Larsen hangin’ tough
by Lucas Aykroyd|03 MAY 2018
Denmark's Philip Larsen, who has battled back from injuries to KHL stardom, last played at the Worlds in Minsk in 2014.
photo: Jukka Rautio / HHOF-IIHF Images
It’s almost as if the lyrics of Survivor’s rock classic “Eye of the Tiger” were written with Danish defenceman Philip Larsen in mind.

Although that 1982 song entered popular culture through the Rocky film series, this has nothing to do with fighting for the 184-cm, 84-kg veteran. It’s about pure resilience.

As the KHL’s top-scoring defenceman (11-27-38 in 54 games) in the first season of his three-year deal with Salavat Yulayev Ufa, Larsen went the distance – both on the ice and with the club’s rigorous travel schedule. It was a big comeback.

In 2016/17, Larsen’s career with the Vancouver Canucks was derailed by injuries, including a devastating hit by former Edmonton teammate and current Hart Trophy candidate Taylor Hall of the New Jersey Devils. The nifty Frolunda-schooled puck-mover, whose NHL journey began with Dallas in 2009-10, played just 26 games last season.

However, with his new team in Russia, Larsen has shown his will to survive. Now the 28-year-old Esbjerg native is back on his feet, and he must play a key power-play role if Denmark is to go deep on home ice. This will be his sixth IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, and his biggest highlight came in Germany 2010 when he scored twice en route to an eighth-place finish, marking Denmark’s first quarter-finals appearance ever.

We caught up with Larsen after Denmark lost 3-2 to the United States in the final exhibition game for both teams in front of a sell-out crowd of 2,678 spectators at Herning’s Kvik Hockey Arena in Herning, which will be used as practice arena during the Worlds.

What did you think of this game?

Of course you always want to win the game. We knew the Americans have a good team with some really highly skilled, top-class players. I think we played well. I don’t know how hard they played, to be honest. But I think we played smart, and it was a game for 60 minutes. We were in it for 60 minutes. That’s definitely something we can take with us when the World Championship starts.

When you look at the big picture, when you were 10 years old, if somebody came to you and said, “Denmark will be hosting the Ice Hockey World Championship,” would you have believed them?

No, no. It would never have crossed my mind even if you asked me five years ago when I was 23! Nothing I ever would have even thought about, to be honest. But now we’re here.

A lot of tickets have been sold. It seems like it’s going to be a real good couple of weeks. Hopefully we can, as a team and as a country, show that we’re prepared and people like to be here. I hope everyone has a good time and everything goes as smoothly as possible.

Do you feel like you’re well-prepared to handle the pressure of increased media attention, people asking for tickets, and the other stuff that comes with being the host nation?

Everything is new. I think we’re still working on that. There are a lot of things that all of a sudden you have to think about. Family and friends want to see you and a lot of things are going on. It’s definitely a new experiment, but it’s been good so far. We’ll see how it is on Friday [against Germany] when everything probably goes crazy.

How do you enjoy your partnership with Stefan Lassen?

He’s a good D-man, hard to play against in his own zone, and good against some of the bigger guys. We’ve been playing together for a couple of World Championships, and of course it’s been a while since both of us have been here, a couple of years. But I think we’ve been playing pretty well.

There are still a couple of things to work on, as always. I’m looking forward to getting the games started and being as good as possible.

How would you assess your KHL season? You lost in the second round to Traktor Chelyabinsk in seven games, but it still had to feel good overall.

It’s been a good season. We’ve got a good team with a good power play. Personally, of course, it’s always nice to feel like you’ve done something good. You can take that with you. So personally, it’s been fun and it’s been a fast year. I feel like time’s been flying by! As a team, I think we’d like to make it a little bit further next year and hopefully we’ll be able to do that.

In Ufa, what do you like to do in your time away from the rink?

I’ve got my girlfriend with me and our daughter’s there too. This year has been crazy with the Olympics and stuff. We’ve been playing so many games, almost like an NHL schedule, the whole season. So it’s been a lot of games and when you have time off, you usually spend it with the family. But Ufa’s not a bad city. It’s got some good restaurants and good malls to go to.

Of course, it’s really cold. But I’ve been in Edmonton and it wasn’t any different from being there. It’s a decent city. I like being there and my girlfriend likes being there. The team is good, good management, good people. It was a fun year and I’m looking forward to staying there for another two years.

Have you tried kumiss?

Horse milk with alcohol! I’ve never tried it, but I know some of the Russians are drinking it. I should probably give it a go. Maybe at some point. But I haven’t had the guts yet to go that far!

What does it mean to have goaltender Frederik Andersen of the Toronto Maple Leafs join the national team?
It means a lot. If he can play his game and we can help him the best we can, he can give us a chance to be in the game for all 60 minutes. It doesn’t matter if we play whoever. He is, in my mind, a world-class goalie. He had a real great season this year. You can see he’s coming here with some confidence. That’s always nice to see. He’s a great, great guy too. Hopefully we can help him and he can stand on his head for us at times when we need it.

You have an assistant coach in Tomas Jonsson who was one of the first three Triple Gold Club members. He won the Stanley Cup in 1982 and 1983 with the New York Islanders, the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in 1991, and the Olympics in 1994. What does his knowledge mean to your team?

He’s a smart coach. He’s been through things that most hockey players are dreaming about. Every time he opens his mouth, you listen. A guy like him doesn’t have to say much before you take it in. He’s just a real smart guy who knows what he’s doing. He’s good for the group.

You didn’t spend that long in Vancouver, but you did spend some time with the Sedin twins, who have just retired. What were your experiences with them like?

I know I spent a short time, and that was that. Not my best season, unfortunately. But I got to play with two of the most intelligent players probably ever in the game, in my mind. Two real good people on the ice and off the ice. They treated me like I was anybody else and they did that to everybody. Really humble and professional. There were a lot of things you could learn from those two.

They’re definitely guys you look up to. I still do. They’re guys you’ll remember when you’re old and think back.

Here with Denmark, you have several of your key players. Of course, there are also top guys who are in the NHL playoffs. How far do you think your team can go right now?

It’s hard to say. Of course we want to make it as far as possible. I don’t like to say how far we can go, but you know, if everything clicks and everything goes the right way and we get on a good roll, we can qualify for the quarter-finals. Then everything can happen.

Of course, I think the goal is to try to get there. But it’s going to be hard. We’re going to need smart play, and like every team, you always need a little bit of luck as well. It’s going to be exciting to see. Everybody is really motivated to make the best of it. We’ll see how far we can go. We don’t have a bad team. I feel like we have a pretty good team. If everything clicks, who knows?