Just being at world juniors is a victory for Denmark
EDMONTON – After they had just been soundly beaten 10-2 by Team Canada, the Danish world junior squad quietly slipped into the media room and started taking pictures at the podium where the coaches' press conference had just taken place. One by one they took turns sitting in front of the microphones, pretending to answer questions from reporters while laughing and mugging for their camera phones.
For many members of the Danish national team, this tournament will be the pinnacle of their sporting lives. For a nation with only 23 hockey rinks country-wide, just being here is a victory.
"It's one of the biggest moments you get in your hockey career, especially if you're a little Danish guy just playing back in Denmark," said Danish forward Nicklas Jensen, one of the few players on the team who plays in North America. "This is huge. This is the hockey Mecca almost. You can't really come to any better place than Canada to play at a world juniors, against Canada too. This is a great experience."
The world junior tournament gets wall-to-wall coverage in Canada. There are commercials peddling sports drinks and athletic gear featuring Canada's top players, many of whom already have or will go on to lucrative pro contracts. For many junior stars, this tournament will be a stepping-stone to bigger and better things in hockey. And as much as this tournament is about showcasing the next big NHL star, the world junior tournament is also about players like Danish goaltender Sebastian Feuk, for whom just playing in front of 14,000-plus fans is something out his wildest dreams.
"We have about 500 people at our games," said Feuk of the Danish league. "There aren't many teams so we play many times against each other. That's how it is. On my island we have eight teams."
On Thursday night, Feuk wore the red and yellow facemask his father hand-painted to face the Canadian juggernaut. While the drubbing was expected by many, Feuk was still visibly upset with his 41-save performance after the game. He wanted it known that just because the Danes are happy to be here, it doesn't mean they're going to be any less competitive once the puck drops.
"I'm pretty pissed off; too much," said goaltender curtly after the game. "I have to forget the game as much as possible now and focus on Finland (Friday). I just made some mistakes and that was the reason why (Canada) scored."
It's fair to say that without Feuk in net the score could have been much worse as the 18-year-old made a number of good stops on Canada's best players.
"No, Sebastian should definitely not be pissed, he's done a really good job and we're happy about how he's playing," said Jensen who plays with the OHL's Oshawa Generals. "He's played great for us this tournament. He's really stepped his game up and he's been showing good character in the net."
His wild, acrobatic saves have made Feuk an unlikely star in Edmonton's Pool B. In his three games thus far, the native of Hørsholm, Denmark, has faced 122 shots and made 98 saves – not exactly Vezina numbers, but when you consider Denmark's piecemeal defence and the fact Feuk currently has no club team to play for (his previous team the Herlev Eagles didn't want to sign him), his performance has been commendable.
"He was a big question mark for our team coming into the tournament and Sebastian's done a great job for us," said Danish head coach Todd Bjorkstrand. "He's a free agent, he's looking for a team – he doesn't have a team back in Denmark, so if anyone's interested..."
Feuk started playing hockey after being introduced to the game by his father, Magnus, himself a former goaltender. Magnus Feuk played hockey as youngster in Sweden before moving to Denmark, but was apprehensive about his son following in his footsteps.
"I started about 10 years ago because I wanted to be a goaltender," said the 18-year-old. "But I was not allowed to (play in net) because of my dad, probably because it was expensive to buy all the equipment.
"Suddenly one day the coach asked me to play, so I just started."
He hasn't stopped.
Back at home in Denmark, Feuk said his friends and family have been keeping track of the team's exploits via Facebook with the local stations broadcasting highlights, such as they are, on TV. And while Denmark has yet to win a game at the tournament, they have won the hearts of many Canadian fans with their sheer effort. They also earned some praise from their Canadian counterparts despite the lopsided score on Thursday night.
"They played hard and they battled right to the end and that's something you respect," said Team Canada forward Brendan Gallagher. "Obviously I don't think anyone gave them a chance in this game, but they came out and they competed and we knew they would do that. You always have to respect a team like that."
In the their two previous games against the U.S. (a 11-3 loss) and the Czech Republic (a 7-0 loss), the fans at Rexall Place were decidedly in Denmark's corner.
"A lot of fans like the underdogs and obviously the USA and the other great teams are probably going to be the teams that are going to give the Canadians a tougher time at the end of this tournament," said Jensen. "I guess that's why they were cheering for us.
"It's just great and we're thankful for all the fans being on our side."
Feuk has certainly become a fan favourite, particularly against the U.S. where he made some acrobatic saves early to keep it close before the Americans took control of the game. He said he was so focused on the play however, that he didn't even realize the fans were actually cheering for him.
"It was only afterwards when I saw the game (on TV) that I noticed," said Feuk of the crowd. "It made me happy and very excited."
Ulrik Larsen, the sport director at the Danish Ice Hockey Federation, said the experience of coming to a tournament like this is beneficial for the growth of hockey in his country not only for players like Feuk, but for future players as well.
"We have 4,300 players all-in-all, including peewees up through the retired old players in the men's leagues," said Larsen, who serves as Team Denmark's general manager. The small Scandinavian nation with a population of roughly 5.5 million has only 2,245 junior eligible players to choose from. By comparison, there are 468,096 junior eligible players in Canada and more than 7,000 hockey rinks – outdoor and indoor – to skate on.
"That's a little wild, compared to Canada," said Team Canada's Ryan Murray, when told the number of registered players in Denmark. "It's actually pretty crazy because that's not a lot of players and they have some pretty good players there as well. It's pretty unbelievable that they could have those good players out of that little crop."
One of those players is Jensen, a first-round pick of the Vancouver Canucks. His father, Dan, was born in Toronto and also played in the OHL with Peterborough and Guelph before moving to Denmark where he played pro and for the Danish national team. Having some family in the Greater Toronto Area and having spent a season and a half with the Generals, Jensen said he considers Oshawa his second home, despite the fact many of his OHL teammates had no clue where he was from in Europe.
"I don't think before I came (to Oshawa) most of the guys even knew where Denmark was," said Jensen. "We're a smaller country, but I really love being back home and I'm really happy to be with the Danish national team and we're having a great time too."
Even though he's been shelled by the competition on a nightly basis, Feuk said he's also having fun while he and his teammate do their best to help put Danish hockey on the map.
"It's been amazing," he said. "No matter what happens here, we are just going to enjoy it."