Short end of the stick: how a sport’s revival is on thin ice

Denmark made the quarter-finals of the 2010 World Championship despite only having 25 rinks in the whole country

The old ice rink was gutted and emptied.

Nearly four years ago, hydraulic excavators inched up to the ice hall’s front steps. Østerbro Skøjtehal may have been the only all-year round rink in Copenhagen, but it was old – 33 years old to be exact – and it’s time had come. The excavators roared into life and dug into the concrete. The 1,600-seat enclosure was reduced to a pile of twisted metal rods and chunks of rock. Clouds of dust filled the air.

First a new rink was going to be built in Østerbro. Then it was going to be built in Ryparken. The council spent millions of kroner constructing a temporary rink there. Now it will supposedly be built in Ørestad beginning in mid-2013. This gives the council a whole 18 months to change its mind and move it again.

As Lars Høgsted of the Copenhagen Skating Association told Politiken: “We’ll have trouble believing them until it’s here.”

This is an example of the bureaucratic mess involved in trying to build a single ice rink in Denmark. A nation that boasts the 13th ranked ice hockey team in the world, seven players in the National Hockey League (NHL), and over 4,400 registered hockey players, has just 25 of them in the entire country.

Twenty-five rinks. For a country of 5.5 million people – and most of them are outdoors and only open in the winter.

By comparison, the hockey-crazed Swedes have 478. The Brits have twice as many (46) despite the fact that they are almost completely and utterly oblivious to ice hockey. Even the tiny American state of Vermont (population: 630,000) has more ice rinks than Denmark.

“The whole thing is that we’re such a small ice hockey country,” Ulrik Larsen of the Danish Ice Hockey Union. “It’s difficult to go to a new city and convince them to build a rink – you know how it is with money and politicians, especially now. We do what we can.”

What they can do is build more rinks in cities that already have them – the few pockets of ice hockey fandom currently scattered across Denmark. You can be in a city like Herning that has two rinks and has produced dozens of professional players, but 20 kilometres away the locals have never even heard of the sport.

“The culture is very narrow … you have to grow up in a hockey town,” Frits Nielsen  told The Copenhagen Post. “We don’t have natural ice like in northern Sweden where we can run outside and skate, so without a rink, you’re stuck.”

Nielsen would know. He’s been around the sport all his life, playing professionally in Herning for 11 years and then coaching his old team for another 12. His eldest son Frans was the first Danish citizen to play in the NHL. His youngest, Simon, is currently a professional goalkeeper in Finland.

Even with two rinks in town, the Nielsen boys sometimes struggled to get enough practice time. Frans played on two teams while growing up and practised with each to get more ice time. Then he left Herning shortly after his 17th birthday to play in Sweden, where there were more rinks, more resources, and a more competitive atmosphere.

“The best players here grow out of our system around the age of 15,” Larsen admitted. “After a certain level, they need to go abroad and get more challenges. They can’t keep playing here.”
At the same time, Larsen and Frits Nielsen both stressed that Denmark has a lot to offer its young ice hockey talent. The few rinks that exist are fairly modern. Denmark’s semi-professional league is certainly not the NHL, but it’s nothing to scoff at either. In Nielsen’s opinion, the coaches here are among the world’s best.

“Not many places in the world have produced such great players out of so few,” he said.
However, the problem still remains: 25 ice rinks, overcrowding, expensive equipment, and long commutes to the nearest rink. Talented Danish players like Jannik Hansen would be silly not to leave.

“There have been lots of guys now who have proven they’re willing to come over here [to the United States],” Hansen, who now plays in the NHL, told British Columbia newspaper The Province. “It’s not like we’re going to stay home. We’re coming because back home we don’t have anywhere to play.”

If the only problem is that Danes don’t have enough rinks, then the solution is easy, right? Build more rinks. Build them in more cities. If you build them, they will come.

“Local politicians don’t have any funds to build a new rink, and they know that there’s no need for it – there’s no demand for it in these [new] cities,” Larsen said. “It’s easy to build rink number two, but nearly impossible to get rink number one.”

The Ice Hockey Union has met with councils. It’s told them about the growth of ice hockey in Denmark, how kids can now watch the NHL and see Danish players on their television screens. It’s even brought members of the Danish national team along as proof that this country can succeed on the world stage (it made the quarter-finals of the 2010 World Championships). All of this usually falls on deaf ears.

Frits Nielsen still believes that success is a matter of culture more than anything. He says that Denmark’s best players will always come from hockey towns where the sport is in-demand. Unfortunately, developing this culture takes a long time and a risky initial investment; you can’t play hockey without a rink.

“Hockey culture is very centralised around the rinks,” he said. “Of course, if you get more rinks, then people will be more interested.”

Denmark’s currently ranked 13th in the world with only a handful of rinks and minimal support. Just imagine what it could do with only a little more help. Obviously funding is tight during this global economic crisis, but money is still being spent – in some cases on sports (like athletics) where Denmark is pretty much non-competitive.

It’s been nearly four years since Østerbro Skøjtehal was demolished. Four years since hydraulic excavators moved in and 1,600 seats were reduced to a pile of twisted metal rods and chunks of rock.

If the Danish government isn’t careful, its successful ice hockey team could also vanish in a cloud of dust.