By: Mitchell Fox
The World Junior Championship has had its fair share of incredible stories over the years, serving as a chance to put a spotlight on some of hockey’s biggest stars before they take over the NHL. But every once in a while, the annual tournament will bring something different, a flash of surprise. Some of the lesser-known hockey countries have had some great moments of their own. One of the best examples comes from one of the most unexpected performances from a team few expected to fall in love with, but many did: team Denmark in 2016-17.
Denmark certainly does not have the history at the World Junior Classic that hockey’s superpowers do. In fact, they have never won a playoff game, nor a medal, at the tournament. Most recently, they were relegated from the main tournament down to the division 1A tournament in 2019.
But only a handful of years ago, we got to see the Danes in a new light. From Dec. 2016 to Jan. 2017, they became an underdog to watch in one of the more intriguing and surprising tournaments in a number of years.
The Danes were relegated at the end of the 2011-12 season and made their way back up to the main tournament for the 2014-15 tournament. In that tournament, the team, which featured current NHLers Nikolaj Ehlers, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Alexander True, finished 0-1-2-1 and took Russia to the shootout. That one overtime win, sealed by Ehlers, brought Denmark its first ever win at the tournament. The next year, the Danish team managed to secure their first ever regulation win against Switzerland, but they would lose their other three games. They would, however, remain in the top division.
The 2016-17 World Junior Championship was held in Toronto and Montreal, with Canada and the USA coming in as favourites and leaving with an incredible shootout in the gold medal game. Denmark came in as something of an underdog in Group A, which featured Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic (now referred to as Czechia in the tournament) and Switzerland. While the other group ended up with all the three medallists in Canada, the USA and Russia, Group A appeared to be wide open behind the Swedes.
Still, it is unlikely many were looking at the Danes to finish second in the group, especially since Ehlers was no longer available to them for the tournament.
The start of the tournament for Denmark was undesirable, but perhaps expected: a 6-1 loss to Sweden, who were in the midst of a round-robin win streak that would end at a whopping 54 last year. The Danes would, however, bounce back in a big way.
Their second game might have been the most surprising. Taking on a Finland team featuring names such as Miro Heiskanen, Denmark was not expected to win. But they did, 3-2 in regulation, taking a massive 3 points in the standings (and helping push Finland to the relegation round for the first and only time since the tournament took on its current format). This would capture the attention of hockey fans around the world.
The next game brought the biggest moment of the tournament, a dramatic comeback overtime win against the Czech Republic. After going down 1-0 on a goal that was video reviewed and almost giving up another that was called back due to a kicking motion, Joachim Blichfeld put the Danes on the board with a goal on the powerplay. Blichfeld is still a San Jose Sharks prospect and has spent most of this season with their AHL affiliate the San Jose Barracuda.
The Czechs scored again and held the lead until Nikolaj Krag Christensen (then a St Louis Blues prospect) tied it up with 6:24 remaining in the third period, sending the game to overtime. In overtime, then-Chicago Blackhawks prospect Mathias From would score the winner, toe dragging and going through the legs of Czech captain Filip Hronek before roofing a backhand past Dan Vladar.
Blichfeld, Krag and From were three of only five players on that Danish team to have been drafted to the NHL, joining Alexander True, who was in his third world juniors and now splits time between the Seattle Kraken and the Charlotte Checkers, and Jonas Rondbjerg, a Vegas Golden Knights prospect who has played 13 NHL games so far this season. Krag and Blichfeld had gone back-to-back at 209th and 210th overall (the second- and third-last picks of the draft) in the 2016 NHL draft.
Despite not having the starpower of some of the other teams in the tournament, the Danes, especially after the game against the Czech Republic, captured the attention of hockey fans all over the internet.
Denmark’s last game of the round robin would come in the form of a 5-4 shootout loss to Switzerland two days later. Though that game did not end with the same fanfare as their wins over Finland and the Czech Republic, it was enough to earn a 1-1-1-1 record and the second position in group A, a position few had expected them to take.
Their tournament would come to an end in a 4-0 loss to Russia in the quarterfinals, but the 2016-17 tournament would nevertheless serve as a stepping stone for Danish hockey. While they have not had much luck in the time since, hockey fans can take this as an example of how the game is growing. New countries are making a name for themselves and the World Juniors has served as a grand stage for this to be highlighted.