"I think everyone has their own destination, their own route"
While hockey still stands behind Football (Soccer) as a truly universal sport, there are plenty of players out there from all reaches of the globe playing the game and trying to make it to North America and the NHL. While we know of the vast numbers of players from Russia, Sweden, the United States, Finland, and Canada, there are players out there who are members of an exclusive fraternity of players. The players from the "Non traditional markets." There are NHL and AHL players out there with a group of comrades in the teens and single digits. While we have seen players from places like France, Austria, Norway, and Germany come into the NHL in recent years, no one nation has risen up to join the ranks of our larger hockey nations...yet. The sport is coming a long way universally, and with the rise of popularity and quality, we are seeing more programs make bigger marks in the world of hockey. Some of these players have unique and interesting journeys that get them there.
Denmark is one of those developing hockey nations, one which has had several prominent players pop up over the past decade. Vancouver's Jannik Hansen has had a strong career. As has Frans Nielsen, formerly of the New York Islanders and now the Detroit Red Wings. Nikolaj Ehlers with the Winnipeg Jets is perhaps one of the most exciting young players in the world right now. Oliver Bjorkstrand, Lars Eller, Mikkel Boedker, and Freddie Andersen are just a few of the bigger names rising from the ranks of Danish hockey at the moment. In fact, since 2002, there has been a Danish drafted player every year except for three years. A total of 18 players have been drafted from Denmark over the past 15 years, which does not seem like a lot but for a developing nation it really is. In the 11 years prior to 2002, only one Danish player was selected. Last year, three Danes were selected (Mattias From, Nikolaj Krag Christiansen, and Joachim Blichfeld), which is the most the country has ever had in a single draft. It is not often we get to talk to a player who is a member of such an exclusive group of players trying to cut into the NHL given their low representation in North America. Only 13 Danish players currently play between the AHL and the NHL.
This past offseason the Kings invited the 13th Dane to North America and the team's rookie camp, a 23-year old center playing for Medvescak Zagreb in the KHL by the name of Patrick Bjorkstrand. He impressed so much that the team inked him to a one-year entry level contract. Patrick comes from a very unique situation and hockey community from his home town of Herning, Denmark. If you have not heard of Herning, that's okay. However, Herning is one of the most famous hockey cities in Denmark.
Tucked into the dead center of Denmark's Midtjylland region about 185 miles West from the famous capital of Copenhagen, this town of 47,000 people has a storied background of hockey championships and quality players. The Herning Blue Fox, a team that Patrick played for growing up has won 16 titles since the league was established in 1955, and went on a run from 1990 to 2010 where they were champions 11 out of 20 seasons. The Herning Blue Fox, quite frankly, are the Montreal Canadiens of Denmark.
Patrick, now 24, grew up around the game in Herning, but also had a pretty prominent Danish hockey figure in his life with his father, Todd Bjorkstrand. Todd himself played in the Metal Ligaen for Herning, and is currently the all-time record holder for the league in points (1199), assists (572) and goals (627) in 550 games. Todd has also been a coach for Herning since 2002, and actually coached his son professionally. Pretty massive figure to live up to right?
With perhaps big shoes to fill given the hockey background, the Bjorkstrand brothers have made their way to the pro ranks of North America, albeit by very different paths. While Oliver went to the WHL and was drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2013 3rd round, Patrick played three years professionally in Denmark, one year in Sweden with Mora IK, before finding decent success with Croatian team Medvescak Zagreb of the KHL. His unique background and road to the pro ranks of hockey are one worth highlighting as we find more and more players coming from non-traditional hockey markets.
Patrick made his pro debut in North America last Saturday night for the Ontario Reign, and netted two goals and an assist. It was a great opening to what hopefully is a story with more chapters to write in the AHL and maybe NHL.
I was able to sit down with Patrick today and talk about Denmark, the state of hockey there, the KHL, and his growing up in such a small but storied hockey community.
First off, how are you settling into the game in North America?
Yeah it has been an adjustment from day one, I think there’s just a lot of small differences that I have noticed now. Not only just the smaller ice surface even down to the length of the game. There are three commercial breaks during the game which is something I’ve felt the difference with actually. It’s more physical obviously with the smaller ice surface, once you get into the offensive zone there is more shooting, there are more chances…there are definitely more chances I felt that one right away. I’m settling in fine, it’s going better day by day, and I knew for me coming over here it would be a big difference and I was ready for it. It has been a challenge but it’s going good day by day.
Do you think people realize the stark difference in level of play from the KHL to the AHL/NHL?
Yeah, I think you’re right because over here you’ve got the NHL and the AHL, and not many people know a lot about European hockey or about the KHL which I understand because the NHL is the biggest. I think it IS a very different game because of the bigger ice surface, there are not as many scoring chances in the KHL. I think some people think that the KHL is all offense, which it’s actually not. That might be the biggest misconception of the league. It’s pretty structured actually, it’s hard to get to scoring chances, there are a lot of good skaters, it’s not as physical. There are some big differences, but both leagues are obviously very good.
What was the lifestyle like in Russia?
Well, actually the team I was playing for was based out of Croatia, so it’s a little bit different than Russia, I can’t really say what it’s like to live there. But of course we did travel to Russia and it is different then where I come from for sure, but you know what, my experiences were actually very good. There are a lot of stories out there (About the KHL), but my experiences were all good. I enjoyed the league, I thought the level was really high, and every time we were on the road we were really well taken care of.
Learn any Russian while there?
Oh no (laughs) just a few words here and there but not a lot.
Going a little bit further back than your KHL time, you spent a lot of time in the Danish league with the Herning Blue Fox. Did you grow up watching the Herning Blue Fox play also?
Yeah! I think this goes for a lot of Danes, growing up in Denmark it’s not a very big hockey country but the city where I come from (Herning) hockey is actually really big. A lot of really good players have come from there. It was big for so many years because we actually didn’t have a pro soccer team, so hockey was the main thing.
So I grew up watching the Elite team there, that was pretty much all I watched, we couldn’t watch anything else. I mean, we grew up playing the video games but we didn’t really know much about the NHL. So I grew up around it, went to the games, grew up playing hockey in the streets, stuff like that. We also watched a little bit of the Swedish Elite League and that was when I had got like, 13-14 and there was youtube and the internet so we could start watching. But yeah, Herning is a really good hockey community to grow up in.
A lot of players have come out of Herning, and like you said it’s a soccer nation, but do you think it really helped that growing up Herning was basically THE TEAM of Danish hockey?
We actually get this question a lot back home, like “What’s so special about Herning?”. It’s just a real close hockey community. It’s a lot of families, we all know each other, we grew up playing with each other and we know their parents and stuff. Also I just think we were coached really well. To be honest I don’t think there is any magic formula, we were coached really well, we were pushed a lot more, we have one of the best teams in Denmark outside of one other, Rødovre (The Rødovre Mighty Bulls were the former team of current NHL players like Jannik Hansen, Mikkel Boedker and Lars Eller) . Yeah so again, no magic formula, good coaches, and a good foundation of good people.
Your dad (Todd Bjorkstrand) also coached you when you played for Herning, what was that like being that it was the pro level?
It was hard, it was tough, there were some really tough moments. Ya know, looking back at it now I wouldn’t want to do it again (Laughs), but I learned A LOT. I learned so much. And looking back I do truly believe that my dad is a great coach. He definitely pushed me, and helped me a lot, but it was definitely hard. I was actually still attending Gymnasium (The Danish high school essentially), so I was still living at home [while playing], so it was kind of hard to get that separation of “Okay, now we are home, father/son time.” We used to goof around but now it’s like, he’s also “coach”, he is THE MAN. So it was a really tough three years, but I do believe I learned a lot and it made me stronger.
Your brother Oliver is also pretty well known with the Columbus Blue Jackets organization, but he went the route of the WHL in North America, what made you decide to go your more European route? (Denmark, Sweden, KHL)
Yeah, I mean I think I wasn’t as big a prospect growing up as my brother, I mean he is still a huge prospect, but growing up yeah I wasn’t that big of a prospect. I wasn’t drafted to the NHL or anything, there might have been a few teams I could have maybe gone to, but that was after I had gone to school for a two years. I could have gone over there at that point, but I decided to take my third year of Gymnasium and get my schooling done with. My brother was more of a prospect growing up so for him he wanted to go over, it was the right thing for him to do and it worked out really well for him. It was just a different situation for me. Have I thought back about maybe should I have gone over sooner? Yeah, for sure. The other thing though is I was also a little bit interested in college, but I started playing pro in Denmark which was the thing that eventually held me back (With college).
So looking back you think the European route served you well?
Yeah, I think everyone has their own destination, their own route. The way I look at it, I just have a different route than a lot of other players. That’s just the way it is and I’m fine with that.
It helps that we are seeing older European players coming across now and making an impact also.
That…Exactly. That’s true. That was really good motivation for me to see so many guys come across and play well after being in the Swedish Elite League or the KHL or what have you for a couple of years. They can come across a little bit later and still have an impact and make the adjustment. Yeah, big motivation.
You are one of only 13 currently active Danish players in the pro ranks of the NHL and AHL, do you ever keep in touch with each other given that it is such an exclusive group of players right now?
I don’t talk so much with them on a day to day basis, my brother yeah of course, but we actually see each other quite often as a matter of fact. With national team events, and a lot of them over summer go back to Denmark, a lot of them are from Herning, so then we meet up in the summer and I see them all. So on a day to day basis not really, but it’s funny even if it’s like a young Danish player coming up or whatever we are always like, of course, “Hey what’s up, how are you doing?” Because we ARE close being from such a small country. We all know each other in some way.
What’s the feel around the National Team Program right now? Seems like Denmark has made some strides over the past couple of years.
I think it’s going in the right direction, I think we have a ways to go still to be able to, not compare ourselves to the top nations of course, but maybe compare ourselves to Switzerland or Slovakia or teams like that. We have a little ways to go there, we didn’t qualify for the Olympics so that was disappointing. We’ve actually never been to the Olympics, so that’s a really big goal for us because that would mean a lot for the Danish media and stuff like that to get attention for the sport. We had a really good World Championships **
this year which of course was positive, and we are actually hosting the World Championships coming up in 2018. So good things are ahead, but those Olympics, that would really set the tone.
Denmark finished 4th in Group A, beating out Switzerland and Latvia before falling to runner up Finland in the Quarters. It was tied for the team’s best ever finish at the World Championships. Bjorkstrand played in all 8 games of the tournament, registering an assist**
I visited Denmark last summer and couldn’t help but notice the rivalry with Sweden and Denmark.
Oh yeah! It’s fun.
You guys obviously have a great soccer team, they are a hockey nation, but what are your thoughts on hockey becoming bigger in that sense and kind of letting that rivalry bleed into the hockey world?
It’s funny, I don’t think we have ever actually beat Sweden when we have our best team against their best team. We got a ways to go, but I mean, it’s tough right? Sweden has actually helped Danish hockey in a number of ways because we have a lot of Danish players who go to Sweden to play juniors and stuff, so we could actually thank them a little bit.
It will never be as big, in Sweden it’s just a huge sport and….it sounds funny saying it but they have so many ice rinks (laugh). We don’t have that many ice rinks in Denmark. We only have a select few cities that have hockey and in other cities they know nothing about it. I mean, in Sweden everybody knows at least a little bit or knows about hockey. So it will never be close to that level, but I think we are going in the right direction and we are catching up to these teams (Switzerland, Slovakia, Germany) and I think that’s the way we gotta look at it now.
Describe your game for someone who maybe hasn’t seen you play
I like think that I am a responsible two-way player that can contribute offensively as well. My game is a two-way game, I want to work hard both ways, I want to use my speed and tire out the other team. Over here I got to make sure I forecheck hard and finish my checks hard. That’s more a part of the game over here. So yeah, responsible, use my speed, and try to score some nice goals once and a while and set up some plays once in a while. I can play center, I can play wing, I can play all over the place I guess you could say.
Favorite player growing up or a player you model yourself after?
My favorite player all-time is Jaromir Jagr, but he is such an offensive specimen (laughs), so I try to take things from him. But a player I really liked growing up was Marian Hossa, the way he played. I always idolized him growing up because he’s such a strong two-way hockey player and uses his size and speed well too. He scores also. He does everything. Also Zetterberg and Datsyuk, kind of that Detroit Red Wings style of center.
The friendly and amicable Bjorkstrand somewhat embodies the dream that many players from developing hockey nations have: Get to the NHL, regardless of how long and where it takes you. While his journey has been unorthodox so far, he stands just one step away from that goal. More games like his three point debut game will only help his cause.
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