Date: December 14, 2016

Developing Danes

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By Jeremy Darke – IIHF.com

Since making its first appearance in the top-level World Juniors in 2008, Denmark has been building towards defining itself as one the top junior nations.

It certainly has not been smooth sailing since that day, with the Danes floating between the elite and Division I for the next seven years. Although, to their credit, they have strived to be better and are now challenging some of the top nations in the world like Russia and Sweden, and have made it to the quarter-finals the last two consecutive years at the World Junior Championship.

Denmark is not a big nation, especially when it comes to ice hockey, with just 14 hockey towns and 25 rinks, young kids are more likely to dream of becoming football stars or find themselves playing handball or badminton. Hockey hasn’t been one of the top participating sports in the country but things are changing.

Children are beginning to dream. Dreaming of becoming the next Frans Nielsen, the next Jannik Hansen, the next Frederik Andersen. They have seen that it is possible to make it to the NHL even though they are from a nation where the sport is still growing.

“I think with almost 10 players in the NHL every single Danish junior player is dreaming about making the NHL,” says Denmark’s national junior coach, Olaf Eller, father of NHLer Lars Eller. “For many of the clubs in Denmark it is a high ambition to help the boys make it. Those things going hand in hand, there are many very strong hockey towns in Denmark where there is huge progression.”

“They have seen the picture from Frans Nielsen and Jannik Hansen and they have seen that it is possible to go and to break it and they continue to have ambitions and the coaches continue to have ambitions and there is a very strong culture in those towns where we have hockey,” says Eller. “In several of the clubs, there are 15-year-old guys that practice eight times a week and play 70 games a year. They practise two or three times in the morning a week and they have their evening practice and they play their games. Many guys are getting a lot of ice time, maybe too much.”

For around the last ten years young Danish players have begun to realize that they too have the potential to make it, which has made them ambitious and drives them to develop and put in the hours on the ice that can give them a shot at being professional, not only in Denmark but in any of the top hockey countries all around the world.

The Danish Ice Hockey Union also realized it was time to take the sport to a new level by introducing new training methods since 2008, like the Age Training Concept, and by also introducing national development camps from the age of 14-years-old. The top players from around the country meet approximately once a month as a group, giving the junior national coaches, like Eller, regular contact with the players to discuss their development and help set training goals and push them along the way.

“There is a strong Danish youth program, where they already from 14-years-olds have camps for the best players, so I think that is part of the history. As well many of the players go themselves to small development camps all year round. That is coming from very high ambitions,” explains Eller. “The Danish federation camps starting from 14-years-old are a huge part of the development because it is both hockey development but it is education in how to practise, how to eat, how to relax, how to focus and different things. It is the full package getting to them pretty early which is important.”

For the top junior players that choose to stay in Denmark and develop at home, in most cases, are given the best opportunity to do so by playing in the country’s top senior competition, the Metal Ligaen. 13 of the 14 players from the Danish national junior team that are still playing in Denmark play in the country’s top domestic division, which is a key factor that has helped growth of development.

“Another part of the development in Denmark is that the Danish league is letting a lot of young guys play. There are a lot of young players in the Danish league and it is a very speedy league,” explains Eller. “All the guys from our team playing in Denmark are playing in a pretty high-level system, so they are getting a very good education too.”

As the skill level and ambition grows within Danish junior players the question always arises: Is it better to stay at home and develop in the national system or is it better to move and play in a more hockey focused country like neighbouring Sweden, Finland or even over the Atlantic to North America?

“For some players it can be better for them to take a couple of extra years in Denmark, for some players it is the right choice to go overseas early. I don’t think there is any straight line there,” Eller says. “Their ambitions sometimes cause them to move too early. I think you have to be really curious about what is right and really it is not always a good thing to go right away. You need to find out what can drive me at my place and what can help me, how can I get better at my place or do I not get challenged here and do I have to move away.

“Although, if you really want to make progress at some time you have to move.”

On the back of all of the individual development at a young age the success of Denmark’s national junior team has naturally moved in the direction in which the Danish Ice Hockey Union wanted it to progress. Since their last promotion to the top tier the Danish junior team has been writing their own history recording their first ever point in the division when they lost to Russia after penalty shots in 2015. In the same year they recorded their first ever win after being on the right side of a shootout against Switzerland. In 2016, they took it one step further against the Swiss beating them 2-1 to record their first ever regulation win in the division.

For Eller the last two years’ quarter-final results have been based around a trust that has grown within the playing group since their most promotion, in 2014, and the ambition and realization that they can achieve anything if they just believe in themselves and in each other.

“It is a little bit the same picture about our NHL players, they have seen that it is possible. We know that there is a lot of work we have to do but we know it is possible.”

Although the focus for the Danes heading into the World Juniors in Canada is to continue to fight it out with the top nations, they will be once again full of belief and determination to put a scare through the field in their hunt to go one step further.

Denmark will play Sweden, defending champion Finland, the Czech Republic and Switzerland in the preliminary round in Montreal.

Speers gives Team Canada hopes shot in the arm

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There are always more questions than answers at Team Canada’s world junior training camp, but Blake Speers answered some big ones Tuesday.

The biggest: How’s the wrist, broken Oct. 27? Just fine, it turns out.

Another: How’s his game? Just fine as well, thank you.

“I felt about as good as I could have pictured it,” said Speers, who picked up an assist in Canada’s 3-0 exhibition win over the Canadian university all-stars. “Right from warmups, I got some pretty good confidence in it. I got some good shots off. It was nice to get into a game finally and make some plays early, and get my confidence early.”

That’s good news not just for Speers but for Team Canada.

As first cuts loomed, his performance in his first game in almost two months seemed to allay any doubts. He only got the cast off his wrist a week ago.

“I don’t know if he was 100 per cent, but he looked pretty good for a guy that was coming back from an injury,” said coach Dominique Ducharme, who smiled as he spoke about Speers. “For me, it was good to see him on the ice. It was good to see the way he reacted and the way he played.”

Until he broke a bone in his right wrist in that October game in Windsor, Speers — captain of the Soo Greyhounds — was having a kind of magical 2016. He’d scored 74 points last season, but hadn’t been on Team Canada’s radar and wasn’t invited to their summer camp. Still, while Canada’s roster is loaded with first-round picks, Speers was a 2015 third-rounder who made the New Jersey Devils out of training camp. He got into three games.

 “They sent me back for this opportunity to play at the world juniors and to continue to build my game as a go-to guy in junior, instead of a utility guy in the NHL,” said Speers. “They want me to be a more skilled guy, so that’s what I’m here to work on.”

But he broke his wrist that first game back with the Greyhounds, sidelining him until Tuesday, meaning he also missed a series against the Russians earlier this month.

“It’s been a roller-coaster of a couple of months,” says Speers. “The emotions were so high when I was in New Jersey. Then to come back and know I had a chance to play on the world junior team, and then get hurt so soon, it was pretty disheartening.

“But then to get the news I would be able to come back and play was awesome, so I’m back up again.”

At one point, Speers was supposed to be out eight weeks, meaning he might have missed this camp.

“But I knew . . . I would put every ounce of effort I had into getting it ready,” said Speers. “The range of motion and strength was as good as it could be coming in. I’m really happy where I got it so far.

“The whole snapping motion is getting a lot better for me. Today was my best day shooting-wise.”

Speers played right wing with Mathieu Joseph (Saint John Sea Dogs) and centre Nicolas Roy (Chicoutimi Sagueneens), starting a play with a stretch pass along the boards that led to Roy’s game-winning goal. Brett Howden (Moose Jaw Warriors) and Victor Mete (London Knights) also scored for Canada.

The Canadians won both meetings with the university all-stars, and have one more exhibition game at the Centre d’Excellence Sport Rousseau — Wednesday night against the Czechs — before they get down to 22 players.

It’s a remarkably short period of time for players — especially newcomers to the Hockey Canada program, like Speers and Erie Otters winger Taylor Raddysh — to make the roster.

“We do not take (just) what we see here,” said Ryan Jankowski, the team’s chief scout. “It’s the full body of work: What have they done for us in the past? What have they done to start the season? And what happens here.”

For the players, it makes for some anxious moments.

“It’s a pretty exciting time for guys, anxious time for guys, trying to find out where you fit into the lineup,” said Speers. “But stuff like that is out of your control. All you can control is how you play on the ice.”