The Stanley Cup has traveled throughout the world and visited the hometowns of dozens of European players from various nations around the continent. Denmark is one country that has yet to have one of its citizens play on an NHL champion. If Vancouver Canucks right wing Jannik Hansen has his way, the Scandinavian nation will join the list of hockey countries that has produced a member of a Stanley Cup championship squad.
Better known as a defensive forward, the slick-skating native of Herlev set up Raffi Torres' game-winning goal late in the third period of Vancouver's 1-0 win over the Boston Bruins in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. He also did yeoman work in helping the Canucks kill six penalties in that game. Overall, through the first 21 games of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Hansen has recorded 3 goals and 8 points after recording 8 goals and 29 points during the regular season. The Canucks currently lead the Bruins, two games to one.
Montreal Canadiens center Lars Eller performed well during the postseason. After splitting the last several seasons between the NHL and AHL, Hansen became a full-time NHL player this season. He suited up in all 82 regular season games, and posted a plus-13 rating. He is a plus-6 so far in the playoffs.
Four years ago, Hansen became the first Danish-born and trained player to play in and then record a point in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Danish-born Poul Popiel played three games and scored a goal in the 1968 playoffs as a member of the Los Angeles Kings. However, Popiel had immigrated to the United States as a child and was a U.S. citizen by the time he played professional hockey.
Hansen, who was beaten out by the New York Islanders' Frans Nielsen for the distinction of being the first Danish citizen to play in the NHL, actually made his NHL debut in the 2007 playoffs after playing 72 regular season games for the AHL's Manitoba Moose, recording 12 goals and 22 assists that season.
Although Denmark still has a way to go before it becomes a top-end hockey power, the country has taken huge strides in the last decade. Denmark plays in the top international division of men's hockey and has also gained experience participating at the top level of both the Under-20 and Under-18 levels of the World Junior Championships. The caliber of coaching and play at the youth hockey levels has improved exponentially from where it stood even in the late 1990s.
Nevertheless, domestic hockey within Denmark is still a work in progress. The top circuit in Denmark, officially known for sponsorship reasons as the AL-Bank Ligaen, is largely a glorified semi-pro league in which only a few players are able to afford to play without holding outside jobs. In order for promising young Danish players to attain pro careers in North America or the top leagues in Europe, it is necessary to leave the country. Most players either go north to join a Swedish junior team and work their way up to Elitserien or come over to Canada to play for a club in one of the three top junior leagues.
Hansen, who played in Denmark's top league for Rødovre IK at the age of 16, went to southern Sweden play for the Malmö IF Redhawks junior program in 2002-03. Selected by the Canucks in the ninth round of the 2004 Entry Draft, Hansen returned home to play for Rødovre for two seasons before moving to North America to join the WHL's Portland Winter Hawks for the 2005-06.
As is the case for most future NHL role players, Hansen faced significant adjustments when he moved up from the Winter Hawks to the American Hockey League and, eventually, to the world's top league. In the WHL, Hansen was a point-per-game player (24 goals and 40 assists in 64 games). Even at the AHL level, he worked his way up to scoring 20-plus goals. But the skill level in the NHL is so high that even someone as talented as Hansen cannot hope to measure up offensively to the League's top players.
"If you want to play on a team that's competitive, and wants to play for the Cup, you have to fill whatever role is given to you," Hansen said. "You look at our lineup here, and there are only so many players who can play on the first and second line. If you don't have the skill set that they do, you've got find different ways to contribute."
Hansen has found his niche in the NHL by concentrating on two-way hockey. He uses his speed on both the forecheck and backcheck, kills penalties, protects the puck and makes safe plays. In adapting to the North American game, he also had to learn to be more effective in digging pucks loose on the walls and taking the body. He has shown that he cannot be intimidated.
Playing on a line with agitators Maxim Lapierre and Torres, Hansen has been an underrated part of the Canucks success this season. When the line is at its best, it spends a lot of time keeping the opposition hemmed in the defensive zone, even if its goal production is modest.
Hansen's success has not been lost on his countrymen. In recent years, NHL television broadcasts have become easier to find in Denmark and every game of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final is available within the country. Despite the major time difference -- a live broadcast that goes on the air at 8 p.m. in the Eastern U.S. starts at 2 a.m. in Denmark -- many Danish hockey fans have stayed awake to see the games. The Stanley Cup Final has also received increased coverage in the Danish press.
While Hansen is the first Dane to play in the Final, he almost certainly won't be the last. Within the next couple years, Mikkel Boedker (Phoenix Coyotes) and Philip Larsen (Dallas Stars) are likely to join Hansen, Eller and Nielsen as full-time NHL players. In the meantime, Central Scouting projects Oshawa Generals right wing Nicklas Jensen to be a first-round pick in the 2011 Entry Draft, and there are several other Danes who are prospects for upcoming drafts.
"There's been a lot going on in Denmark in the last 8 or 10 years, and the program is getting better every year," Hansen said. "I think people [in the NHL] are starting to notice that now. It's great to see, and I think it's just going to get bigger."
The slow but steady progress of Danish hockey could be sped up if Hansen were to hoist the Cup at the end of the Stanley Cup Final and then take it home for a day this summer. While hockey is secondary to soccer in the Danish team sports pecking order, the success of players such as Hansen could help inspire numerous young two-sport athletes in Denmark to focus more on the ice rather than the pitch.