Amerikansk artikel om Herning
HERNING, Denmark — There are only about 10 players on the ice. Most of Team Denmark is exercising their option to skip a Tuesday practice during the World Championship, hosted in their home country.
Frederik Andersen, however, is out there working.
For once, it’s a quiet arena for the Maple Leafs goalie coming off a season that concluded with an intense seven-game playoff series against the Boston Bruins and now picked back up playing games in a jammed home arena in the Denmark town where he grew up. Andersen is kicking aside shots from teammates almost directly below a row of yellow championship banners in his childhood rink, a reminder of the proud past of the Herning Blue Fox hockey program that laid the foundation for this moment in time for Denmark hockey.
The local club in Herning has 16 national championships since being established in 1947. Herning is the hometown of Red Wings center Frans Nielsen, a Denmark hockey legend who became the first player from the country to make it to the NHL. In the past 10 years, this town of 50,000 has produced five NHL players, including Columbus’ Oliver Bjorkstrand, Nicklas Jensen, Peter Regin to go with Nielsen and Andersen.
Remarkably, 10 of the 25 players on Team Denmark are from this town or played in Herning.
But right now, none are more important than Andersen.
He’s getting in a practice because he was rested against Canada, preventing a showdown with Maple Leafs teammate Curtis McElhinney. Andersen had just played in back-to-back games, so there was strategy in sitting him out in a game Denmark wasn’t likely to win.
“It’s one of those things, third game in four nights — I don’t think that’s how Freddie rolls,” McElhinney told The Athletic. “I don’t think back-to-backs, he’s even used to playing.”
But in this tournament, he has to. Denmark’s dreams of advancing to the quarterfinals during the year they’re hosting rest on Andersen’s broad shoulders. He’s the best goalie in this tournament and he’s entering it especially motivated.
After wrapping up his practice session, Andersen stops to chat en route to the bus waiting for him just outside the arena. There’s no dressing rooms in this old barn, so he’s bussing in full gear.
Andersen played a ton this season for Toronto — 73 games when you combine the regular season and playoffs. There was concern about overwork at times when his play dipped below his high standard. But skipping this tournament? It was never an option for him. If anything, it’s helping him get over the heartbreak of early elimination in the NHL.
“There was huge disappointment,” Andersen told The Athletic. “We didn’t make it to the second round. I would never in a million years, would trade…”
He pauses a moment, and restarts.
“I’d rather play in the Stanley Cup playoffs. That goes without saying. After I woke up, a few days later, tried to get that disappointment away. The reason to say yes, to come here is the hometown and all that stuff but also maybe getting my mind off the playoffs and forcing myself to focus on something instead of being depressed for a week.”
He saw an opportunity. He had a hometown waiting for him. He’s also thinking long term. These high-pressure games in May, with a jam-packed home arena trying to will him to victory through chants and cheers is preparation for what he hopes is coming in Toronto.
“Getting used to playing at this time of year — you don’t want to just stop playing,” Andersen said. “You want to be able to go on a playoff run and keep playing through May and June.”
He chats for a few more minutes, then grabs his stick and walks down a hallway in the direction of the bus. Alon the way, he passes huge photos of the best players to play in that rink. Both Nielsen and his brother Simon are on the wall. Bjorkstrand. Jensen. Regin. As Andersen exits, he walks right under a huge cutout of himself making a save as a member of the Anaheim Ducks.
Frederik Andersen walks out of his hometown rink after a Denmark practice. (Craig Custance / The Athletic)
One day later, he does something that suggests there might be hope for the Denmark fans that this World Championship might be about more than just hosting, that there might be more winning than anyone expected. Andersen holds Finland to just two goals in helping Denmark pull off the biggest upset yet of the tournament, with Andersen leading a salute to the home crowd after the game. The hometown Herning arena goes absolutely crazy — jammed with fans in red, jumping up and down in celebration.
Herning’s own Nielsen and Bjorkstrand scored goals in the 3-2 win over Finland. This town’s hockey fantasy is starting to play out in a very real way. It’s a scene that Herning hockey players from the previous generation would have never even imagined, even if they’re responsible for laying the groundwork.
The answers as to how a town this small can produce a moment like this, and players as talented as Andersen, have been wide-ranging. It’s a question that has been asked a lot since the tournament started.
“It’s the water here,” jokes Nicklas Jensen, a big winger who played for the Vancouver Canucks and New York Rangers. “I don’t know. We’re lucky to have a lot of good coaches growing up. There’s a winning mentality.”
That winning mentality was cultivated through reminders at the local rink. There are the banners in the rafters. For young kids growing up in Herning, there’s also a trophy room to go along with the Wall of Fame. In that room, there are huge trophies from championships in the past along with artifacts like old skates and antique goalie gear that trace successes back into the 1950s. There are black and white pictures of the outdoor sheet of ice that started it all.
“You see the banners up there, that’s what you pride yourself in, the expectations here,” Andersen explained.
“A lot of credit goes to all the youth coaches,” said Nielsen. “The coaches I had here 20 years ago are still out here. They’re really passionate about it. It’s always been a winning mentality in Herning. Good coaches, plus, I’m sure it helped that a lot of guys showed, with hard work, you can make it far too.”
Nielsen’s father Frits was one of those coaches responsible for passing along that winning mentality. He played for Herning from 1970-75, and then again in the mid-80s. He won a national title with Herning in 1973 and 1981. He played for the national team seven times, putting up 101 points in 82 games. As a coach, he helped lead the Herning Blue Fox to five championships.
A photo of Frits Nielsen and his teammates from a Herning championship team is displayed at the rink. (Craig Custance / The Athletic)
Rather than try to explain the story of Herning hockey history over the phone, Frits provides an infinitely better option.
Come meet it.
A few hours before Denmark faces off against Finland on Wednesday, there’s a dinner gathering described by a cardboard sign out front of the hosts’ house as the “Herning Oldtimer Party”
Walk around the side of the house and into the back patio and there’s a table full of old friends, who also happen to be some of the best players to skate for this hockey town. These are the forefathers of Herning hockey. Or in Frits Nielsen’s case, the actual father.
The smell of steaks cooking on the nearby grill fills the air. The Beatles are playing in the background. The long outdoor table is filled with placesettings, bottles of Tuborg (a Danish beer) and a couple bottles of wine.
Frits Nielsen is in the corner sitting next to 70-year-old Seppo Repo. Repo was one of the best Finnish players of his generation, and near the end of his playing career, he played a season in Herning. He also coached there.
“Seppo,” Frits Nielsen says, turning to his right. “The story when you played Gordie Howe and he came up to you …”
Repo played one season in the WHA, scoring 29 goals for the Phoenix Roadrunners. He also caught the attention of Mr. Hockey during a game against Houston.
“Something I did,” Repo answers, sharing the story in English snippets in order to include a guest from the U.S.
“Against his son?”
“Yeah. (Howe) skated in front of me. ‘Remember. Last time. Last time. So I realized, ‘Last time.’”
He wouldn’t be taking any more liberties with one of the Howe boys during his time in the WHA.
Frits Nielsen smiles.
Across the table, another import to Herning is listening. Toronto native Paul Richard hadn’t been back to Herning in decades but with it hosting the World Championship, he jumped at the chance to reconnect with old friends. He joked that the reason for Herning’s success was the arrival of a couple Canadians to teach them how to play the right way. He was a member of Herning from 1979 to 1984.
While there, he volunteered his time coaching the youth program. He especially remembers Andersen’s uncles, twins who always went at it during practice.
“I turned around one day and one of the twins is hitting the other over the head with a stick,” Richard says with a laugh. “I talked to (Andersen’s) dad about that. We did a selfie and he was going to send it to his brothers.”
Then he gets serious. He points over in Frits Nielsen’s direction.
“They’re the Montreal Canadiens of Danish hockey,” he says. “The tradition just keeps going.”
Another story is shared, this one about the time Andersen’s career deviated from the normal path of a Herning player. Just as he was about to take off as a goalie, he left the town because the starting job in Herning was blocked by an import.
He was coming off a strong season with the Herning Blue Fox in which he had a .929 save percentage in 33 games but didn’t feel like he was going to get an opportunity to start the following season. So his agent started calling other teams to try and give the talented, young goalie a better opportunity.
One of the guys Andersen’s agent called, Kasten Arvidsin, is sitting at the other end of the table. He was coaching a rival team and had his shot at a future NHL goalie.
“His agent was phoning me often and asking if I was ready to take him. But the year before that, we changed four goalies. So I said no,” said Arvidsin said. “It was the biggest mistake.”
Andersen ended up signing with another team in Denmark, the Frederikshavn White Hawks, where he put up a .932 save percentage in 32 starts. The next year he starred in the Swedish Elite League, which led to him getting drafted in the third round of the 2012 draft by the Anaheim Ducks.
“From there to the NHL, that’s a mile,” Nielsen said. “Nobody — you just don’t even know the NHL at that time.”
Two years after being drafted by the Ducks, he was in the NHL.
“And from there, you know the story,” Frits Nielsen said.
It’s a story that’s still very much being written, a story that would get another chapter a few hours later against Finland.
In June of 2008, in a moment that captures the ambition of this small Denmark town, the mayor of Denmark flew to Athens, Greece, to meet with Rene Fasel, the president of the IIHF. Before becoming mayor, Lars Krarup was the CEO of the Herning Blue Fox. He also is president of an organization charged with bringing big events to this small country, located just south of Norway and Sweden, and north of Germany.
He was targeting something that would be the biggest sporting event to be hosted in his country, the IIHF men’s World Championship. He pitched the idea of Denmark to Fasel and was presented with the obstacles that stood in Denmark’s way.
“He said, ‘OK, three issues,’” Krarup said, chatting in a lobby just outside the main arena in Herning. “‘You need to have bigger arenas.’ At the time we didn’t have this arena, we didn’t have the arena in Copenhagen. The most difficult thing was that Denmark has to stay in Group A. We’re such a small country and hockey country. Third of all, he said, ‘Maybe you should be aware that in the years of the Olympics, the biggest nations, they probably don’t want it.’ It was good advice, try to run for an Olympic year. And we did.”
The response from the town of Herning has been amazing. The atmosphere when Denmark plays is electric, a sea of red, lathered up by the stretch of great bars in downtown Herning.
“The first game was unreal,” Andersen said. “There’s been a lot of anticipation for the city and Hockey Denmark.”
There was a moment when the enormity of what was happening in his town hit Krarup during an early tournament game between the U.S. and Canada. The crown prince of Denmark was in the building. So was the prime minister. So was Fasel, the man who made it clear just how big a longshot Denmark was for hosting this event.
In this small Danish town, the best players in the world were on the ice warming up to play in an intense international rivalry game. Connor McDavid. Patrick Kane. Johnny Gaudreau. Some of the biggest stars in the game.
In that moment, it was almost a bit overwhelming.
“I just said, ‘I’ll be back.’ I walked to a little square standing by myself just to enjoy the start of it,” Krarup said. “The first 10 minutes of the game, I took in by myself. It was just a dream. It was amazing.”
The Americans won that game, in an indication of just how wide open this tournament is. Canada is still a favorite. The Swedes have the best defense in the tournament. The Russians are trying to win their second gold medal in 2018, led by Pavel Datsyuk.
And Denmark, with its win over Finland on Wednesday, provides hope that anything is possible. That they’re hosting this tournament at all is proof. That they have a goalie in Andersen who can steal a game at any moment is allowing them to dream.
“It’s pretty special,” Andersen said. “For a lot of us from Herning, it’s special to be able to play where we grew up on this kind of level and this big of a stage. It’s something we enjoy.”
It’s a chance to add an unlikely twist to a hockey story rich in tradition and overachievement.
“Hopefully,” Andersen said, “we keep it going.”
(Feature photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)