Simply to have qualified for the Winter Games for the first time is special enough. But to be heading into a quarter-final against the ROC team after nipping Latvia 3-2 on Tuesday is something that few hockey fans saw coming, inside or outside Denmark.
“It’s a huge thing for Danish hockey,” said head coach Heinz Ehlers, the father of Winnipeg Jets star Nikolaj Ehlers. “People in Denmark that are interested in hockey and sports are pretty excited about this win here, and so are we.”
Sitting 12th in the IIHF World Rankings, behind Norway and ahead of Kazakhstan, the Danes have remarkably managed to stay in the top division of the IIHF World Championship since their 2003 return. They've celebrated eighth-place finishes in 2010 (Germany) and 2016 (Russia).
Yet even when they’ve had NHL talents like Ehlers Jr., Oliver Bjorkstrand, or Frederik Andersen at their disposal, their road to the Olympics has been littered with heartbreaks. Until now.
Take 2016. In the final Olympic qualification tournament in Minsk, Denmark was upset 5-2 by host Belarus and blanked 3-0 by Slovenia, which booked its tickets to the 2018 Olympics in South Korea.
Conversely, back in August, the Danes rattled off three straight Olympic qualification wins, culminating with goalie Sebastian Dahm’s 2-0 shutout in Oslo versus host Norway, to make their Beijing dream come true.
“It’s been so tough times for us, not qualifying for the Olympics,” said forward Julian Jakobsen, who scored his first Olympic goal against Latvia. “My first time was back in 2009, so it’s been quite a wait. And now we’re here!”
Keep in mind these Danish players are not kids. Backup goalie Frederik Dichow, 20, is the only roster member born in the 2000’s. The average age is 30. These hard-working guys understand how quickly hockey careers go by and how much it means to wear your country’s colours at the Olympics.
According to CapFriendly.com, assistant captain Frans Nielsen – the highest-scoring NHL Dane ever with 473 career points– made more than $43 million USD in his 15-season career with the New York Islanders and Detroit Red Wings. Yet if the 37-year-old forward had decided to sign for another year in North America instead of playing his final pro season with the DEL’s Eisbaren Berlin, he wouldn’t have gotten this Beijing experience. It’s something money can’t buy.
“Even if I had stayed in the NHL, that would have been a tough one to swallow when they told us NHL players could not come over,” Nielsen said. “I was really thankful that it worked out that way. Being my last year playing, it would have been tough to miss this.”
Hockey teams always talk about being like a family, but in a small Scandinavian country with just 2,527 registered male players and 702 registered female players, it really rings true. 2022 has ramped up that feeling with the Danish women’s team making its first Olympics as well.
Given the unusual circumstances of the COVID-19 bubble, Olympic organizers have provided large TV screens where athletes can see and interact with their friends and family after games. Jakobsen, the 34-year-old captain of the Aalborg Pirates, appreciated that chance after eliminating Latvia.
“It was nice to see the family back home. My kid, my nephew, my niece, and my whole family. They’ve been up early today. So that was great. It was really surprising! It’s always really cool especially for the kids to see me, and they don’t really understand it. My sister [Danish Olympic women’s national team captain Josefine Jakobsen] was on the screen too. She said she wanted the stick because I scored, but I might put it up in my own garage! I think she’s excited to see us playing tomorrow.”
The Danes have never beaten a Russian team at the IIHF World Championship, posting 11 straight losses while getting outscored 59-13. But so what? They competed till the end in their 2-0 group-stage loss to ROC here in Beijing. And in recent years, Denmark has defeated many hockey powers for the first time at the Worlds, including Finland (2010), Czechia (2014), and Sweden (2021). Anything is possible in Beijing, and the Danes are happy and proud to give it a shot.
Naturally, realizing that Russian attackers like 2018 Olympic scoring leader Nikita Gusev have the potential to explode at any time, the Danes are giving their quarter-final opponents their due. Seven of those Russians suited up for the golden OAR team in PyeongChang.
“It’s one of the best teams in the world,” said Jakobsen. “It’s skill. It’s a lot of puck possession. We have to try to stay out of the box more. I think we had five penalties [versus Latvia]. It’s too much if you want to win tomorrow, but we definitely have a chance. It’s tight. It’s a small ice surface. I think that’s our advantage. We’ll try to see if we can dig out a couple of chances and maybe get a lucky one to put some pressure on [the ROC team].”
Like the changing of the Royal Guard at Copenhagen’s Amalienborg Palace, there will inevitably be significant changes to the Danish roster by the time the 2026 Milano-Cortina Olympics roll around. And there is no guarantee that the Danes will qualify again. So before Beijing passes into sepia-tinted memories, they will push hard just to see how far they can take this thing. Perhaps they’ll create the most special moment in Danish hockey history.
“It’s an amazing experience,” Jakobsen said. “I wish there were more people here to see it and just feel it all.”