The Great Dane
by Henrik Manninen|12 DEC 2021
Kasper Larsen competed with the Danish U20 national team already two years ago before Covid-19 started causing cancellations.
photo: Vitali Harbatsiuk
Danish hockey is currently riding on the crest of a wave. Their respective men’s and women’s teams have already qualified for the 2022 Winter Olympics this season – in both cases for the first time ever. Is the lucky streak set to continue at the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division I Group A?

On home ice in Horsholm, Denmark will take on Belarus, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Latvia and Norway, played between 12-18 December 2021. The prize at stake for the group winner is joining the top-ten nations at the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship in Novosibirsk and Omsk, Russia.

Now into his eighth consecutive season as head coach of Denmark’s U20 team, Olaf Eller consolidated Denmark’s position among the top-tier nations between 2015-19. He had enjoyed immediate success upon his return to his second stint as head coach of the U20s when guiding Denmark back to the top division in 2014. How would he assess the current crop of players at his disposal compared to that successful era?

“It was a different team with different attributes. But although we might not have the same depth this year, we still are on a pretty good level this year. We hope to be able to play at the top end, but we are also satisfied if avoiding relegation,” said Eller.

In 2014 when Denmark’s juniors stormed to promotion from Division IA, Eller had current NHL stars such as Nikolaj Ehlers and Oliver Bjorkstrand weaving their magic. This year Denmark’s most eye-catching performer is found on the blueline. A strong presence at 196 cm and 105 kg, Kasper Larsen is currently into his rookie season skating for the Mississauga Steelheads in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL).

“He is one of the biggest talents to have come out of Denmark in recent years and he can go very far,” said Eller. “He is a winner with excellent vision and a very good shot. He has played on the smaller rink in North America so I hope he can quickly adapt to the game on a bigger rink,” said Eller.

Rodovre-born Larsen was 17 when he debuted at the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division I Group A played in Minsk, Belarus. What had meant to become a memorable occasion for the teenager turned into a nightmare. During the third period of Denmark’s fourth game against Norway, an opponent´s unfortunate check ruptured Larsen’s spleen. The Danish prospect was rushed to hospital in Minsk, where he underwent a four-hour surgery which saved his life.

“It could have ended really, really badly,” said Larsen. “I was out for six-seven months, but I recovered fully and returned stronger as both a player and person. I don’t think about it when I am on the ice. I am not scared at all to battle or take a hit, so I am all good now,” said Larsen.

Once he had returned to full fitness, Covid-19 temporarily halted his plans to continue developing his game in North America. Larsen instead spent the 2020/21 season gaining valuable experience playing a full season of senior hockey in Denmark’s top division with the Herlev Eagles.

He leaped across the Atlantic ahead of this season to join the ranks at Mississauga Steelheads and has not looked back since.

“I have gotten faster and stronger playing a quicker game. I try to focus on my speed and my first three steps,” he said. “My hockey IQ, my defensive and offensive skills are all much better, so that’s been good,” said Larsen.

His boyhood dream is to one day skate in the promised land that is the NHL. Preferably in the red, white and blue of the 2017/18 Stanley Cup champions Washington Capitals.

“From an early age I’ve looked up at players such as John Carlson, Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, so it would be great to play for Capitals one day. But my focus is right now on the OHL and do well enough there and hopefully get picked in the NHL draft this summer,” said Larson, who will be turning 20 on 23 September next year.

But while U.S. blueliner Carlson might be a firm favourite, there is a gargantuan fellow Scandinavian defenceman Larsen also looks at for inspiration.

“Victor Hedman is a very big player also in size, so if I would compare myself to someone I would like it to be him. There’s so much in his game I look up to such as his skills in offence, defence, passing and hockey IQ, so I watch him a lot and try to do the same things out on the ice,” said Larsen.

But upon his temporary return to Denmark, the immediate focus for Larsen will now be to try and end his junior career with the national team on a high. Following a disappointing fifth-place finish in 2020, Denmark will be required to be switched on right from the outset in their opener against Belarus tonight.

“Last time when we played at the U20 World Championship in Minsk we were not focused and didn’t show up. We didn’t play like a team wanting to move up to the top division. So that’s what we have to this year, stay focused, be calm and go on from there,” said Larsen.

Check out the tournament page for scores, photos and the live stream.