Four for the road
by Andrew Podnieks|30 DEC 2018
Danish captain Jonas Rondbjerg during the game against Canada.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
Denmark has played in five straight top-level World Junior Championships and captain Jonas Rondbjerg has played in four of them, including this year, his last.

He joins an exclusive club of ten other players who have made four appearances at the U20, not an easy task: Phil Baltisberger (SUI), Bjorn Christen (SUI), Michael Frolik (CZE), Jochen Hecht (GER), Andrei Kostitsyn (BLR), Michel Riesen (SUI), Reijo Ruotsalainen (FIN), Robert Sterflinger (FRG), Konstantin Zakharov (BLR), Erik Cernak (SVK).

“It’s sad it’s my last one,” Rondbjerg said after yesterday’s tough 4-0 loss to Switzerland. “It’s a fun tournament, especially in Canada, with the crowd. It’s a great achievement for me to play in four.” 

Rondbjerg played in his first U20 game on 27 December 2015, in Helsinki, at age 16. “I remember going out onto the ice and just looking around. It felt great,” he recalled. The Danes won the game, 2-1, and Rondbjerg assisted on the tying goal by Soren Nielsen early in the third period.

But as he has developed and matured, so has his role on the team. “It’s a different role I play now because I have to go out and be a leader,” he agreed. “But I feel like I have learned from previous tournaments, and hopefully I can pass some things on to the younger players so they’ll have more experience for future tournaments.”

Denmark re-entered the top level of play of the men's World Championship in 2003 and has been there ever since, and in those 15 years the nation has produced many world-class players, several going on to play in the NHL. After five years at the top level of the World Juniors, Rondbjerg hopes the pattern will repeat itself for the U20 team as well.

Still, virtually every top player in Denmark has left the country as a teen to improve. “I moved to Sweden after my first World Juniors, and that was a good decision,” he related. “I got to play a few games in the SHL my first year, and last year I played the full year in the SHL. The hockey in Sweden is so much better than Denmark. Hockey in Denmark is getting better and better, but we’re not there yet.”

Rondbjerg’s development, and his visibility by playing in Sweden, was such that the Vegas Golden Knights drafted him 65th overall in 2017, the team’s first draft, before it had even played an NHL game. Vegas went on to have a miracle season, going to the Stanley Cup finals in their first year. Rondbjerg attended the team’s development camp last summer, and that was another step, another eye-opening experience from which he can only benefit.

“I felt really good being there. It’s a great organization. They have great coaches. I talk to them a couple of times a month. It’s fun to see from back home how well they were doing so quickly. They know what they’re doing. And when I came over, I saw how the whole city is behind them. The fans go to practices. It seems like a great place to play.”

And what did Vegas scouts like about him? How would they describe him as a player? “A smart, two-way forward, good skating, good shot,” Rondbjerg described. “Hopefully we can play a few more games here, and I can score a bit.”

Indeed, Rondbjerg is having a tough time enjoying this year’s tournament so far. Not only has the team lost all three games, it has yet to score even one goal. For someone with the offensive talent he has, it has been frustrating, but Rondbjerg is a glass-half-full kind of guy.

“We haven’t got the start that we wanted in this tournament. That’s not a secret, but I think we have a chance against the Czechs. We need to score on our chances, and then we can go on to the quarter-finals. Otherwise we have to be ready for the relegation round, like we were last year. We have a good chance of staying up again, I think.”

One thing is for sure. This is Rondbjerg’s last U20. But he hopes it’s nowhere near his last time representing his country. Right now, he has an eye to the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Slovakia in May.

“I’ll try my best this season in Sweden and see what happens,” he said. “That’s a goal I have for this year, to play at the World Championship. I think I have to just keep on playing like I have been, play smart, play hard, show up every night.”