QUEBEC CITY – In 1983, Finland was one goal away from being relegated to Pool B. Anssi Melametsa scored a last-minute goal to tie the game against Italy, and secured the point that Finland needed so desperately. The tournament had been a disaster for Finland, with two embarrassing losses against East Germany.
In the eight-team World Championship of the 1980s, Finland was just below the top tier, struggling to get to the medal round, most often falling short in the last minute.
Today, Finland is one of the top nations in the world, always a contender for the medals, even the shiniest of them all.
Denmark, on the other hand, returned to the top division in 2003 after a 54-year absence. It has since finished 11th, 12th, 14th, 13th, and 10th last year. Not quite good enough to make it to the playoff stage of the tournament, but solid enough to avoid relegation.
Petri Skriko, one of the players on the 1983 Team Finland, sees the 16-team World Championships as one of the reasons for hockey’s emergance in Denmark.
“Finland used to be in a similar situation 25, 30 years ago as the small hockey nations these days,” he says, with 97 national team games, over 500 NHL games, and almost 250 games in the Danish league under his belt in a career that spanned from the early 1980s to the end of the century. After seven years as a coach, he is now the Washington Capitals' pro scout.
“Playing in the top division of the World Championships has helped Danish hockey take long strides,” he says.
Denmark’s head coach Mike Sirant stresses the importance of the World Championships even more.
“The World Championship is very important for hockey in Denmark. It helps us market the sport in the country, the games are televised, we have a lot of fans here, so maintaining our place in the top division was really important. It gets us more visibility which brings us more sponsors which brings helps us get better,” he said.
“The fact that forward Lars Eller was drafted in the first round, 15th overall, to the NHL, is a good example of how hockey has improved in Denmark. Keep in mind that the first Finn went as 115th of the draft,” says Skriko.
“And Mikkel Boedker who plays with the Kitchener Rangers in the Ontario Hockey League is probably going to get drafted in the first round as well, possibly in the top ten,” he adds.
While the national team is the flagship of hockey in Denmark, the domestic league is improving, too, according to Sirant. Also, the example of players like Kim Staal, Peter Regin, and Morten Green who are playing in the Swedish Elite League spurs young players on.
Besides Eller, and the Boedker brothers - Mikkel’s brother Mats is a defenceman on the team in Quebec - Denmark has a whole bunch of great players who haven’t even turned 24 yet, but who make the core of the team now.
“In five or six years, I won’t be able to make the roster, the young guys coming to the national team are so good,” said Green, 27, after Denmark’s easy 6-2 in over Italy in the preliminary round, referring to the emergance of a new generation of Danish players.
“I think you can say that we’ve established our position in world hockey,” he said.