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Frederik Andersen is a 6-3 Dane great in a field that occupies a very small piece of a rather small country's sports landscape.

Skim the web versions of Monday's sports pages in Denmark's major newspapers, and you must scroll deep to find any mention of the starring role Andersen played as his team won Sunday's Stanley Cup semifinal opener against the Blackhawks.

So if the Ducks goalie becomes the first to bring the Stanley Cup to Denmark, a populace of 5.6 million that focuses its sports interest on soccer, cycling and team handball (yes, team handball) may not understand what all the fuss is about.

"Those who know hockey in Denmark will know what a high level this is," Ernst Andersen, the goalie's father and a former goalie himself, said Monday from Herning, Denmark. "In general, we will have to explain how much it means."

Yet Andersen is among eight Danes who saw NHL action this season, a group that includes Peter Regin, who played four games for the Blackhawks. That is seemingly a disproportionate number for a country with only 4,200 hockey players of all ages and both genders, just two dozen indoor rinks and weather too mild for natural ice.

Denmark has never qualified for the Olympics in men's or women's hockey. Its best finish at the world championship is an eighth by the men in 2010, the tournament in which a 36-save effort in an upset of Finland gave Andersen exposure that led the Carolina Hurricanes to make him a seventh-round pick in that year's draft.

Making the 2010 world quarter-final is one of the landmark achievements in Danish hockey history. The other came in 2007, when Frans Nielsen became the first homegrown Dane to play in the NHL. Nielsen just finished his ninth season with the New York Islanders.

"All this has come from almost nothing," Ernst Andersen said. "Now the world has opened its eyes to Danish players and seen what our skill level is."

Denmark has a 10-team top league that began in 1955 and now plays a 36-game regular season, with only foreigners and a few Danes as full-time professionals.

The Danish national team made its international debut in 1949 with a 47-0 loss to Canada that remains the worst defeat in world championship history. Denmark did not return to world play until 1962.

The country's hockey still wasn't much to write home about when Dan Jensen moved from suburban Toronto to begin a 15-year career with the Herning team in 1990.

"It was pretty terrible," Jensen said Monday from Henring.

Enver Hansen, who spent 11 years as chief executive of the Danish Ice Hockey Federation, said improvement began in the mid-1990s with the hiring of Swedish coaches who implemented a system across all age levels. The Swedes developed what Regin called "a culture for hockey."

"They brought a seriousness about all parts of training -- physical, mental, hours on the ice," Hansen said.

Jensen, who has lived in Denmark the last 25 years and is Herning's youth hockey director, said the change also owes to something in the Danish character.

"The Danes take a lot of pride in education," he said. "When they want to learn something, they work very hard at it."

About 20 years ago, some young Danish players began to seek hockey tutelage in nearby Sweden, attending sports-oriented high schools there. Once a general reluctance to take that step was overcome, others began going to major junior leagues in North America.

Jensen's older son, Nicklas, moved at 17 to play with Oshawa of the Ontario Hockey League. He was a first-round pick of the Canucks in 2011 and has played in 24 games with Vancouver over the last three seasons, during which he also has played for the Chicago Wolves and the Utica Generals of the AHL.

Dan Jensen was on the Danish national team that won promotion to the top division of the world championships in 2003. The Danes have stayed there since, and their under-20 team, for which Ernst Andersen is the goalies coach, made the top world junior level in 2015 and qualified there for next year.

Despite (or because of) the limited number of rinks, with none in wide swaths of the country, the relatively small number of youth players means everyone gets plenty of ice time -- especially goalies such as Andersen.

He was among many kids who would play simultaneously on two or three youth teams, one at their age level and others above. Being with older teammates and opponents accelerated the improvement of the younger ones.

Andersen chose to play professionally in Sweden rather than sign with the Hurricanes. He was drafted again in the third round by the Ducks in 2012, made his NHL debut last season and became their undisputed No. 1 goalie in this year's playoffs.

He and Regin were among the four NHL Danes this season from Herning, a city of 47,000, 320 kilometres west of Copenhagen. The only Dane to make the Stanley Cup Final, the Canucks' Jannik Hansen in 2011, is from the Copenhagen suburb of Herlev.

Three Danes, including the Winnipeg Jets' 2014 pick, Nikolaj Ehlers, have been first-round picks in the last eight NHL drafts.

"When I was young, guys just wanted to make it (as a pro) to Sweden," Regin said. "Now they want to make it to the NHL, and it's a reachable goal, so everybody aims for that."

And if one can bring back hockey's holy grail?

"That would obviously be a great way to honour Denmark as a hockey country, because we've grown a lot," Andersen said.


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