Denmark is not known as a hockey hotbed. Like most European nations, soccer is the most popular sport. The Danish had never embraced the game, leaving it mired in obscurity with a niche fan base. In the past six years, the hockey landscape in Denmark has shifted dramatically, thanks in part to Islanders forward
Nielsen grew up in Herning, a city of 46,000 in central Denmark. His father, Frits, was the longtime head coach of the Herning Blue Fox of the top professional Danish hockey league. Growing up at the local rink, Frans learned the game on his own, without any extra pressure from his father.
“When I was young – until I was 12 or 13 years old – he just made sure it was fun everyday and he didn’t push me,” said Nielsen. “He wanted to make sure that I wanted to do it. He let me have fun, (and) play around.”
Spending as much time on the ice as he did, Nielsen began to develop into a highly skilled young player. He entered the professional ranks of Danish hockey at age 16, and quickly outgrew his competition, drawing attention from other European leagues.
“Pretty early, I got some interest from Sweden, so obviously, (my father) tried to help me a little bit,” said Nielsen.
At 17, Nielsen left his native Denmark for the Swedish Elite League, a highly regarded league seen as a breeding ground for future NHL talent. In his first season, Nielsen was assigned to the junior team of the Malmo Redhawks. He quickly exploded for 42 points in 29 games, earning a promotion to the big club.
“There is some very, very good talent in that league,” said Nielsen. “I played with a lot of guys who played (in the NHL), so they taught me a lot about the game. I had some good years in Sweden with some good players and good coaches that got me ready for the NHL.”
That year, the 17-year-old Nielsen was named to the Danish National Team, competing in the World Championships in Hungary, helping Denmark finish 5-0. Danish hockey was then elevated by the International Ice Hockey Federation to the Championship Division, the highest international distinction.
His mature play in Sweden and the World Championships led the Islanders to use a third round draft choice on the young Dane in 2002. The groundwork was laid for Nielsen to eventually become the first NHL player from Denmark, but he insists that was never his goal.
“The dream was just to get here,” said Nielsen. “If I was the first over here, the fourth, it really didn’t matter. All I worked for was to get to the NHL one day.”
After two more seasons with Malmo, Nielsen signed with the Timra Red Eagles, a Swedish franchise with a reputation for developing NHL prospects. Nielsen scored five goals and assisted on 13 more in a full 50 game season with Timra.
In May of 2006, the Islanders signed Nielsen to his first North American contract. He spent most of 2006-2007 with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, and made his NHL debut on January 6, 2007 in a loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. In that game, Nielsen became the first Danish player to reach the NHL.
Today there are four other NHL players from Denmark, including Nielsen’s childhood friend, Peter Regin, of the Ottawa Senators. Only 26-years-old, Nielsen is the elder statesmen of the Danish NHLers. Denmark is now hockey crazy.
“It’s getting bigger,” said Nielsen. “I think we only have like 20 rinks, so it’s tough (to find ice time). Every rink is loaded with kids, we can’t get anymore in.”
Hockey is indeed exploding across Denmark. In the 2010 World Championships, Denmark reached the quarterfinals, defeating the perennially strong teams of Finland, the United States, and Slovakia.
“It doesn’t happen often, but everybody in Denmark was talking hockey,” said Nielsen. “It’s only getting bigger.”
Nielsen has been a trailblazer of sorts in Denmark, helping to spark a newfound passion for the game in his homeland. He is regarded as one of the stronger two-way forwards in the NHL, and has proven to be a deadly shootout threat. Just as he is to hockey in Denmark, Nielsen is an important piece in the future success of the Islanders.