Denmark optimistic despite loss to Russia

Denmark's Oliver Bjorkstrand, left, celebrates with Nikolaj Ehlers after scoring his team's opening goal against Russia. (Chris Young/CP)

Toronto – Nikolaj Ehlers is still sweating, wearing his white and red Denmark jersey without shoulder pads, shifting from skate to skate while he answers questions after Denmark’s 3-2 shootout loss to Russia on Day 1 of the IIHF World Junior Championship in Toronto. He doesn’t exactly look defeated, though.

“We just played 2-2 against Russia,” Ehlers says. It’s about the fourth time the 18-year-old forward has repeated that statement in two minutes. When it’s pointed out, the Winnipeg Jets prospect with the blonde hair and blue eyes grins. “Well,” he says, “it doesn’t happen every year for us.”

That’s an understatement.

Denmark is playing for the third time ever in the top tier of the World Junior Championship, and the country has never won a game here. Denmark has never not placed last. In 2012 and 2008, the Danes went 0-4, and never registered a point.

That explains why players were whacking their sticks and patting each other’s helmets after three periods against Russia, tied 2-2, despite relinquishing the 2-0 lead they held after the first.

“It did feel historic,” says Ehlers. “We obviously wanted to win the game, we had a chance to win. Even though we lost in a shootout, we’re happy we got that far. We just gotta finish, you know?”

Ehlers did finish. The Jets’ No. 9 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft scored Denmark’s second goal, then skated through centre ice with a fist-pump celebration, while the crowd at the ACC cheered him on. “That was amazing,” he says. “You don’t see that much, that kind of atmosphere.

“We’re the team that just moved up, the underdogs, if you can say that. But we went out there and showed today that we can surprise and we can play well. It’s amazing to hear the crowd cheering for us.”

Ehlers has the type of speed that got the Toronto crowd going as he wound up with the puck. He plays in the QMJHL for the Halifax Mooseheads, and has 47 points in 23 games this season. His Danish linemate Oliver Bjorkstrand, a third-round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets who plays for the Portland Winterhawks, had the other goal for Denmark on Friday.

Ehlers and Bjorkstrand are close; their fathers both played and coached in Denmark. (Ehlers' dad, Heinz, played pro for more than two decades.) Because hockey’s not big in Denmark, Ehlers says that’s led to a tight-knit team.

“It’s not the most popular sport in Denmark. There’s soccer and tennis and everything else. We don’t have a lot of hockey players," he says. "I've never been on a team that has this kind of chemistry that we have. We're all very close. It's amazing to be here with this group of guys."

The team celebrated Christmas in Toronto on Dec. 24 (that’s Christmas Day in Denmark) and went out for dinner with the families that are in town. It’s Ehlers’ first Christmas away from home, but his mom, Tina, and sister, Caroline, will be in Toronto on Monday to take in the rest of the tournament.

Ehlers says Christmas away from home was different, but the team does feel like family. They even did a gift exchange, and he got socks.

As for being the underdog in this tournament, Ehlers says it's a fun label. On Saturday, Denmark plays Sweden, the reigning silver medallists. "I think we can win," he says.

"It's just so amazing that we can go in here and play 2-2 against Russia.

“I know,” Ehlers adds, smiling. “I keep saying that.”