Vojens started winning national championships in 1979, 1980 and 1982 and later under its new name SonderjyskE in 2006, 2009, 2010 and then three in a row between 2013 and 2015.
And now it welcomes European ice hockey as the IIHF Continental Cup stages its final tournament in the most southern town of Denmark’s Metal Ligaen. The team started in great fashion with a come-from-behind 2-1 shootout win against the Nottingham Panthers.
“It was huge. We played a great game. They got a lucky bounce because our own guy put the first goal in the own net but the guys played well and bounced back and we got it in the shootout. It’s important to win the first game but the tournament is not over,” said Kim Lykkeskov.
The 36-year-old is an institution in the club. A long-time player, captain and four-time World Championship participant, Lykkeskov changed his jersey with the C on the breast for the position as General Manager in 2017. He watched the game from the tribune, still emotionally involved as he would be with his former teammates down on the bench. It’s like he has never left. Well, he kind of didn’t as he has been with the club his whole life.
Hosting one of the biggest events in cross-league club hockey in Europe adds some extra work to the small but committed team on and off the ice in Vojens.
“For me it was my first time this season hosting this tournament and that’s a lot of stuff. If we didn’t have all the volunteers we couldn’t do this tournament. We don’t have enough bodies. I’m doing all the sports stuff but we all do a lot of extra work. But it’s cool. It’s fantastic to get a chance to try that,” he said.
On the ice it’s a new generation of players coming in, many from the town and region. Such as the Galbraith brothers. It may not be the most common name in Denmark but George Galbraith came to Vojens in 1978 as a goaltender after playing junior hockey in Canada and college hockey in the United States. He ended up playing there more than 20 years, got married here and has two sons. Patrick followed his footsteps as a goaltender, Daniel is the blueliner who sent off the shot leading to the late game-tying goal against Nottingham.
“It was a good feeling to see the puck go over the line, we did a good job in front of the net. We just tried keep believing and shoot pucks to the net but we got the one that was enough,” said Daniel Galbraith.
“Vojens is a small town, hard working people, a great hockey town. We don’t have too much to do. People love going to hockey and speedway. These are two things we care about here,” he said.
It was the same decades earlier for Lykkeskov. He played both football and ice hockey but going from one to the other practice each day became too much at some point. “When I was 13, 14 my hockey coach told me to choose. I couldn’t recover good enough. Then I chose hockey because all my friends played hockey,” he said.
Nowadays the sports are even closer together. Top-level hockey, football and handball, a highly popular sport in Denmark, are played in rather smaller towns in South Jutland. That’s why these clubs decided to join forces in 2004 and play as SonderjyskE, short for Sonderjysk Elitesport, meaning elite sport of South Jutland. They changed logos wanted to have a bigger marketing appeal in the region. Vojens remained the hockey town in this construction, top-level football and handball under this brand are played a few kilometres away in the region.
Since 2011 the club has a modern arena. In a country where hockey is played in tiny rinks, having an arena with a capacity for 5,000 fans gives SonderjyskE a big advantage. Last season 2,944 fans came in average during the regular season, almost twice as much than the league average. Only one club (the Aalborg Pirates with 2,808) has comparable numbers. For both clubs the numbers went up significantly last season after the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship was hosted first time in Denmark and gave the sport more attention in the country.
“The new structure was a really good decision. The numbers we have even on a Tuesday night was a sell-out in the old rink. That was very important to get the new arena. I don’t think hockey would be so big now if we were still at the old rink,” Lykkeskov said.
“The sports are now kind of divided up in the southern region. 12 km away is football and then handball,” he said, even though the fans are still cheering on Vojens during the game.
“You never get them away from singing Vojens, that’s the root of the club. When they cheer, they cheer for the town.”
“It’s come a long way since then, we’ve proven to be a good team. We progressed every year since back then. Before that the team didn’t win a lot of medals. Times have changed and we’ve been quite successful but we’re hungry for more trophies,” Galbraith said.
“We want to win every game. We fell short last year in the finals and want to go there again and get the gold.”
Last year the club had to settle for silver in Denmark. Missing out on qualifying for the Champions Hockey League meant an opportunity to do well in the Continental Cup on the European stage for SonderjyskE. And get a CHL ticket this way.
“It’s a shorter way to a trophy. We want to do what we can to achieve it. I don’t know too much about our next opponents but we got to play one game at a time and play our game and concentrate on ourselves,” he said.
The Danish hosts will play top-seeded Belarusian club Neman Grodno tonight, like Nottingham another former Continental Cup champion. On Sunday they conclude the tournament against Cracovia Krakow.
Despite beating Nottingham, GM Lykkeskov warns from having too high expectations.
“We have to be realistic. We are the only team here that is not a full-time pro team,” Lykkeskov said since it’s usual in the Danish league that at least the local players have other jobs or study.
“We got to be realistic but every time we show up for something to win, we want to win it. We take one game at a time and see where we stand. The goal is to win a medal.”