Eller takes time to reflect
by Lucas Aykroyd|17 MAY 2020
Lars Eller of the Washington Capitals has represented Denmark at five IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
Did you know that only eight non-North American players in NHL history have scored a Stanley Cup-winning goal?

The first seven were Jari Kurri (Edmonton, 1987), Ulf Samuelsson (Pittsburgh, 1991), Uwe Krupp (Colorado, 1996), Ruslan Fedotenko (Tampa Bay, 2004), Frantisek Kaberle (Carolina, 2006), Henrik Zetterberg (Detroit, 2008), and Patric Hornqvist (Pittsburgh, 2017). The latest addition to the club is Lars Eller (Washington, 2018).

For Eller, that’s some pretty elite company. The third highest-scoring Dane of all time (132+162=294 in 754 NHL games) after Frans Nielsen and Mikkel Bodker was on top of the world on 7 June 2018 at Las Vegas’s T-Mobile Arena. In Game Five of the final, he got behind Vegas Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and shot the puck into a gaping cage at 12:23 of the third period. That lifted the Capitals, captained by 2018 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Alexander Ovechkin, to their first Cup in franchise history.

It also gave Eller a positive memory to savour with the sports world currently shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a different challenge for the former first-round pick of the St. Louis Blues (2007, 13th overall), who has represented Denmark at five IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships (2008, 2010, 2012, 2016, 2019). 

The 30-year-old Rodovre-born centre is embracing the chance to spend more time with his seven-year-old daughter Sophia and his wife Julie, who is expecting another child in August, at their Washington home. IIHF.com caught up with Eller recently.

How did you enjoy the experience of live-tweeting NBC’s rebroadcast of Game Five on 25 April?

I thought it was a really fun experience. I had seen that Justin Williams had done something similar a couple of weeks before, and some of the other pro sports are doing it as well. It was a little different. Usually I’m not a big Twitter guy, but during times like these, when you have a little bit more free time, I just embraced it. I thought it would be fun, not only for me to rewatch the game, but also for the fans to kind of get a player’s perspective on it. It was worth the time and effort, which I don’t always think tweeting necessarily is! [laughs]

What does it feel like when you watch your Cup-winning goal now?

I still get chills just from watching it. Hearing it on a replay, like the other day, it brings up some strong feelings. Especially with everything that happened afterwards, seeing everybody’s emotions, even just sitting in my living room. It’s a great memory.
Lars Eller brought the Stanley Cup to Denmark in August 2018.
photo: Chapin Landvogt
During the lockdown, have you watched other old hockey games?

I have watched very little hockey, to be honest. I’ve just been focused on my family and working out. I’ve been playing a lot with my daughter, trying to get outside, and be active, not just sit in the house the whole day. Of course, we watch a lot of TV shows, mostly at night time. But I haven’t rewatched a lot of hockey. I’ve kind of had a break from that, actually. 

Which TV shows?

Homeland and Ozark. I watched In Search of Greatness last week, and now I’m watching The Last Dance. I’m also looking forward to the next season of Billions. That’s one of my favourite shows. There is always something to watch.

As a pro athlete, when you watch a documentary like The Last Dance, are you trying to learn from Michael Jordan’s mentality, or are you mainly doing it to relax?

Both. I find it very entertaining but also inspiring. I was born in ’89, in a country where everybody knew who Michael Jordan was, but I never really watched his greatness or watched him play basketball. Seeing all this in hindsight is very inspiring, I think, with his determination of wanting to be the best and the way he kept progressing into his 20’s after he got drafted.

I had just kind of assumed Jordan was always a can’t-miss superstar. It really seems like now, from my perspective, that nobody really thought even when he got drafted that he was going to be what he became. So I found that extremely inspiring. It made the whole thing even better for me that his work ethic and competitiveness is what drove him to greatness. Of course, he had a great amount of talent, but it was some other things that were the driving force. I can’t wait to watch the rest of the show.

What have you been focusing on with your home workouts?

I have just tried to maintain my muscle mass and my fitness as well as I can. Not having access to a full gym, of course, it’s not ideal. But I’ve actually invested in a bunch of things to improve my home gym. I still have more than most guys, probably, but I upgraded it a little bit. Also, I have a decent shooting set-up in my garage, so I can feel the puck on my stick and keep my stick skills as sharp as I can without any ice.

But the one thing you just can’t replace is the feeling of having your skates on and going on the ice. There’s just going to be a period of ramping up again. You’re going to start the whole summer routine over when you get back. Still, I’m glad about what I have at home. We don’t want to not be playing, but at the same time, my body is not complaining after four or five months of hockey that it gets a little break here! Hopefully we can start up again and my body will be 100 per cent ready to go.
Last summer, you spent time with skating coach Wendy Marco, working on your technique. This season, you had already set a new career high in points (16+23=39) before the season was suspended. How much has that skating work paid off for you?

It’s tough to say. I’m certainly not done with that. It’s something I’m going to keep going back to before I start every season. I want to keep improving on those skills to try to gain an edge.

I’ve said before that it’s hard to change a pattern when you’ve done something the same way for 25 years or whatever. But working with Wendy has been helpful to fine-tune my efficiency. It was hours well-spent.

How do you feel about the idea of playing in front of empty NHL arenas?

It’ll feel weird, I think. It won’t be as fun as playing with fans, but it’s better than not playing at all. That’s just what we’re facing.

You’ve played on Washington’s third line this season with Carl Hagelin. What do you enjoy the most about that?

Carl is just a team-first player. He’s also become a good friend of mine. He’s easy to play with, easy to read off, which I think is one of the reasons why we work well together. We have a good understanding of where we’re going to put the pucks and what’s going to happen next.

He’s a strong, strong skater, and he puts pucks in the right areas. He recovers a lot of pucks off forechecks, and also brings a good defensive game. So it’s been a pleasure to play with him. We complement each other well.

You’ve played with some great Russians over the years, but is it fair to say you never expected to find yourself on a line with Ilya Kovalchuk?

[laughs] Oh yeah! I was almost like a little bit starstruck when we got him. I’ve played on a line with Ovi and with Alexander Syomin for a brief stint in Montreal. And now I’m playing with Kovalchuk. That’s a pretty cool thing to look back at, to say you played with all these guys, some of the best Russians. The amount of talent that they have is just not fair to the rest of us! So it’s been a great experience. I feel fortunate to have the privilege to play with him.

Ovi, of course, broke 700 goals this year. How many goals do you think he’ll finish with?

I think we’ll continue to see him get 50 goals a season for a few years. He has it in him. He wants it. He’s a little bit like Michael Jordan. Those guys have that drive and determination to be the best. They don’t really quit until they get it. I think he has a chance at 1,000.

You have three more seasons left on your contract. If you stay healthy and play full 82-game seasons, you’ll join the 1,000-game club. What would that mean to you?

No doubt it would mean a great deal to me. It’s hard enough to crack the lineup of an NHL team, let alone to have the durability to reach 1,000 games. It takes a lot of commitment throughout a decade or more. Plus all the decades you have to put in just to get to the NHL. That would make me proud of that accomplishment if I get there. It’s definitely something I hope is realistic. Hopefully we start playing again soon!

Who are the funniest guys in Washington’s dressing room?

Ovi just does a lot of stuff, actually, that’s very funny. Yevgeni Kuznetsov is funny too. Jakub Vrana unknowingly does a lot of stuff that’s funny. He’s not trying, he just is! So those three guys, for sure.

When you’re not busy with hockey, what do you normally like to do in Washington?

They’ve got some great golf courses here. I’ve played at places like Robert Trent Jones and Congressional that are pretty cool. Congressional has a lot of history there. Also, down there on Constitutional Avenue, the Washington Monument is somewhere I’ve been a couple of times. It’s pretty historic grounds. There are a lot of great restaurants here, too.

You played with some great players even before you came to the NHL. For instance, you spent two seasons with Erik Karlsson in the Frolunda organization. What was Erik like when he was 17 or 18?

[laughs] I always think Erik is one of the most confident players that I’ve ever played with. I think that was his biggest strength, his confidence. We were a bunch of guys who came up together in Frolunda and made the step from juniors to seniors. He just didn’t change one thing in his game. Didn’t have too much respect. He just stepped in and did what he’d been doing as a junior. He was a very confident young individual.

What’s been your favourite experience in a Danish uniform?

I think it would have to be 2010 in Germany when we made it to the quarter-finals for the first time. I can remember that was a big thing for everyone in Danish hockey and for everybody around the team. A big milestone in our history.

Thoughts on the direction Danish hockey is going right now?

I think with the men’s national team, if we had every single player available, it would probably be the strongest national team we’ve ever had. I know Frans [Nielsen] is trending maybe a little bit toward the end of his career, but the rest are in their prime or going into their prime. Some of them are still getting better. On the side of the junior national team, I think we can make improvements there. Over the last two years, they haven’t had the results that they had five or six prior to that. So that’s gone slightly in the wrong direction, but the men’s team, right now, has never been better.

In 2025, the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship is scheduled to be co-hosted by Denmark and Sweden. If you were choosing, which host cities would you pick?

Copenhagen for sure. Easy. And I think it would be great to have Malmo, just across the Oresund. It’s a 20- or 25-minute drive over the bridge connecting the two cities and the two arenas. I think that would be fabulous, both for the venues and for the Swedish fans. And all the fans! That would be amazing.

With the uncertain state of our world, what are your hopes for the rest of the year?

My hopes are obviously that every single country gets the spread of COVID-19 under control to an extent where people can return to their jobs, whatever it is they do, and where we’ll have sports again.