Wings' Nielsen misses playoffs, takes pride in Denmark’s rise

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit — He’d rather be in the NHL playoffs competing for the Red Wings, Frans Nielsen says first and foremost.

But, with the Red Wings missing out for a second consecutive season, the upcoming International Ice Hockey Federation world championships in Denmark will be of special significance for Nielsen.

You see, Nielsen is from Denmark. The tournament, which runs Thursday to May 20, is being held in Copenhagen and Herning, which is Nielsen’s hometown.

Denmark takes on Team USA — coached by Jeff Blashill, with Red Wings Dylan Larkin and Nick Jensen on the roster — Tuesday in an exhibition game.

Playing in front of family and friends, in such a prestigious tournament, will be a memorable experience.

“I don’t think anyone ever thought we were going to get a big tournament like that in small Denmark, it’s exciting,” Nielsen said this month, before the Red Wings went their separate ways for the offseason. “You’re going to have friends and family right there. It’ll be different.

“It means a lot for Danish hockey.”

For a small country, Denmark is beginning to make its mark in the hockey world — though it’s still a slow process.

Nielsen is one of only 13 Danish-born players in the NHL. No Danish player, though, has played more than his 764 NHL games.

There are only 27 rinks in the entire country, but hockey is beginning to make major inroads in terms of interest.

More than 250,000 tickets have been sold for the world championships, ensuring the majority of games will be either sold out, or close to it.

“It seems like they’ve got a bit of hockey fever,” Nielsen said. “You don’t see that every day. It’s good to see and hopefully we can get hockey even more on the map in Denmark and can get more kids to play.

“It’s grown a lot,” Nielsen said of hockey’s popularity in Denmark. “We’ve established ourselves in that group (with other hockey nations); we’re starting to produce a lot of good NHL players, too.

“It’s impressive what they do with the youth work back there. The next step for us is getting more rinks so more kids can play.”

A good showing in this tournament, in front of the home fans, would go a long way toward making hockey even more established among sports fans.

“We’ve had a couple of tournaments where we would battle through to the quarterfinals and it’ll be really big and you could feel the excitement from the whole country,” Nielsen said. “Then you kind of get a month away from it and it dies out.

“Hopefully this will kind of get people to watch hockey even more and stay with it after the tournament.”

But, as enthusiastic as Nielsen is about the world championships, he’d much rather be knee-deep in the NHL playoffs right now.

“Just the fact we are out of it again so early, it’s no fun,” Nielsen said. “You miss some of the best part about playing, that feeling of getting up in the morning, getting the car and going down to the rink.

“You know there’s a huge game. You have butterflies going way before the game even starts. You want that down the stretch, you want that feeling.

“That’s why you play, to play in those big games that mean a lot, and it’s not fun when you’re not in that position.”

IIHF men’s world championships

When: May 4-20

Where: Copenhagen and Herning, Denmark.

TV: NHL Network will televise all Team USA’s games, beginning 10 a.m. Friday against Canada.

Local touch:

Team USA: Coach Jeff Blashill (Red Wings), Dylan Larkin (Waterford/Red Wings), Nick Jensen (Red Wings), Quinn Hughes (Michigan), Alex DeBrincat (Farmington Hills/Chicago Blackhawks), Alec Martinez (Rochester Hills/Los Angeles Kings), Jordan Oesterle (Dearborn Heights/Chicago Blackhawks).

Denmark: Frans Nielsen (Red Wings)

Czech Republic: Martin Frk (Red Wings)