VOJENS, Denmark – For the second straight season the Danish league championship went down to the maximum number of seven games. Unlike last year, overtime was to decide on who would wear golden helmets this season. After two bronze medals in recent years, SønderjyskE Vojens claimed their first Al-Bank Ligaen title since 2010 in dramatic fashion.
It took him a couple of seconds to realise what he just had accomplished. More than 76 scoreless minutes were played in the all decisive seventh play-off final game between SønderjyskE and Frederikshavn when Tyler Gotto saw his team mates raise their arms. As if stung by a bee, the Canadian defencemen sprinted towards the corner where he was soon was buried under a pile of team mates.
“I had just come onto the ice and saw space between both hash marks,” the goal scorer remembered. “(Brock) Hooton delivered the puck perfectly from the corner and my only aim was to get the puck on net. With everyone being extra cautious I only intended to put some pressure on their goalie... and then it flew in and it was pure joy.”
The goal not just sealed a tight game but also an eventful series between the league’s second (Frederikshavn) and fourth seeded (SønderjyskE) team. After both had won their first two games on home ice, game five had to decide who would get the first match point in the series.
It turned out to be a thriller unprecedented in recent Danish hockey.
No less than three overtime periods were required to settle the game. After 103 minutes of play with players exhausted and fans having no nails left to bite on, Frederikshavn’s Robin Bergman fooled his marker Joachim Holten-Møller and relieved a wrist shot that hit the back of the net. The 2-1 marked the end of a crazy game that saw over 100 shots being fired at the net and in which both goaltenders were heroic.
The three days rest until game six of the series were well consumed by both teams. Instead of being mentally broken after the dramatic loss, SønderjyskE did what they have to do on home ice and clinically finished off Frederikshavn in regular play with a comfortable 5-2 victory, setting the stage for a grand finale.
The game was dominated by the home side who limited SønderjyskE to just 12 shots during the first 60 minutes. But with neither team able to find the net and sudden death overtime deciding on the league title, nerves clearly started to take control of Frederikshavn.
The momentum slowly changed while there was a strange atmosphere in the arena. With both teams being extra cautious realising each mistake could be lethal at this moment, the fans kept on singing and banging the drums even louder.
SønderjyskE had already fired almost as many shots (10) on net during the first overtime period as they had during the first three minutes when Tyler Gotto let go of his one-timer. Shot number 11 proved to be the most lethal one and earned SønderjyskE its seventh ever Danish league title.
“I can understand the feeling going through the Frederikshavn team right now,” said gold medallist assistant captain Michael Eskesen. After two silver and two bronze medals, the defenceman finally enjoyed the taste of gold.
“They were the better team during 5-on-5 situations but in such type of games it’s not about fair or unfair. When the games are so close it can go either way.”
It didn’t go the way of the home team. While the dressing room was nothing but silence, team captain Mads Bech Christensen spoke to the media. “It’s very difficult to deal with this loss at this moment. I doubt most players on our team fully realise the series is over and we have to settle for silver. Each of us will need a couple of days to recover from what happened.”
Opposite fortunes on the other side. Upon return of the SønderjyskE bus to Vojens, the team was welcomed by a fireworks and torches show organised by the fans who had been waiting for hours on the return of the golden helmets.
The player receiving the loudest welcome was goal scorer Tyler Gotto. The Calgary native joined the team midway through the season after a disappointing spell in Sweden and was looking for avenging the game seven loss of last season’s playoff final when he wore the jersey of Odense against Herning Blue Fox.
“Losing in seven games last year did a pain, a lot of pain, so I’m really delighted to get that monkey off my shoulders,” he said.
The extra shoulder space hasn’t been surplus to requirements with the amounts of hugs and taps, Gotto has received since then.
Rising attendance figures
The playoff attendance figures and the post-final celebrations were good examples of the uprising state of hockey in Denmark. Not just the performances of the national team are drawing more attention, also the national league is quickly gaining ground in the country. The league averages just under 1,700 fans per game, an increase of almost 15% compared to last season. Almost as impressive is the fact that hockey is now close to the average figures that handball, traditionally the nation’s most popular indoor sport, is sporting.