Soccer is the national sport in Denmark, and the national team remains highly competitive in the European Championship and World Cup competitions. Handball, cycling and cricket also are some of the most popular sports in Scandinavia's smallest country. But hockey rapidly is gaining popularity thanks to a growing legion of hard-core fans and the emergence of young Danish players in the National Hockey League like Jannik Hansen of the Vancouver Canucks.
The son of former Danish hockey star Bent Hansen is doing his father and his homeland proud. Along with Frans Nielsen of the New York Islanders and rookie Mikkel Boedker of the Phoenix Coyotes, Hansen is leading the Danish youth movement on this side of the Atlantic.
"Jannik is a solid player," said Vancouver captain Roberto Luongo. "He is well-rounded, not only in offensive skills but he has a good hockey head defensively in his own end. Jannik has been playing really well this year and has scored important goals for us."
Unlike Neilson and Boedker, who were higher draft picks in 2002 and 2008, respectively, Hansen is the quintessential diamond in the rough. At the 2004 Entry Draft, only four prospects were chosen after Hansen was taken by the Canucks in the ninth round with the 287th pick. He has emerged from relative obscurity to now rate among the top rookies in the League and become a permanent and indispensable part of Vancouver's recipe for success. Joining linemates Alex Burrows and Ryan Kesler on the Canucks' checking line, the trio has contributed timely offense while outplaying the opposition's top players.
"Jannik has come up against a lot of odds in making it," said former Canucks coach Mark Crawford, now an analyst with Hockey Night in Canada. "Jannik has a great read of the game, a great vision of the game as well as terrific puck skills. He has a real strong stick and is really strong on the puck. Jannik has been a great complement to Burrows and Kesler on that line. I think he is going to be a pretty good scorer in this League as he's got a quick release. He's got that strong bottom hand, and if Jannik gets a chance around the net he can usually make it go where he wants it to and he doesn't get knocked off the puck in those confined areas around the net."
The Canucks are playing an up-tempo game this season and focusing on puck control, hard work and physical play. That suits Hansen just fine. The 6-foot-1, 201-pound forward demonstrated those qualities as a teenager while playing against men in Denmark, as a junior with the Western Hockey League's Portland Winter Hawks and during one complete season with the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League. Like all of his teammates, Hansen is asked to show up every night and play disciplined hockey on both sides of the puck. His acclimation to the new brand of Canucks hockey has not been difficult.
"This is an easy team to come into," said the 22-year old native of Herlev, a town of 27,000 people located 10 miles from the nation's capital of Copenhagen. "When I look around the dressing room, I see that I have played with six or seven guys down in the minors, and of course it is easy to talk to the Swedes as we have a lot in common. It was fairly easy to walk into this dressing room. There are so many friendly guys and they make it easy. If I need a little help, they're here to give me all the help they can. And the team just asks me to play the game, make sure that I don't make mistakes and do my best. It's the same that is being asked of every player."
There are two ways for a rookie to win the respect of his teammates -- be modest off the ice and battle like a warrior in the heat of action. Hansen has both qualities.
The impressive early play of the great Dane has drawn comparisons with three-time Selke Award winner Jere Lehtinen.
"He is a special player who reminds me of Jere Lehtinen," said Kesler, who is Hansen's roommate on the road. "Jannik always knows where to be, has a great shot and is very responsible defensively. He is going to be a special player for a long time."
Hansen will join other Danes to help narrow the gap between his homeland and top-rated European hockey countries Sweden, Finland, Germany and the Czech Republic. But it will take a little time. As with most emerging hockey nations, finding rinks to play in can be an arduous task in Denmark.
"Soccer is the number-one game by far," said Hansen. "It is miles ahead of every other sport in Denmark. We have great soccer players all over Europe. Soccer is strong and we have had a lot of good years, especially in the 1990s when we were winning and we had role models to look up to. But hockey is coming. It helps that our national team has been doing so well the last five or six years and now we have a couple of guys playing in the NHL. The kids actually see that it is possible to get drafted and get a chance to play."
True. And as Hansen's example clearly shows, if you work hard enough it won't even matter that there were 286 guys drafted ahead of you.