HERNING, Denmark -- A decade ago, Detroit Red Wings center Frans Nielsen couldn't have imagined standing on the blue line of a sheet of ice in his hometown singing "Der Er Et Yndigt Land," Denmark's national anthem, with nearly 11,000 hockey fans.
Even five years ago, he admits, would have been a bit of a stretch.
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"Not a few years back, no," Nielsen said after singing alongside 10,800 fellow Danes to celebrate a 3-0 victory against Norway on Friday. "It's been exciting. It's been fun. The whole city has backed us up here. It's been incredible.
"All we've hoped for."
Nielsen, the first player from Denmark to play in the NHL, truly has home ice advantage. His home country is hosting the 2018 IIHF World Championship, and he's playing in his hometown of Herning.
"It's been a joy," said Nielsen, who has 423 points (152 goals, 271 assists) in 764 NHL games during 12 seasons in the NHL, 10 with the New York Islanders and the past two Red Wings. "We're having fun every day right now, working hard. It's been great."
His country has come a long way.
Nielsen was born in 1985, when Denmark finished fifth in Group C at the World Championship and 21st overall behind the likes of Romania, China, Italy, Japan, Netherlands and Hungary.
But Denmark has participated in the top division, finishing 13th or better, every year since 2003 - a team Nielsen, then 18 years old, helped promote with a gold-medal finish in Division I Group B one year earlier.
Nielsen was selected by the Islanders in the third round (No. 87) in the 2002 NHL Draft a month later.
"He's the first to break through to the best league, the NHL," said Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen, who's also from Herning, a city of less than 50,000 residents, and representing Denmark in the tournament. "I think until he did it kind of seemed impossible, almost. He opened the door for a lot of us younger guys to eventually get a chance to play over there. I think you see the kids, they wear their favorite player and it's him, no matter what team he plays for."
Nielsen inspired the generation of Danish players that's inspiring the next generation.
"He's the first Dane ever to make it to the NHL," said Columbus Blue Jackets forward Oliver Bjorkstrand, 23, who is also from Herning. "It's awesome playing with him. I remember watching his first goal in the NHL on the news. That was a huge step forward for Danish hockey."
There are 4,700 registered players competing in 27 ice rinks across Denmark. Andersen hopes the tournament helps that number to grow.
"More kids, more people get to see how awesome a sport it is," Andersen said. "Obviously I'm biased, but I think it's the most exciting sport in the world. I think a big event like this can help open some eyes."
Bjorkstrand didn't imagine growing up that he'd get to play internationally at home.
"We're a small hockey country," said Bjorkstrand, who had 26 points (13 goals, 13 assists) with the Herning Blue Fox in Denmark's top men's league as a 16-year-old in 2011-12. "There are not a lot of hockey rinks here. This is awesome. When we got it, I think it was four years ago we've all been looking forward to this moment. Since I lost out in the playoffs I could get here and play. It's fun playing here."
Denmark, which was awarded the tournament in 2014, has responded well to hosting.
Nielsen had a goal and an assist Saturday in a 3-1 victory against Korea. That moved Denmark into third place in Group B with a 3-1-0-2 record and 11 points, including a 3-2 win against Finland on Wednesday. A fourth-place finish would guarantee at least an appearance in the quarterfinal for the third time ever, and third since 2010.
Denmark has come a long way in a big hurry, Nielsen said.
"Far. Very far," he said. "We don't need everyone to come home right now. To at least be able to compete, we needed everyone to even have a chance to stay in the group. There's definitely more depth all over, but now when we get a lot of players home, I think we've got a solid lineup.
"It's really special. It's really fun that we're winning some games and getting closer to our goal. It's awesome.
"We're all enjoying it a lot."