REYKJAVIK – Denmark has emerged to a top hockey country that is able to reach the World Championship quarterfinals, and that produces NHL players. Now they give something back and provide help to the Ice Hockey Iceland.
Denmark had a tough debut at the international stage with a 47-0 defeat against Canada, represented by the Sudbury Wolves, at the 1949 World Championship.
Few people who witnessed that game in Stockholm would have believed that this country would once even produce NHL players such as Lars Eller, Jannik Hansen, Frans Nielsen and Peter Regin a little more than half a century later. Philip Larsen, who signed with the Dallas Stars and who played his first NHL game last week, tries to become the fifth Dane in the big league.
The Danish miracle didn’t work without help from upper-echelon nations. North Americans and Swedes have always played an important role in Danish hockey and the five Danes in the NHL helped themselves with transit countries. Hansen had a year in Canadian junior hockey between his two pro seasons at home in Rødovre and his NHL contract with Vancouver.
The other four players went the more common way for Danish (and Norwegian) top players: they go to neighbouring country Sweden where they can play in one of the best leagues outside of the NHL, and eventually make it a step further.
With the lucky circumstance of having three of the NHL players on the roster, Denmark even reached the quarterfinals for the first time in World Championship history last spring in Germany following their wins against Finland, the U.S. and Slovakia.
Now the Danish Ice Hockey Association tries to pass some of its success to the only Scandinavian country that is not in the top division: the Atlantic island of Iceland.
Hockey reached the island of fire and ice rather late. Because the country didn’t have covered ice rinks until the late ‘90s, hockey couldn’t be played on a regular basis for many decades and the country wasn’t able to join the World Championship program until 1999.
“Slowly, but securely we have started the journey from the bottom towards the 3rd-place finish in Division II last spring. This has been our best result to date,” said Vidar Gardarsson, President of Ice Hockey Iceland, and continues:
“With the expiration of the contract of our last head coach, we came to the conclusion that in order to take the next steps we would have to look towards our good neighbours in Scandinavia. We were looking for a coach that could help us with the development of our hockey program. We felt that our players deserve a top level coach and at the same time we wanted a person who knew the challenges of a small hockey nation.”
The help came from Denmark, the country that once ruled the island. The Danish Ice Hockey Association immediately took the challenge as they once were in a similar position of being a small organization with a limited number members, funds and venues.
Relatively quickly the name of Olaf Eller came up. The father of Montreal Canadiens forward Lars Eller won several championships in Denmark and represented his country in six B- and C-Pool World Championships in the ‘80s.
He coached several teams in the Danish top league as well as Troja-Ljungby, a Swedish second-tier team. In the last two years he was the head coach of the Danish U20 national team and since this season he’s behind the bench of Amager Ishockey in the second Danish league. Now he added a second job for the end of the season.
“There was little doubt in our minds that Olaf was the right person with his knowledge of our players and his hand in the successful Danish player development program that keeps producing one talent after another,” Gardarsson said.
The Danes also helped Ice Hockey Iceland with its financial constraints in negotiating the one-year contract with Eller. The goal is to improve from last year’s Division II bronze.
“We are really thankful to the Danish association and its President, Henrik Bach Nielsen, for really living by the creed of ‘paying it forward’ to the rest of the ice hockey family. Only by sharing experience globally will we ensure mutual growth and success for our sport,” said Gardarsson.
Eller’s men’s national team will play in the 2011 IIHF World Championship Division II Group B in Zagreb, Croatia, against Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, China and Ireland.