EDMONTON – American-born Todd Bjorkstrand has been a player/coach in the Danish city of Herning for 24 years. As this year’s U20 national coach he brought his offspring to the World Juniors.
Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the 49-year-old played college and minor-league hockey in the United States before landing in Herning at age 25.
It was kind of a return to Scandinavia for him as his great-grandparents once immigrated to the U.S. from Norway and Sweden.
While most players of his calibre would have found their luck elsewhere after a couple of successful years, Bjorkstrand found a new home in the city of roughly 50,000 inhabitants and fell in love with it, but mostly with his future wife he met in Herning.
“It’s not so usual to play for a club so long. It wasn’t planned that way. I met my future wife there in my second year as a player. We married in 1992 and had a family and then time flew by. I was fortunate to be in a good situation,” Bjorkstrand said.
And what luck it was for Herning and its hockey community.
“It’s a hockey town. Hockey is not the number-one sport in Denmark, but we get a pretty decent following for that level of hockey,” he describes of the situation.
In his 14 years as a player in the city, Bjorkstrand led the team to seven Danish championships. He was the league’s scoring leader and best goal-getter several times. In his statistically most successful season, 1994-95, he scored 64 goals and 121 points in just 42 games.
When stepping back as a player in 2002, Bjorkstrand continued with five championships as a coach. His success story continued on the international stage as well. In his first IIHF tournament, Bjorkstrand led Denmark to gold at the 2011 IIHF U20 World Championship Division I, which qualified the team for the 2012 World Juniors in Canada.
With him are his two sons, 1992-born Patrick – who was already on last year’s team – and 1995-born Oliver. Both are living under the same roof with their parents to form a true hockey family. And both got their skates on already as little kids.
“My daddy knows to play hockey, so it’s a natural thing,” Patrick Bjorkstrand says. “I’ve always played hockey. I can’t even remember when I started. As soon as I could walk, I had skates on.”
Both already play together for the Herning Blue Fox, the club coached by their father currently ranked second in the Danish league. And both seem to be following in their father’s footsteps.
Centre Patrick plays in his third season with the pro team and has scored 25 points in as many games. His younger brother, winger Oliver, is playing his first pro season as a 16-year-old and has notched 20 points.
“Sometimes it’s a little hard when your daddy keeps managing all the games, but you get used to it,” Oliver tells about the hockey family. “He’s also our coach in Denmark where we play on the same line. We’re used to it.”
“Of course it’s hard,” Patrick says. “It’s a long season and you’re with your dad all the time. You play lot of games and practise all the time. It gets hard, but you work on it, you start to strengthen the relationship.”
And how is it for their father to have both sons on his teams?
“It can be very challenging sometimes. But for the most part it’s a very positive experience,” Todd Bjorkstrand says. “It can be pretty emotional at times. Sometimes it can be little bit tense. At the rink, at practice and stuff I’m the coach, and at home I’m the dad.”
But in a hockey family like this, sport doesn’t end when leaving the rink. “We’re all passionate about hockey, so we talk about hockey at home,” the coach confesses.
One topic that might come up soon is where the sons will continue their further development. When asking the sons, it becomes clear that they want more than just being top players of the Danish league.
“My goal is to play in North America. I want to make it to the NHL. It’s a long way, but that’s my ultimate goal. Right now I’m just trying to focus on this tournament,” says Patrick.
There are different ways Danish top prospects can go and nothing has been decided.
“We talk about those things, but not a lot. They’re playing in Denmark now, but if you ask them, they might say they want to do something else outside of Denmark,” their father says. “There are different ways you can go. Quite a few players like to choose Sweden. Frans Nielsen played junior hockey in Sweden, Peter Regin did the same, Nicklas (Jensen) went to play junior hockey for Oshawa. It depends on the individual.”
For now the focus is on the World Juniors. And on the next match against Canada – a game nobody expects the red-and-white team to win. The deciding games will come later, most probably in the relegation round.
“We have to continue on keeping our structure, defending better and competing harder,” Todd Bjorkstrand says. “We have to take it one day at a time and to take baby steps. Our goal is to compete really hard. We have to expect more from ourselves and find a way to compete harder.”