Thu May 09 07:13pm EDT
Oliver Bjorkstrand's two experiences playing in Edmonton were a world of difference.
This week, the Portland Winterhawks' dashing Dane helped his team win twice on Edmonton Oil Kings' ice to move within a single win of winning the Western Hockey League title. It's quite the opposite from the 18-year-old's experience playing for Denmark in the 2012 world junior championship at Rexall Place, when Bjorkstrand, his brother Patrick and their coach-father Todd were just trying to keep a newly promoted team from getting overwhelmed.
"It's just a little better than losing by seven goals each game," Oliver Bjorkstrand, who is NHL Central Scouting's 36th-ranked North American skater, quipped during an interview this week. "No, it feels pretty good. It's a good place to play. I like it a lot.
"Maybe a little bit," Bjorkstrand, who hails from Herning, Denmark, added when asked if he has drawn on those superficially disparate experiences. "When I played here for Denmark I knew we were underdogs and we had to work really hard. It's the same thing here. It's the finals and if you don't work hard, you won't have a chance to win. So yes, I guess I took a little bit from the national team."
As it happened, the mere fact that the then 16-year-old Bjorkstrand was playing in that 2012 WJC put him on the Winterhawks' radar. The WHL powerhouse, thanks to the Calgary Flames' Sven Baertschi and New York Islanders' Nino Niederreiter blossoming into NHL first-round picks, has had an excellent track record with imports. Baertschi came to Portland for his 18-year-old season, while Niederreiter profiled more as a power winger. Bjorkstrand, a dual American-Danish citizen, is thriving while being an undersized 17-year-old who is listed at 5-foot-11 and 164 pounds ("I need to gain some weight and build some muscle so I need to work really hard in the off-season").
The Herning, Denmark, native, who emulates Zach Parise, had 31 goals and 63 points in 65 regular-season games while playing second-line minutes. He's produced at a similar rate in the playoffs while skating with Taylor Leier and 17-year-old Chase De Leo, as his seven goals and 18 points in 19 games is tops among WHL rookies.
"I'm happy about it," Bjorkstrand said. "The coach [Travis Green] is giving me a lot of ice time when I get on the ice I just have to do my best, work hard and score some goals for the team."
Ultimately, Bjorkstrand has been a quick study in his first North American season. That should make him one to watch next season, when the Winterhawks will need a new first-line finisher after St. Louis Blues prospect Ty Rattie turns ago.
"There's just some small, small stuff that you have to get used to when you come over," Bjorkstrand said of his adjustment from playing for Herning in the Danish pro league to playing in the Dub. "Over here the game is more direct, you go more to the goal. In Denmark it's more about making plays and setups."
1. Travis Green told TSN recently he thinks you could develop into a 50-goal scorer in the next two seasons. Without dwelling on statistics, when he says that, how do you take?
"It's always good that the coach thinks you're going to be a good player. At this point, I'm just trying to focus on the rest of the season and winning the finals."
2. A handful of Danish players such as the Ottawa Senators' Peter Regin have made the big time; how personally significant is to you to carry the banner for a small hockey nation?
"It's good. Denmark isn't really a big hockey country so it's good that we get some guys who are in the NHL and play outside of Denmark so we get some more attention. I'm glad to be part of it."
3. Your father's been your coach, what did he say specifically about what to expect in the WHL?
"He told me there's a lot of competition. Everyone wants to get drafted high and everyone fights for it. He told be to be ready for it. It's not the same in Denmark. We have only 3,000 hockey players and in Canada you have I don't know how many.
"I want to show that even though I'm not a bigger guy, I can play a hard-working game, go in the corners."
4. With your background, have to ask: what's your favourite sport outside of hockey?
"I like soccer, coming from Europe, I watch a lot of soccer. I like American football and baseball. I've been to some baseball games — Minnesota Twins."
5. You have former Portland star Sven Baertschi's old No. 27 and you scored a goal last Saturday while he was back watching his old team. Is that significant to you — he was the high-scoring European and you end up with the same digits?
"No, actually the numbers I would have wanted to pick weren't available. I just picked 27. I didn't know it was his number or how big a deal it was. When the guys told me, I was like, 'maybe there's a little pressure on me now.' It's worked out." (What would have you picked?) "Probably number 22 or number 10."
(Editor's note: this Q&A is a composite of two interviews conducted during the season.)
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.