When Patrick Russell was growing up in a town just outside Copenhagen, Denmark, he had big dreams for his hockey career. He wanted to play professionally in Denmark, maybe in Sweden if he was really good, and he wanted to play for the Danish national team and help them reach the top division of IIHF events.
Fifteen years later, those goals have changed a bit as he is now chasing the NHL dream with the Edmonton Oilers and representing his native country as they host the 2018 IIHF World Championship. Two things he never dreamed were possible as a child.
"We are a small country and hockey really isn't that popular. We just don't have many rinks for kids to play in," explained the 25-year-old forward. "We didn't have anyone in the NHL until Frans Neilsen so it was like it wasn't even an option for Danish hockey players and I remember when I was younger, we were trying to get up to the A Group and I actually remember when we beat the US for the first time. I was sitting at home on the couch and it was just such a great moment. I even remember the score. We won 5-2. We hope to have a similar opportunity for all the Danish kids watching and give them something to be excited about and help promote the game of hockey here in Denmark."
That 5-2 win for Denmark over USA happened in the 2003 world championship, their first game in their first appearance in the top division and they haven't looked back since as they've remained in the top division for 16 years, making the quarterfinals twice - in 2010 and 2016. They hope to get back there again this year in front of their home crowd and with wins against Germany (3-2 in a shootout) and Finland (3-2) so far in the preliminary round, that goal is looking more and more attainable as they presently sit fourth in the Group B standings.
"It was really good to get the crowd going and get them a win. Hopefully, we can get them a couple more." Russell said with a smile. "[Hearing the national anthem], you get chills and it brings tears to your eyes. We don't get to hear the national anthem too often, so it's awesome just to hear it, but then to have 10,000 fans singing along with you… It's unbelievable."
The 6-foot-1, 205 pound forward, who signed with Edmonton as a free agent in 2016 after two years at St Cloud State University, is known for his gritty style of play and is bringing that element to Team Denmark.
"I like to play hard, get to the net, use my body to my advantage," he explained. "I want to create a little more offense and try to take the puck to the net with me a little more, but most important is to play good defense. For our team, we have to play good defense and hope it will help us create good offense."
He continued: "In Bakersfield, I play a lot of penalty kill. I don't play any here. So, I'm trying to focus on playing strong 5-on-5 and on the power play, get to the front of the net and use my body, tip pucks, block the goalie's eyes, win battles, those kind of things."
Russell had previously represented Denmark twice in the U18 world championship and twice for the U20 world championship, but all four times were in Division 1A where the winner is promoted to the top division the next year. Last year, he represented the men's team for the first time, but each time he learns a little more about his game, where it is, where he wants it to be and what he needs to do to get it there.
"Playing seven games in something like 13 days is not something I'm used to, but it helps you learn more about recovery and how to take care of your body and prepare better. It gives you experience because it's like a playoff series with the intensity and the quick turn arounds," he explained. "Plus, It's a great opportunity to play against some of the best players in the world. I already know I want to get more explosive in my first couple steps and improve my skating - speed and agility - this summer so I can play better."
Denmark will face Norway, Korea and Latvia to finish out the preliminary round, but whether they advance to the quarterfinals or not, the players know hosting this event was a big step in helping to grow the game in Denmark.
"It's a great honor to be a part of the national team, but especially this year because it is in Denmark. Just thinking about what a big event it is… what it means to us, to our fans, to the whole country. It's awesome to be a part of. The fans have been incredible and the whole atmosphere is just exciting to be around," Russell said.
"We want to finish as high as we can and hopefully make the quarterfinals and get more young kids interested in this amazing sport," he continued. "This is a big opportunity for us as players, for our country to be recognized and for us to impact the next generation of Danish ice hockey players and we want to make the most of it."