QUEBEC CITY, Canada – 2007 was a landmark year for Danish hockey. The national team achieved its best-ever results at the IIHF World Championship in Moscow, coming 10th among the world’s top 16 teams. They looked much more like Viking warriors than they did in their lone previous 10th-place finish, which occurred in 1949 in Stockholm, and included a record-setting 47-0 loss to Canada.
Since even the parents of many current Danish players weren’t born when that blowout happened, the team will likely get sick of being asked about it by Canadian journalists seeking a story angle. But there’s one thing Denmark can’t afford to ignore about Canada’s hosting of the 2008 tournament: playing on the smaller North American ice surface. The Danes favour a smart puck-possession style much like Sweden, although their speed, strength, and puckhandling abilities aren’t on par with Tre Kronor’s. Will they be able to adapt their big-ice game in time? They enter the tournament at 12th in the IIHF World Rankings, and moving up to ninth to secure a spot at the 2010 Olympics by the end of this tournament is a longshot. Nonetheless, Denmark has managed to stay in the elite division since 2003, and can’t be discounted.
Goaltending is best described as a question mark. While Denmark’s junior hockey program has made huge strides in recent years, its masked men aren’t keeping pace. Five years ago, starter Peter Hirsch was brilliant in his World Championship debut, backstopping Denmark to a 2-2 tie with Canada and a 5-2 win over the United States. But the 29-year-old former Swedish Elitserien netminder, now suiting up for Aalborg IK of the Danish League, is notoriously inconsistent. Hirsch surrendered eight goals on 26 shots in the tournament opener last year versus Russia. Nonetheless, he’s expected to carry the load. If Hirsch falters, 22-year-old Patrick Galbraith will likely be summoned into action. Simon Nielsen, the younger brother of New York Islanders forward Frans Nielsen, is also on the roster.
Captain Jesper Damgaard headlines this crew, and should be a minutes monster, quarterbacking the power play and providing a solid physical presence in his own end. The 32-year-old, who’s played extensively in Sweden and Germany before returning to Denmark this year, tallied two goals and two assists in Moscow 2007. The loss of promising 18-year-old blueliner Philip Larsen (Sweden’s Vastra Frolunda) due to a nagging groin injury is a setback. Nonetheless, Mads Bodker (Rogle) and Daniel Nielsen (Leksand) should provide stability with their Swedish second-division experience. Expect them to struggle with the speed of the Czechs and Russians in Group D, though.
Up front is where the Danes have really shone in terms of developing talent. Even though Frans Nielsen won’t participate due to a shoulder injury, several other youngsters from the North American pro ranks should step up. Right wing Jannik Hansen, the first Dane ever to score a point in the NHL playoffs with the Vancouver Canucks in 2007, played strongly down the stretch with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose, and could inject grit and skill after his team was eliminated from Calder Cup contention on April 28. The St. Louis Blues will eagerly chart the performance of World Championship rookie Lars Eller, chosen 13th overall in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, making him the highest-drafted Danish player ever. The 18-year-old centre, who scored six points in six games at January’s World Juniors, showed promise in his stint with Frolunda this year. If Kirill Starkov can deliver a strong performance in Quebec City after bouncing around the minors this year, the 21-year-old Columbus Blue Jackets prospect could be a impact player for this team. And if the Kitchener Rangers bow out of the OHL finals, 18-year-old Mikkel Boedker would be a welcome addition. The speedy, hard-shooting left wing has topped the OHL rookie playoff points race so far, and Rangers coach Peter DeBoer believes Boedker could be drafted even higher than Eller. However, without good leadership from Swedish League veterans like Kim Staal (Linkoping) and Morten Green (Leksand), the kids can’t be expected to prosper.
Mike Sirant, the onetime head coach of the University of Manitoba Bisons, returns behind the bench for his second straight IIHF World Championship. The 49-year-old Winnipeg native recently requested another year’s leave of absence from the university to continue building Danish hockey. Sirant will be assisted by fellow Canadian Jim Babey, who coached the Danish U20 team in its World Juniors debut this year in the Czech Republic, and Stefan Lunner, a Swede who served as Tommy Salo’s goalie coach with the New York Islanders in the late 1990’s.
Last year, the Danes posted a 4-3 win over Ukraine on May Day, which got them into the Qualifying Round. This year, it’ll likely come down to their May 4 meeting with the gritty Italians, whom they can’t afford to take lightly. If they can avoid the torments of relegation play, another 10th-place finish isn’t out of the question.