It was somewhat fitting. If there’s an image that comes to mind when imagining Frans Nielsen, it’s skating in on a penalty shot and scoring on his backhand. In his NHL career, which conveniently started near the beginning of the league’s shootout era, he did it 49 times which has him currently tied for second-all time – tied with the Chicago Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane and trailing Chicago captain Jonathan Toews with 51.
So it was somewhat fitting to see him lined up at centre ice at the National Indoor Stadium in Beijing, China, with 2:37 to play in the first period of his first-ever Olympic ice hockey game. His Danish team was already leading 1-0 despite a wide advantage to Czechia in terms of possession and shots on goal. When Patrick Russell was hauled down on a breakaway, there was really no question who Denmark coach Heinz Ehlers would choose to take the penalty shot.
“For sure, the butterflies were there,” Nielsen said about playing his first Olympic game at age 37. “Not nervous like the first NHL game, but it’s different. It was something new that I’ve never been a part of before. But once you get out there, get a couple shifts under your belt, it feels like a hockey game.”
The way Nielsen so confidently described the penalty shot itself, it sounded like Czech goalie Simon Hrubec didn’t have much of a chance.
“I knew I was gonna go to my backhand, but I was just waiting for him to make the first move,” said Nielsen. “He dropped his leg so when I went to my backhand, I knew he couldn’t slide with me.”
Watching from across the ice was Danish goaltender Sebastian Dahm. “I think when you have the world’s best backhand on the penalty shot there, it’s amazing to see that lightning strike again,” he marvelled.
After four more seasons of pro hockey in Sweden, while also regularly starring for Denmark’s U20 national team and playing in four World Championships for the national men’s team, he was finally ready to make some history in 2006 at the age of 22.
Fifteen years later, after splitting his career between the Islanders and Detroit Red Wings, Nielsen left the NHL with 473 points in 925 games. His 167 goals don’t include those 49 shootout goals but they do include two goals on penalty shots, where he was 2-for-3 in his career.
In the 2006/07 season, Nielsen was only the second Danish-born player to ever play in the NHL. When Jonas Rondbjerg debuted for the Vegas Golden Knights this season, he was the 17th.
Internationally, 18-year-old Nielsen was on Denmark’s 2002 team that won its Division I group, earning a promotion to the elite tier of the World Championship for the first time ever. They’ve never been relegated since, and made the quarter-finals in 2010 and 2016. In 2018, Nielsen played in the World Championship in Herning, his hometown, where the Danes came painfully close to advancing again.
And now playing in the Winter Olympics for the first time.
Back when he was drafted in 2002, Nielsen was just the fifth Danish player ever chosen by an NHL team. Peter Regin and Jannik Hansen followed in 2004, and now rarely a year goes by when at least one Dane isn’t.
“He means everything to hockey in Denmark, I think. The first guy in the NHL, kinda paved the way for other guys and now he gets to score in the Olympic Games. He got to carry the flag in the Opening Ceremony, so yeah, I’d say he’s having a pretty good Olympics.”
At the end of last season, with his role and playing time on the Red Wings dwindling, Nielsen decided to leave the NHL and return to Europe. At first, he was unsure if he would continue playing professionally, but late in the summer he suited up for the Danish national team for one last crack at qualifying for the Olympics.
“When we qualified in August, I knew I wanted to play one more year to be here,” he explained. “There were teams in Sweden and Germany (that I was considering). I wanted to be close to Denmark because we just had another kid a month ago, so we’ve got three now and I wanted to be somewhere close so they could come in quickly when I was on the road.”
Ultimately, he decided on Eisbaren Berlin in Germany’s DEL. He has 14 points in 20 games leading up to the Olympic break.
Only in the last couple of months has it become clear how big an impact not being in the NHL would have on fulfilling his dream of playing in the Olympics. As recently as December, the league still planned on taking a break to allow its players to participate, but of course that changed.
“I’ve thought about that a lot,” he said. “You always want to play in the NHL, but with this being my last year playing, it would have been tough to miss this. All I can say is, this is a childhood dream and it all worked out for the best, I guess.”
The team’s first Olympic game and win are now in the books, but they play at least three more times in Beijing – Group B games against ROC and Switzerland and a guaranteed qualifying round game.
Looking ahead to those games, he said: “Just like today, we know there’s going to be more talent on the other side, but at the same time, as a team, we know that we can be tough to play against. We’ve gotta be good defensively and hopefully, like the Czechs today, have turnovers and things like that we can capitalize on.”
And as for where his penalty shot goal ranks among all the goals he’s scored in his career, he thought more in terms of what it meant for the team.
“I guess it means more than others because it’s such a short tournament. With only three games, every point is more important than it can be in the regular season (of a league).
“When you’re in the middle of it, it’s not really something you think about. I’m sure that after I’ve retired, after I’ve had a couple of years away from the game, I’ll be proud of what I’ve done.”