Hockey dreams are gaining momentum in smaller European countries, and Team Europe forward Frans Nielsen wore a broad smile on Friday knowing he has helped the trend, and the World Cup of Hockey 2016 is about to provide another big assist.
Nielsen, 32, was a pioneer of sorts in 2006 when he broke into the NHL with the New York Islanders after he was chosen in the third round (No. 87) of the 2002 NHL Draft, the first player from Denmark to be taken in the draft and appear in the League.
Ten years later, Nielsen said he sees the change in his home country, one of eight represented on Team Europe in this world best-on-best tournament.
“I think it’s not only me but when I was a young kid, the Danish players looked up to those who played in Sweden and those leagues,” Nielsen said Friday at Bell Centre, in preparation for Team Europe’s pre-tournament game against Team North America on Sunday (6 p.m. ET; ESPN3, SN, TVA Sports). “It’s kind of what I followed. Nobody really believed Denmark would get an NHL player.
“But now, not only me but the other guys who go home in the summer, those hockey camps with kids, we notice that what everybody dreams about now is playing in the NHL. So the mindset has changed a lot with young kids and that’s so great to see, and I think it helped that we’ve shown with hard work and dedication, it’s possible.
“Kids’ dreams have changed a lot since I was a kid.”
Team Europe coach Ralph Krueger, whose team is comprised of players from Germany, Switzerland, Slovakia, Norway, Denmark, Italy, France and Slovenia, said Friday he sees a great benefit from this World Cup.
“It will help to grow the game in these countries, for sure,” Krueger said. “The visibility of this tournament through Team Europe in those countries will inspire more children, more youth in men’s and women’s hockey to take part. It’s one of the byproducts of the World Cup that maybe isn’t in a focal point in the North American media, but I can feel it in Europe.
“There are a lot of byproducts here that aren’t obvious for you but they are great, long-term, for the game. I’m sure a few [Anze] Kopitars will be born out of this tournament, as a result of it.”
Nielsen, one of three Danes on Team Europe, along with forwards Jannik Hansen and Mikkel Boedker, said another sign of the trend was the 2016 NHL Draft, in which three players from Denmark were selected (forward Mathias From, Chicago Blackhawks, No. 143; forward Nikolaj Christensen, St. Louis Blues, No. 209; and forward Joachim Blichfeld, San Jose Sharks, No. 210). No draft had ever had more than one.
“They (NHL teams) are not afraid of taking a guy from a smaller country and that’s awesome,” he said.
Denmark, a country of 5.5 million people, has approximately 4,200 registered hockey players. Nielsen said they’ll be the spark for growing interest in the World Cup, which begins Sept. 17 in Toronto.
“We have all early games [in the tournament] so that will help bring more viewers,” Nielsen said. “But for sure there will be a focus. This is big. It is one of the biggest tournaments when it comes to international hockey.
“We’re all excited about representing our countries, everybody’s proud of playing for their countries and when you’re from a small country like Denmark and like Kopitar from Slovenia, I think there’s more pressure in that. You have to go home and help them out because we don’t have too many players to pick from. We have to be there if we can be there. This isn’t like Sweden or Canada. We don’t have that luxury. You just have to be there to support it.”
Nielsen has had a busy summer. Not only has he been preparing for the World Cup, he has a new six-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings, reportedly worth $31.5 million with an average annual value of $5.3 million, after after 10 seasons in the Islanders organization.
“I’m very excited,” he said. “I mean, it’s Detroit. It’s tough not to be excited about that, the hockey culture, everything that’s gone on there over the years, their traditions. That’s going to be an incredible experience.
“I knew right away when they called on July 1 that it was going to be a tough place to turn down.”
On top of that, Nielsen and his wife and proud parents of a new son, Lou, born Aug. 23.
“I had a lot of stuff going on with the tournament and you want to be ready and make a good first impression,” he said. “We just had a little baby boy who’s now two weeks old and with the move and everything… this is all good stuff.”
As is Team Europe’s growing comfort level. The team was late assembling this week because of the Olympic qualifying tournament and lost its first pre-tournament game 4-0 to Team North America on Thursday in Quebec City.
“Everyone is getting along,” Nielsen said. “We’re coming together. There are no issues with the guys. It’s been fun. For me personally, I played against Kopitar a lot, even when we were in Sweden when we were younger. Now we get to play together. I’ve always looked up to [Marian] Hossa and Zdeno Chara, guys like that, when I was younger and now it’s so awesome now to get to know them as a person, too. I’ve always been against them and this has been a lot of fun so far.
“Now we just have to get it figured out on the ice. I think we’re going to improve a lot. No team in this competition has more international experience. We have a lot of games playing World Championships and we know that can help us.”