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Bjorkstrand's NHL debut a big deal for player, family and country

by Rob Mixer / Columbus Blue Jackets

It's officially a celebratory night in Denmark.

Let's be honest: the 1 a.m. local time puck drop in Herning, Denmark between the Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings is anything but an impediment.

The folks in Oliver Bjorkstrand’s hometown are fired up for his NHL debut tonight, when he becomes the 12th Danish-born player to suit up in an NHL game.

“Everyone’s really excited,” Bjorkstrand said this morning.

Understatement? Probably.

Herning is a town of 47,000 people in central Denmark where Bjorkstrand’s father, a former professional hockey player and coach, met his mother in the late 1980s. Todd Bjorkstrand is a native of Minneapolis, his mother, Janne, is from Herning, and Todd was a 14-year veteran of the Danish League and a fine player in his own right.

Oliver was raised in Herning while his dad played for and then coached the Blue Fox, the town’s local club. After he was drafted to the Western Hockey League in 2012, Oliver moved to Portland as a teenager to play for the Winterhawks.

The 20-year-old Bjorkstrand has represented his country six times in international tournaments, most recently at the 2015 IIHF World Hockey Championship and the 2014 World Junior.

His junior career is well-documented, scoring 63 goals in his final season (2014-15) and becoming one of the WHL’s most explosive offensive players. A third-round pick of the Blue Jackets in 2013, he was watched closely by Columbus scouts in Portland and his name kept popping up on their pre-draft lists, and it continued to climb.

Tonight he gets his first taste of the NHL in the midst of a solid first professional season with the Lake Erie Monsters, where his 15 goals are third-most on the team despite missing a third of the season with an upper body injury.

“I’m feeling good again and they’re giving me a chance, which is really nice,” Bjorkstrand said. “(The injury) never helps but that’s what happens and I had to deal with it and bounce back. I feel like I’ve been playing well down there, and now, they want to give me a shot up here. That feels good.”

There will be no wading into the shallow end for Bjorkstrand tonight. John Tortorella has him slotted to play right wing on a line with Brandon Dubinsky on the left side and Alexander Wennberg in the middle, two players who can either get him the puck or open up space for him to get into a shooting position.

No restrictions tonight, kid – just go out there and play.

“I’m sure I’ll be nervous. It’s every hockey player’s dream,” Bjorkstrand said. “The first game is a special one. The nerves will be there but hopefully in a good way.

“Dubinsky has a lot of experience and I’m sure he’s going to try and help me out, and Wennberg is a really good center. I’m excited to play with those guys tonight.”

Making tonight’s game even more special for Bjorkstrand is that his father will be making the trip to Columbus to watch it in-person. The rest of the Bjorkstrand family along with their friends will be watching at home in Herning, and though a few of them may be calling in sick to work tomorrow, it’ll be worth it regardless of the result.

“My family’s excited, my friends are excited,” Bjorkstrand said. “It’s late in the season and you don’t know if you’re going to get the chance or not. I’m really looking forward to this.”

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