to see you play? Are there perhaps even fan groups that organize themselves to come to see you here? Denmark’s hockey Mecca is, for example, the town of Herning, which is just a few hours up the highway.
Daniel Nielsen: Well, I myself am from Herning and once a year the big fan club in town organizes a trip to come to Hamburg. I believe the board members from the professional club also come down once or twice a season. My friends and family have been coming down quite a bit the past few years.
Julian Jakobsen: There are quite a few people who have come to visit. My dad just loves to drive his car, so he’s down here just about every second weekend. It’s nice to have their support and you can see them a bit after a game and then they can kind of just go home right away after the game. They only have to drive about four hours, so that’s really nice.
Morten Madsen: I’m pretty new, but my family was here for the first home game, so that was quite a treat.
And surely a familiar thing for you boys is of course one of the Freezers’ biggest sponsors, a Danish sporting goods company. Do you think they’d be sponsoring the team if you weren’t playing here?
Julian Jakobsen and Morten Madsen: That’s a pretty good question.
Morten Madsen: I think they would. The city of Hamburg is a pretty good ‘brand’ or ‘product’ to be backing. I would have to think that they would like to be seen and advertised here in this town one way or the other, even if we weren’t here. But I guess it doesn’t hurt that the team has a few Danish players.
Have you noticed any other Danish influence in Hamburg? There are actually a number of little shops and cafés around that have Danish owners and themes.
Morten Madsen: Yes, there are quite a few Danish shops, actually. Even in the grocery stores I’ve seen a number of Danish articles. It’s pretty nice to see. It makes me feel good.
Julian Jakobsen: It sure makes me happy. I have no problem openly saying that.
I guess that makes the transition easier. Do you guys feel that more Danish players will ultimately be finding their way into Germany’s leagues?
Morten Madsen: No doubt. I can only speak for the DEL, but it’s a good league for sure. Definitely. I think coming here could be a good step for a number of Danish players. Of course, it has to go both ways. I mean, the teams have got to want the product that the Danish players present. It’s certainly a good possibility though.
Is a move to the DEL something you’d be recommending to some of your colleagues playing back home or in Sweden? What would you say if one of these players mentions he’s gotten an offer and came seeking your advice?
Morten Madsen: Funny you say that, because that’s exactly how it happened for me with respect to Julian and Daniel.
Daniel Nielsen: I would definitely recommend it. It doesn’t matter where you’re playing in Germany, there’s always lots of people there watching the games and creating a wonderful atmosphere. The energy and the hockey are great here. I would definitely recommend it.
All of you have played professionally in Sweden at one time or another. Daniel was in Leksand during the 2007/2008 Allsvenskan season. Julian played for Södertälje in both the Elitserien and Allsvenskan leagues. Morten played for MODO the past four seasons. How do you compare the German DEL to those two leagues seeing as how many in the business feel the DEL poses a level of play and quality that kind of slides in right between the Elitserien (now called SHL) and Allsvenskan?
Morten Madsen: Of course, if you’re looking at the talent in the league and the amount of players who come from it and ultimately land in the NHL or KHL, the SHL is going to be considered the better league. The league itself is generally a very tactical league. It’s a very defensive-oriented league. There’s an emphasis on skating. The teams are fairly even and they spend the whole season beating each other up. This is how I see it. Still, from what I’ve seen of the DEL, it’s a pretty good league and a pretty tight league too. Level-wise, it’s always difficult to compare them directly.
Julian Jakobsen: With the Allsvenskan, even since I was there, the tempo is higher. The skill level has improved. I think it’s just getting better and better. There’s truly a good bit of speed in that league. Here in the DEL, there’s a real pace, there’s some speed, and there’s a good amount of skill in the league. There are a lot of really skilled Canadian guys with NHL experience and even the German guys have a lot of ability. So I’d say the tempo is little higher combined with skill, but it’s definitely more physical. Yes, I think that the physicality in the league is the biggest difference for me. I’d say the Swedish leagues feature better skating, but that the DEL is a rougher, more physical place to play.
Are any of you perhaps surprised by the level of talent that particularly the German players here in the DEL have?
Morten Madsen: I wouldn’t say we’re surprised. We’ve played against them so many times internationally at the junior ranks and World Championships, so we know they have good players. We always experience very tight games against the Germans. I’m not surprised in the least.
Daniel Nielsen: I’ve come to see that there are really some very good German players in this league, many of which have not played for Germany internationally. Every team here has a few. There are certainly a good number of them.
Daniel, you spent the bulk of your career very successfully in Denmark. How would you compare the Danish league to the DEL?
Daniel Nielsen: I think the DEL is better. After the financial crisis experienced in Denmark a few years back, the level of play has fallen considerably. It’s safe to say now that it’s a pretty significant step up from the Danish league to the DEL.
Getting back to things here locally, what do you think Hamburg as a city, a place to play and a place to live in?
Julian Jakobsen: I think it’s awesome! I really think it’s awesome. And the amazing thing is that I don’t think many Danish have come to realize that. It’s such a nice town and it’s only a couple of hours from the Danish border. There’s really so much to do here, and I’m not just talking about the famous Reeperbahn or harbour highlights, the downtown area is really nice and even the outskirts of the city have so much beauty and cute little areas. There are nice malls and shopping opportunities here. Things are always open and you can always find a variety of places to eat at. It’s really nice and I really like it here.
Morten hasn’t been here long and still has a bit to see and experience, but he does now have some experience celebrating with the fans. Morten, you did the little post-game sing-along Friday night. What did you think of that?
Morten Madsen: Yep, that was something else. That was... quite an experience.
For all of you, what are your impressions of the fans here, fan life in Germany, and fan life in comparison to what you’ve experienced elsewhere?
Morten Madsen: I really think they’re louder here. I generally see bigger stand-up sections where the fans just celebrate the entire time. That section just gets so loud. And the singing and dancing after the game is something I’ve never seen or experienced before. That was something else.
Julian Jakobsen: Another thing that is nice is that even if you lose, they still cheer for you and celebrate your efforts. That’s really great.
What’s the relationship of the fans and their various organizations to the players? Do they have a lot of contact to the team? Is it actually a bit too much at times?
Daniel Nielsen: Well, I think we do a lot with and for them. We appreciate them and that they spend their hard-earned money to come support us. There are times we meet up with them after the games. We have something going where, at times, we’ll be the bartenders at the post-game party and serve for them. We also have a number of promotional events and sessions where we sign autographs. They do a lot to support us, so we do a lot to keep that connection, that relationship, alive and well.
In general, the team has been extremely busy making promotional videos, posters, work in the city, and the like. You see ‘Hamburg Freezers’ all over town and there’s a lot going on off the ice. Is that something new to you or is it normal wherever you’ve played?
Julian Jakobsen: I really think they go the extra mile here. They really like to promote us as Hamburg’s team. I mean, I think we’re really the little brother behind football, which is king, and thus, behind both HSV and St. Pauli, as well as the handball team that we share the arena with, but they really try to put us on the map and show Hamburg that we’re here too. I kind of like that. It’s hard at times, like when you have a day off and you end up shooting something for four or five hours, but it’s worth it to promote the team.
Do you guys ever get recognized on the streets and when you’re in the general public?
Julian Jakobsen: Not too much. Not really.
Morten Madsen: Well, we all wear helmets while working, so...
You’re all part of the Danish national team. For the past five years, you’ve been coached by Pär Bäckman, who stepped down after the last IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Stockholm and Helsinki. He is now being replaced by another Swede, Janne Karlsson. What’s your impression of your new coach?
Morten Madsen: Well, I myself only worked with him once before for a short period of time when I was part of Frölunda’s junior program. No doubt, he is a good coach. In Denmark, we’ve recognized that we are best suited being coached by Swedish coaches. I think what Pär Bäckman did was unbelievable. He took us to another, higher level, even though we didn’t make next year’s Olympics. I still think we’ve progressed as a team and program quite a bit under his tutelage. For me, it’s a good thing that we’re continuing on with working with Swedes.
The language used with Denmark during Bäckman’s time and now probably also with Karlsson coming in is and has been Swedish. Most of the national team players have spent time playing in Sweden. Still, surely a lot of people would be curious what Danish players really think about being coached and talked to in Swedish?
Daniel Nielsen: You know, it’s really kind of normal. There are Swedish coaches in the Danish league too. Like you mentioned, a lot of our players play in Sweden at some point. Most everyone on the national team has played in Sweden at one point, so I think it’s really normal.
What, in your opinion, is the state of Danish hockey? Is it progressing and constantly moving forward? Or is it perhaps in a bit of a standstill?
Morten Madsen: I think we’ve progressed a lot. If you look at the last two or three years, maybe we’re at a standstill, because our big goal was to make it to the Olympics in 2014 and we didn’t. That kind of set us back a little bit. I still think that what Danish youth coaches are doing is good, quality work. I still think quite a few talents are on their way up.
Julian Jakobsen: I see things like Morten, but when you’re as small a country like Denmark, the amount of talent and the rate it’s developed is limited. Maybe we haven’t moved that much the past 2-3 years, but that’s natural after all the growth we undertook over the past ten years. I still think we’re going to progress and that the world is going to see better results from our national team, but the steps there are going to seem like they’re smaller because we’re close to being where we want to be at. We’re still not there. I mean, we have good games against good teams. We’re close, but we’re not that close yet. That will take a while before we get there.
You mention not qualifying for the 2014 Olympics. There are nations like yourself and Germany who have a good handful of top players also in North America but didn’t qualify through the qualification tournaments.
Julian Jakobsen: Now Slovenia is in the Olympics. Do I think we deserve it more? Yes, but they played a better qualifying tournament.
Morten Madsen: Yes, they did. And I don’t think we should take anything away from them.
Julian Jakobsen: No, nothing like that. They did what they needed to do and will be in Sochi.
Morten Madsen: They were better than us in the game we lost to them. It was the biggest disappointment of our lives. Now we have to look forward and hope we have another chance then, in a few years.
Daniel Nielsen: I don’t know. After we lost out on the Olympic bid, the next four years seemed like a very long time for me personally. Going to have to take it year by year from my standpoint.
What do you think might change with Janne Karlsson?
Morten Madsen: It’s very tough to say. We haven’t gotten together as a team yet, but if you look as his résumé, he’s coached the national team in Sweden, he’s been to Russia, and he’s been with some of the top teams in Sweden for so many years. He has a lot of experience. We can hope that he can develop even better Danish players. Hopefully he can get us to take the next step.
Daniel Nielsen: You know, Pär Bäckman was probably the best coach our program has ever had. Now it’s a new coach. There will be changes and alterations. We now have to come with new energy.
Now you even have to Danish players in one NHL team with Frans Nielsen and Peter Regin at the New York Islanders. These are friends and national team colleagues of yours. Will you be following and watching them all winter? Do you think that this factor will kind of make the Islanders Denmark’s favourite NHL team?
Daniel Nielsen: I will definitely be following them. Frans and Peter are from my hometown and I’ve known them all my, well, I should say, all their lives, since they’re younger than me. So I’ll be watching what’s going on there this season for sure. I think that yes, lots of ice hockey fans in Denmark will be keeping a close eye on them.
Morten Madsen: Of course we’ll be following. We always follow all of the Danes over there.
Julian Jakobsen: We might actually also got two playing out in Vancouver, depending on if Nicklas Jensen will be able to make it. But in general, we follow our colleagues and it’s always great for us to see Danish guys doing well, wherever they’re playing.
And there’s good reason to believe that in the close-knit world of Denmark’s ice hockey society, all these colleagues would say the exact same thing if asked about their three buddies playing right here in Hamburg.