KITCHENER, Ont. - It's been only the last couple years that hockey players from Denmark began trickling into the NHL, so Kitchener Rangers winger Mikkel Boedker has a fresh trail to follow.
The 19-year-old from Brondby is rated a top-15 prospect by Central Scouting and in the top 10 by International Scouting Services for next month's NHL draft.
While Denmark is mad for soccer, the country's hockey players have had more exposure to NHL scouts since the country recently gained a foothold in the 'A' world championship alongside countries such as Canada, Russia and Sweden.
In the ceaseless search for new veins of talent, the NHL has tapped the Danes.
Wingers Frans Nielson and Jannick Hansen have played NHL games for the New York Islanders and Vancouver Canucks respectively the last two seasons.
Nielson is considered the first Danish citizen in the NHL because defenceman Poul Popiel became an American citizen prior to playing in the league in the 1960s and '70s.
Lars Eller was the highest Dane drafted last year when he went 13th overall to St. Louis, but Boedker could challenge that milestone June 20 in Ottawa.
In his rookie season in the Ontario Hockey League, the five-foot-11, 201-pound forward had 29 goals and 44 assists in 62 games, plus another nine goals and 26 assists in 20 playoff games.
That put him second in Rangers' scoring behind Justin Azevedo, who was the OHL's MVP.
Boedker is a silky skater, a creative distributor of the puck and has a booming shot, which have all been on display at the Memorial Cup.
He played for Denmark's under-18 team in the 2006 Mac's Major Midget Tournament in Calgary and upon his arrival back home, he declared to parents Jesper and Lene at the airport that he wanted to play hockey in Canada.
That was six months before the Rangers made him the fifth overall pick in the 2007 Canadian Hockey League import draft.
Boedker had been living away from home in an apartment since the age of 15 while playing for Frolunda in the Swedish junior league, so his parents were comfortable with their son living with a billet family in Kitchener.
Boedker feels lucky to have landed in Kitchener where he says the tutelage of head coach Peter DeBoer and assistant Steve Spott helped raised his draft stock.
"They've been around players who are playing in the NHL like Michael Richards," he said. "They know how the game is out there and they know how to prepare their players for the next level.
"If it should happen one day that I end up there, I think I'm really well prepared."
The smaller ice surface in North America means there's less time and space to pass in the offensive zone for Europeans.
Kitchener was a shoot-happy team this season and it wasn't unusual them to have more than 50 on the shot clock after a game.
After an initial adjustment, Boedker, a second-line winger, joined his teammates in getting the puck to the net in a hurry.
"In the beginning I would just pass the puck away, but now I really want the puck all the time and I really want to create something all the time," Boedker explained.
Central Scouting director E.J. McGuire saw Boedker play 14 times this winter.
"He's come a long way," McGuire said. "He was skilled at the start of the season, but he's fine-tuned his game to the North American style. Playing the point on the power play hasn't hurt his statistics either."
McGuire says Boedker would have been rated high on Central Scouting's European list of prospects if he'd remained with his Swedish club, but added the Dane is near the top of the depth chart of several NHL teams because their scouts have been able to see him play every second or third night in the Ontario Hockey League.
Boedker's parents and older brother Mads came to Kitchener following the men's world championship in Halifax and Quebec City. Mads was a defenceman for Denmark and Jesper was equipment manager for the team in the tournament.
Coming from a country where hockey plays a distant second fiddle to soccer, the Boedkers are amazed by the hockey culture in Canada.
"We're surprised by almost everything over here," Jesper said. "To go to a game where there are over 6,000 people, we're not used to that.
"Hockey is not so big in Denmark, so we really don't know what it's all about. Of course, we're happy for Mikkel that he's rated so high. When he's playing at home in Denmark, you don't think about that. They just play, you know?"
During a visit to Kitchener last October to check on his son's progress, Jesper saw the Toronto Maple Leafs host the Washington Capitals at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
"It's like the hair is rising on your arms," he said.
The Boedkers' are in store for more of that. The NHL has turned the annual entry draft into a showy television extravaganza. The top prospects will be paraded around Ottawa like royalty in the days leading up to it.
"When the time comes, I'll get some butterflies in my stomach and get really excited," Boedker said.