He just won a DEL title in his lone season with Eisbaren Berlin and hopes to go out on a high as well here in Finland.
For NHL fans, likewise, Nielsen was a standout over the course of his 925-game career. Case in point: his shootout prowess. With his 49 career NHL shootout goals, the former New York Islander and Detroit Red Wing has only been equalled by Patrick Kane (49) and surpassed by Jonathan Toews (51) of the Chicago Blackhawks.
Let’s take a look back at the man who’s been an integral part of Denmark’s national team since its 2003 return to the Worlds – as well as the first Danish-born and trained player to make the NHL. Here are 10 big Frans Nielsen moments.
1) The Birth of Nielsen (1984)The 1983/84 season was a big and portentous one for Danish hockey.
In the top domestic league, Heinz Ehlers – the future father of Nikolaj Ehlers and coach of the national team – placed second in the scoring with 63 points for Aalborg Pirates, while Olaf Eller – the future father of Lars Eller and coach of the World Junior team – was fourth with 30 points for Rodovre Mighty Bulls.
And of course, Frans Nielsen was born on 28 April 1984 in Herning, the future co-host city of the 2018 Worlds with Copenhagen.
2) Frans Shines Early in the Danish League (2001)While still a teenager, Nielsen won his lone Danish title with Herning. His Blue Fox squad dominated the domestic league with 22 wins in 32 regular season games and a 159-88 goal difference before downing Rodovre in the finals. Nielsen wasn’t just a passenger. He scored 18 goals and 37 points and was named Rookie of the Year.
3) Hello, World! Denmark Is Back (2003)Do you remember what you did on 26 April 2003? Nielsen sure does. He made his IIHF World Championship debut in Tampere as Denmark returned to the top division after a 54-year absence. Better still, the small Nordic nation opened with a 5-2 upset over the Americans, paced by two Kim Staal goals. Denmark has stayed among the world’s elite 16 hockey nations ever since, and Nielsen is a defining part of that success.
4) Nielsen Scores His First Worlds Goal (2005)After going goalless in his first two Worlds, Nielsen was thrilled to finally light the red light at the 2005 tournament in Austria. It wasn’t the most glamorous of circumstances. The 21-year-old gave Denmark a 3-0 lead over Slovenia in the opening game of the relegation round in Innsbruck, but Slovenia stormed back for a 4-3 win. Nielsen’s next goal – the third-period power play winner in a 4-3 comeback win over Austria – was more significant, as it helped Denmark stay up.
5) Nielsen Plays His First NHL Game (2007)On many church calendars, January 6 is marked down as Epiphany. For Nielsen, it was a revelation. The New York Islanders called him up from the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers and he made his NHL debut in a 4-2 road loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, getting 7:38 in ice time. It was an historic moment for Danish hockey and the best was yet to come.
6) Denmark Cracks the Quarter-Finals – With Nielsen’s Help (2010)After returning to the top-level Worlds in 2003, Denmark’s placements ranged between 10th (2005) and 14th (2007) – until 2010, that is. The tournament in Germany was a watershed moment for Danish hockey.
Nielsen set the successful tone early on, scoring two goals in the 4-1 upset over Finland on 8 May in Cologne. The Danish assistant captain also set up Lars Eller’s opening tally when the Danes shocked the Americans 2-1 in overtime two days later.
Nielsen wound up tied with Eller in team scoring (2+3=5) as Denmark stunned the experts by making the quarter-finals. Even though they bowed out with a 4-2 loss to Sweden, the bar had been raised forever.
7) A New Peak in NHL Points (2014)Some guys hit a mid-life crisis when they’re about to turn 30. However, Nielsen didn’t run out and buy five sports cars – he just had a career year with the Islanders in 2013-14. He racked up 25 goals and 33 assists for 58 points in 80 games, trailing only Kyle Okposo (69 points) and captain John Tavares (66 points). It made the Dane’s then-current four-year, $11-million deal look like great value.
8) Going Deep with Team Europe (2016)Nielsen wasn’t able to join the Danish team that marched to the World Championship quarter-finals and finished eighth (for the second time in history) with a 5-1 loss to eventual silver medalists Finland in St. Petersburg.
However, he did get another shot at international glory at the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto that fall. And while it was hard to get fired up about or emotionally invested in the Team Europe concept, it was still nice to see players like Nielsen, Slovenia’s Anze Kopitar, and Norway’s Mats Zuccarello get a chance to play for a title, which would normally be out of reach in IIHF play.
One of Nielsen’s two tournament assists came on Zdeno Chara’s opening goal against Canada in Game Two’s 2-1 series-deciding loss to the champs. Even in defeat, he rose to the occasion.
9) When the Worlds Came to Denmark (2018)Even if the outcome wasn’t exactly what Danish hockey fans dreamed of, hosting the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship for the first time was a true testament to the growth of their program and their fan base. A whopping 520,481 fans attended the tournament in Copenhagen – including a healthy contingent of Swedish supporters from nearby Malmo – and Herning between 4 and 20 May, 2018. Coming off his second season with Detroit, Nielsen wasn’t going to miss his chance to wear a red-and-white uniform on home ice.
The Worlds started off in dream-like fashion with a 3-2 shootout win over 2018 Olympic silver medalist Germany. Nielsen scored the shootout winner – as the only Dane to beat German goalie Timo Pielmeier – in front of a delirious Jyske Bank Boxen crowd of 9,982 in Herning. Showing leadership, he also got the first goal in both a 3-2 win over Finland and a 3-1 decision versus Korea.
Latvia beat Denmark 1-0 in the last group stage game as their star goalie Elvis Merzlikins got a 19-save shutout in a 1-0 loss. That killed Denmark’s quarter-final dreams. Still, you could hardly fault Nielsen.
10) Nielsen Steps Up in Denmark’s First Olympics (2022)No fan of Danish hockey who watched the national team’s opener at the 2022 Olympics will ever forget what Frans Nielsen did with his penalty shot.
IIHF.com’s Derek O’Brien set the scene beautifully: “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.”
Nielsen, of course, went to his famous backhand and beat Czech goalie Simon Hrubec cleanly. Denmark then rode a 39-save outing by Sebastian Dahm to claim an upset 2-1 victory.
Nielsen would finish with two goals and an assist at the Olympics as the Danes marched to seventh place – a higher finish than they’d ever achieved at the Worlds. Even at age 37, he continued to send the message that anything was achievable for Danish hockey with hard work, determination, and a team-first attitude.