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.