Stanley, I presume: How every year, it pucks up the worlds

The NHL player strike late last year means Denmark will be lucky to field more than two of its eight North American stars at the Ice Hockey World Championships next month

The thrilling deciding game of the Danish Ice Hockey Championship last week on Friday brought rare international attention to the domestic league of a sport that has never quite taken off in this country, partly due to the tendency of Denmark’s best players to take off as soon as an overseas offer lands on the rink.

But conversely, while the players who took part in SønderjyskE’s 1-0 defeat of the Frede-rikshavn White Hawks are decidedly average by international standards, they are more likely to compete for Denmark in the 2013 Ice Hockey World Championships (IHWC), which starts on Friday May 3 in Sweden and Finland, than their North American-based compatriots, who play in the world’s strongest league, the NHL.

And it is not a question of location, but scheduling, as every year the IHWC coincides with the global sport’s biggest tournament, the NHL’s Stanley Cup – timing that has been exacerbated this year by the NHL strike late last year.

The timing means that only the sides completely out of contention to qualify for the Stanley Cup play-offs, which start on April 30, will give up their players for the IHWC.

The remainder of the month will therefore be one of baited breath for the national teams of lesser nations like Denmark as they will their stars to lose for a change! The record number of eight Danes in the NHL this season means coach Per Bäckman is keeping a close eye on proceedings.

“We expect to find out on Sunday which players will be available to us,” Kim Pedersen, the general manager of the national team, told The Copenhagen Post. “Usually, if players play for a club that qualifies for the play-offs we don’t expect them to be released.”

With the Montréal Canadiens, the New York Islanders, the Ottawa Senators and the Vancouver Canucks almost certain to qualify, it seems that Denmark will have to do without its biggest stars: centres Lars Eller, Frans Nielsen and Peter Regin, and winger Jannik Hansen.

It is, however, reasonable to assume that defenseman Oliver Lauridsen and winger Mikkel Bødker, who play for the Philadelphia Flyers and the Phoenix Coyotes respectively, will be released as their teams don’t look likely to qualify. While the participation of defenceman Philip Larsen is in the balance, as his team, the Dallas Stars, are a 50-50 chance to qualify.

But it has been confirmed recent Canucks debutant Nicklas Jensen, a winger, will not be joining the national team.

So once again, Denmark will be lucky if it is able to field half of its current NHL crop when it starts its campaign against Canada on May 4 in Stockholm. Canada, on the other hand, the perennial powerhouse of the sport, will have no such trouble.

Following that, Denmark will face hosts Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Belarus, Slovenia and the Czech Republic as it bids to qualify for the quarter-finals.  

The 2012 tournament offered little to be positive about, with Denmark only managing one win, beating Latvia 2-0 and leaving the tournament with a goal difference of minus ten. The team finished 13th out of 16 teams and missed relegation from Group S to Division 1 by just one spot. The team’s saving grace was the horrendous run of Italy, who only managed one overtime win, which was incidentally over Denmark. There is, however, reason to be more optimistic following a positive run of friendly games in the build-up to the tournament.  

The tournament warm-up started with two expected losses to current Olympic bronze medallists Finland in early April. There were especially worrying signs during the latter game in which Finland completely outclassed Denmark, winning the game in Odense 7-0.

Denmark then hosted a double fixture against the current world champions, the number one in the world rankings, Russia. The first game finished with a 3-0 loss, but the team showed a marked improvement from the games against Finland. Team captain Morten Green told Sporten.dk after the match that it had been an amazing effort.

“We created as many chances as them, but we had some problems in the final third. We are missing more goal scorers.”

And then on April 13, just one day after the first game, the team pulled off a historic achievement with a 3-2 overtime win − the first ever Danish victory over Russia.

Morten Madsen, who scored the overtime winner, told Sporten.dk that it was important to keep perspective.

“We can’t forget that this was only a training match, not an IHWC match. But we played a good game and showed that we are on the right track.”

The third round of friendlies brought the team to France, where last weekend the team bagged two away wins. The first match saw Denmark trounce the French 5-2, with the team leading five to nothing until the final two minutes. The latter fixture offered up a lot more excitement with the game going through overtime to a penalty shootout. The home team started the game strongly by taking an early 2-0 lead, but a Danish rally prevented disaster as Patrick Bjorkstrand and Frederik Storm brought the scoreline level. The shootout was then settled by national team veteran Kim Staal, who scored the deciding penalty.

The last preparation stage will take place on April 30, when Denmark host Austria in Rødovre.

Pedersen has positive expectations ahead of the IHWC.

“We expect a good tournament, he said. “It will of course be difficult as each year the competition gets harder and the difference between doing well and relegation becomes less and less.”

He is, however, keeping in mind that these were only friendlies and, given the disastrous nature of last year’s tournament, he is not getting carried away by the encouraging recent results.

“Last year we had some extremely tight games, but we expect better this year,” he said. “We don’t just plan on playing it safe and settling with staying in the top group — we plan on taking chances and playing on full steam.”

The IHWC provides the national team with a chance to put February’s disappointment of not qualifying for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia, after losses to Slovenia and Belarus, behind them. A good tournament could see them build on their win over the Russians and match or surpass 2010 when they made the quarters and finished eighth. A bad one could see them relegated.