Last year, Team Denmark was the quarter-final casualty in Canada's inexorable march to the gold medal, but the fact they made the medal round was something of a triumph in its own right.
Though the 8-0 loss was a bitter and thorough defeat, it did not eclipse the things they had accomplished: two points from two overtime losses, a historic first win, and closing out the tournament without even a whisper of the threat of relegation.
As twenty-three players from a tiny country over 6,000 kilometers away saluted the crowd in Toronto, the roar of the fans proved just how thoroughly Denmark's Cinderella story had won the hearts of the host nation. This year they are hoping to add another page to the history books, though they will be without star forward Oliver Bjørkstrand, and probably one of the 2015 event's standouts in Nikolaj Ehlers, as well.
|Thomas Lillie||G||SHL||Växjö Lakers|
|Lasse Munk Petersen||G||WHL||Spokane Chiefs|
|Mathias Seldrup||G||Metal Ligaen||Herning Blue Fox|
|Ludvig Adamsen||D||BCHL||Surrey Eagles|
|Morten Jensen||D||Allsvenskan||Rögle Ängelholm|
|Lasse Knudsen||D||Metal Ligaen||Aalborg Pirates|
|Anders Krogsgaard||D||Metal Ligaen||Esbjerg Energy|
|Matias Lassen||D||Allsvenskan||Leksands Stars|
|Christian Mieritz||D||OHL||Hamilton Bulldogs|
|Nicolai Weichel||D||Metal Ligaen||Rungsted Ishockey|
|Niklas Andersen||F||WHL||Spokane Chiefs|
|William Boysen||F||Metal Ligaen||Rungsted Ishockey|
|Emil Christensen||F||Metal Ligaen||Rødovre Mighty Bulls|
|Mathias From||F||Allsvenskan||Rögle Ängelholm|
|Jeppe Holmberg||F||Metal Ligaen||Esbjerg Energy|
|Marcus Jensen||F||Metal Ligaen||Herning Blue Fox|
|Kristian Jensen||F||SHL||Luleå HF|
|Jeppe Korsgaard||F||Metal Ligaen||Aalborg Pirates|
|Nikolaj Krag||F||Metal Ligaen||Rødovre Mighty Bulls|
|Søren Nielsen||F||Metal Ligaen||Esbjerg Energy|
|Thomas Olsen||F||SHL||Malmö Redhawks|
|Jonas Røndbjerg||F||Metal Ligaen||Rungsted Ishockey|
|Alexander True||F||WHL||Seattle Thunderbirds|
Names in boldface signify players returning to the team
In the hockey world, as in many other sports, it is not uncommon to hear a close-knit team likened to a family. For a country with only 24 arenas, the statement is more literal.
Alexander True is Ehlers' cousin, while many players on this year's team have older brothers who played with last year's World Cup, or even last year's world juniors. Head coach Olaf Eller is the father of Montreal Canadiens forward Lars Eller, and of Mads Eller who played a key energy role for Denmark last year. Assistant coach Dan Jensen is the father of Vancouver Canucks' Nicklas Jensen, and of Markus who is making his return to the team.
Coach Eller says that while the team lacks the obvious upper-tier quality it had last year in Bjørkstrand and Ehlers, this year the level of the team's overall talent is spread more evenly through the whole roster.
On the blue line, there is both experience and familiarity at this level of competition, as Matias Lassen, Jeppe Holmberg and Anders Krogsgaard all played on the team last year.
Alexander True will likely find himself looked to as one of the team's offensive leaders, together with Søren Nielsen, and the U18 top scorers Jeppe Korsgaard and Mathias From. True has 18 points in 27 games this year for the Seattle Thunderbirds in the WHL, while From has 14 in 24 for Rögel's U20 team in the development league. They will also be looking for contributions from players like Andersen, Holmberg, Krag, Thomas Olsen and Kristian Jensen who have all put up solid numbers for their clubs.
The team's biggest strength is their goaltending. Like Sørenson before him, likely number one goalie Thomas Lillie is going to have to stand on his head. Fortunately, the numbers indicate that he can. Playing for one of the bottom teams of the SHL's development league, Lillie's .916 SVS% is good for ninth overall. Lasse Petersen is also an accomplished goalie at the international level, having backstopped the Division IA U18 team to the gold medal last year with a sterling .937 save percentage and 1.60 goals-against average. Denmark is going to need them both to have the tournament of their lives if they are to escape the relegation round.
While the overall quality of the team may have improved, the fact that they lack a game-breaker like an Ehlers or a Bjørkstrand will likely hurt the team's chances. Denmark's best hope to avoid relegation may be to fight their way into overtime as many times as possible, or (more plausibly) to beat their likely opponent Belarus in the best-of-three relegation series.
Denmark is lacking that single player who jumps out in the same way that Ehlers did last year. Instead, they will be relying (as in previous years) on their goaltenders and on their powerplay. Last year, the Danes scored eight of their ten goals on the man advantage.
While building on last year's performance with a stronger showing may be a tall order against a series of formidable opponents that include Canada, Sweden, and the USA, that certainly isn't going to stop a Denmark team that made a reputation on their hard work from trying.
To say that the odds are stacked against them would be putting it lightly, but whatever the outcome, they may well say, in the words of Shakespeare's Henry V: we few, we happy few, we band of brothers.