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When you think of Denmark what leaps into your mind? For me, I think of those hardy seafaring Vikings, progressive social systems, Danish modern design, Hans Christian Andersen, Carlsberg beer, Akvavit and smørrebrød. Hockey didn’t appear on that list, did it, but Danish hockey does exist, and you will even recognize a few names of some Danish players currently playing in the NHL and AHL in North America. Of particular note is Frederik Andersen who was the Anaheim Ducks starting goaltender in their first playoff game on April 16th – a Ducks win by the way. Andersen came up through the Herning hockey system and later spent two seasons with the Danish Hockey league’s Frederikshavn White Hawks.

Danish Players in the NHL during 2013-14 (via EliteProspects.com)

Team Pos Name Born Birthplace
Anaheim Ducks G Frederik Andersen 1989-10-02 Herning, DEN
Chicago Blackhawks F Peter Regin 1986-04-16 Herning, DEN
Edmonton Oilers D Philip Larsen 1989-12-07 Esbjerg, DEN
Montréal Canadiens F Lars Eller 1989-07-12 Rødovre, DEN
New York Islanders F Frans Nielsen 1984-04-24 Herning, DEN
Phoenix Coyotes F Mikkel Bødker 1989-12-16 Brøndby, DEN
Vancouver Canucks F Jannik Hansen 1986-03-15 Rødovre, DEN

Danish Players in the AHL during 2013-14 (via EliteProspects.com)

Team Pos Name Born Birthplace
Adirondack Phantoms D Oliver Lauridsen 1989-03-24 Gentofte, DEN
Lake Erie Monsters D Markus Lauridsen 1991-02-28 Gentofte, DEN
Utica Comets F Nicklas Jensen 1993-03-16 Herning, DEN

There is nothing more exciting to me than exploring a new hockey league. And this spring I had an excellent opportunity to take a much closer look at the Danish hockey league, watch some of the league games, including their playoffs, and talk to Kirill Tulupov who signed with the Frederikshavn White Hawks in late January. You can read Tulupov’s full interview, Kirill Tulupov: On Danish Hockey and His Time with the Frederikshavn White Hawks, which includes many more details about his experiences in Denmark.

Along with a player’s perspective, I also had an excellent guide to Danish hockey, longtime White Hawks’ fan Morten Thøgersen who always kindly answered my non-stop questions. “I have followed Frederikshavn White Hawks for the last 15 years and I’ve really enjoyed it,” Morten told me. “It’s a fantastic team to follow even though the team often changes players. Every year a great deal of players often leave.”

The Metal Ligaen – Danish Hockey League

Danish Hockey League Map (Courtesy of EliteProspects.com)

Danish Hockey League Map (Courtesy of EliteProspects.com)

Like Denmark itself, the professional Danish hockey league, the Metal Ligaen, is relatively small. It consists of nine teams currently, but they span the map of Denmark – Aalborg, Esbjerg, Frederikshavn, Herlev, Herning, Odense, Rungsted, Rødevre and SønderjyskE (in Vojens).  The Danish League was formed in 1955 and has a combination of very young players, as young as 16, combined with the best Danish professional players along with a smaller group of import players.  “It is a very young league, a lot of young players and there are very few players over 30,” Tulupov stated. At the end of this season, White Hawks long-time fan favorite Assistant Captain Christian Schioldan retired at the age of 35, after 18 years of playing with the team, and at that point, Schioldan was the only player on the team above the age of 30.

Like many European leagues, the Metal Ligaen limits their foreign players, therefore the largest percentage of players by far are Danish, followed by much smaller numbers of players from Sweden, Finland, Canada, and the United States, and a sprinkling of players from countries such as Croatia, Czech Republic, Great Britain, Italy, Latvia, Russia, Slovenia, and Slovakia.  “The Danish league has a max of eight foreign players per team, so when the players have a great season the economy in Danish hockey isn’t strong enough to keep them,” Thøgersen explains. “But in the White Hawks we have a very strong youth program where they develop a lot of fantastic players, and I look forward to the team using the young players even more next season.”

With so many nationalities, how it is possible for a team to train? Rather easily, Tulupov revealed, “to my surprise everything was in English. The process itself is in English and I was even told if there were no Europeans [players outside Denmark] they would still speak in English. It was very interesting. I was really surprised when the Danish referee came over to our coach, he even spoke in English.”

Tulupov’s Long Journey

What makes a hockey player decide to fly over 4,000 miles to play in Denmark? He spent most of this season in North America, but during that time Tulupov had been seriously considering starting next season in Europe, and immediately following his release from Gwinnett he had received a number of very good offers in North American and Europe. “I thought a switch from North American hockey to European hockey would help me a lot. I believe finishing the season in Europe and getting use to the European style of hockey would be the perfect thing for me.”

The most difficult part of Tulupov’s Denmark hockey experience turned out to be the journey itself. The entire process from the U.S. to Denmark turned into a travel and Visa nightmare, where he found himself in Moscow waiting for close to a month until the proper paperwork was granted.

The team instructed him to travel straight to Denmark from the U.S. in order to practice with the team until his Danish work Visa was approved, but it didn’t work out that way unfortunately. He recounted his tale, “before I boarded the plane I was stopped at the checkpoint and I asked where was my Visa?  I said to the flight attendants that I don’t require a Visa just because there are people waiting for me and I was told to take a passport and a copy of my contract and that would be enough. They believed it so they put me on the plane.” Once he arrived in Amsterdam – without a Danish Visa – he faced a difficult situation. “The funny thing,” Tulupov explained, “it was priceless to see the look of the Customs officer looking at me like “Where are you going?” I said “Denmark” and he said “No, where do you think you’re going without a Visa? You need a Visa.” I tried to explain my situation and he called the customs police and they escorted me over to their special room where we had the remaining conversation.”

In the end, after 12 hours in Amsterdam, he bought a plane ticket to Moscow to deal with the Visa situation from home.  After several false starts, and incorrect Visa applications, Tulupov was finally able to apply for his Danish Work Visa from Moscow and received it in late February, almost a full month after departing the US.

Danish Hockey at Long Last

Tulupov arrived in Denmark on February 25th and was able to spend a couple of days practicing with the team prior to their remaining two regular season games. After a month away from playing hockey it was a tough slog to get back into game shape. He laughed, “I was lucky to have the two games to play just because the games got me back into shape quickly because they were back-to-back games. I needed an oxygen mask on the bench between the shifts. [laughing] That’s a joke of course, but that’s what I felt I needed! Despite that, I was playing very good games. I was getting tired very fast but I was doing the right things, so I was not worried.”

In addition to re-familiarizing himself with European hockey, Tulupov was also looking forward to heading to the playoffs with the White Hawks. The team was last crowned Champions in 2000, and while the team went all the way to the Finals the previous season, they had to settle with Silver when SønderjyskE beat them 4 games to 3 in the full seven game series. This season the team was very intent on making yet another run for the Gold Cup. The White Hawks ended this season ranked 4th in the league and moved on to the playoffs, facing Odense in the Quarterfinals where they cleaned up rather handily with 4 games out of 5 in the 7 game series. However it was another matter entirely when they faced Blue Fox Herning, the 2nd ranked team in the league in the Semifinals.

(2. Semifinale, Scanel Arena Frederikshavn) Metal Ligaen 2013/2014 Foto: Jan Korsgaard

(2. Semifinale, Scanel Arena Frederikshavn) Metal Ligaen 2013/2014. (Photo: Jan Korsgaard)

On to the Playoffs

“The first series was like a walk in the park,” Tulupov said. “It was a good thing for the confidence of the boys, especially for offense just because after scoring 25 goals in 5 games I thought they were going to have a lot of firepower when we advanced to Blue Fox in the semifinals. Unfortunately it was too easy – half of the goals were not even supposed to be in the net for the lack of a good goalie and a good defense squad for the Bulldogs. It made our offense a little bit sloppy – a great example of it was our first game against Herning – I knew what it would be like, so perhaps that’s why I was able to react so fast when they scored the first goal, then I scored my goal just right after and I thought it was going to be a game changing type of goal, but no. We just got demolished – 6-2.”

Herning played an incredible defensive series against Frederikshavn, shutting down the White Hawks’ offense, and in particular their young Swedish line who had been so successful against Odense.

“They were defensively very smart – they had a very strong goalie [Slovakian born Lubos Pisar, age 33] and the whole unit on the ice was tending to block the shots,” Tulupov explained. “I have never seen, even in North America, players blocking so many shots. It was just crazy. I actually said “wow” to myself as I was on the bench watching them play. They were just collapsing.” Tulupov gave Herning full credit for their total team defensive play, “When there are individuals on the team blocking, it doesn’t look as impressive as when the entire team does it. When everybody does it, it feels like a huge wall impossible to penetrate. Just impossible. It slows players down … slows their thinking …. stops their offense. It’s hard to believe you can even score goals after that.”

Game 2 against Herning was a 2-1 overtime loss for the White Hawks, and by Game 3 the team was attempting anything new to turn their luck. “I thought big hits, like what I did back in the Juniors at the beginning of my career,” said Tulupov, “might turn the game over, maybe some fights, something like that, that type of thing would give the advantage to the winner, but no. Actually the things done by the entire group of players makes quite a big difference.”

In Game 3 there was a controversial hit by Tulupov on Herning’s Tomas Horna – most felt it was a clean hit, while others disputed it, but the nearby referee, with the best view of the hit, did not call a penalty. Horna moved down the ice with the puck as Tulupov rapidly closed in from an angle. “The guy just had nowhere to go. I angled him pretty well and I knew it would happen, I read it correctly,” Tulupov described. “I even went chest open – chest to chest let’s say – I sacrificed the pure strength of my hit just not to get penalized because I realized that the refereeing is not as great as it could be in AHL, or NHL or North America. I did everything possible to make it clean – and even sacrificed my own defense to make it more legit.”

Still, the White Hawks lost, this time 4-1, and sadly Game 4’s results were similar, with yet another White Hawks loss, 4-2. “It was heartbreaking just because I’d say two and a half games we owned them,” said Tulupov. “For two and a half games we completely owned them, but we were just out-of-place in the most important moments of the game. And it tended to be the last minutes of the game as well where they would turn the score sheet over and it was too late for us to come back.”

The Bronze Medal Match

The Metal Ligaen awards Gold to the winner of the Finals, Silver to the second placed team, and Bronze to the third placed team. With Herning Blue Fox’s defeat of the White Hawks, they advanced to face SønderjyskE (last season’s Gold Champions) in the finals. The Gold was awarded once again to SønderjyskE this season as they defeated Herning 4 games out of 3 in their 7 game final series. The two teams who lost in the Semifinals, Frederikshavn White Hawks and Aalborg Pirates, faced off against each other in a best of 2 game series for the Bronze. And how exactly does a “best of two games series” work you ask? It’s all about the points – the goals from each game are added up at the end and the most points wins Bronze; and in the case of a tie, the two teams move into sudden death overtime to decide the winner.

You might not think Danish fans would be interested in 3rd place, but the Bronze Medal series was important this season, as Morten Thøgersen said, “winning bronze in a season that has been riddled with injuries throughout the regular season is just amazing.” It was also a tremendously exciting two games. Each team has 120 minutes to rack up as many points as possible, which led to somewhat of a scoring frenzy in the first game. In Game 1 of the Bronze Medal match Frederikshavn soundly defeated Aalborg 8-4, and the second match ended in a tie 4-4. Even with a tie in the second game, there was no need for any overtime since the total points determined the Bronze winner very obviously to be the Frederikshavn White Hawks with 12 to 8 overall points.

At the conclusion of Game 2 in an on-ice ceremony, each White Hawks’ player was presented with their own Bronze Medal  bearing the emblem of the Danmarks Ishockey Union.

Bronze Medal for Frederikshavn White Hawks

Bronze Medal for Frederikshavn White Hawks (Photo: Kirill Tulupov)

An Important Moment in Tulupov’s Career & His Impressions of Denmark

Even though Tulupov’s Danish hockey experience covered only a short time, it allowed him to develop even more as a player. “It was really a great experience for me there. I took a main role on the team, and the coach trusted me in that position,” he said. “I started every single game in the starting squad, in the first lineup and advanced to the pairing with the Captain of my team in the last 2 games.”

“I think I have improved during that period of time,” he continued.  “I have realized that I am able to be very creative. I am able to be in power of changing the way the game goes – I don’t have a rigid thinking hockey mind, I have an active mind where it can be handy, and creative. It was an important moment in my career to be here in Denmark.”

As for the country itself, Kirill Tulupov traveled to Denmark expecting to like it, but I think he surprised himself by how much he enjoyed the experience. “The more I learned about Denmark the more I love it. It is a very laid back style of living. It reminds me of Canada quite a bit. It’s simpler. It’s a rich country and I think people here are very happy,” he told me. “The mentality of the Danish people is very home welcoming I’d say just because people don’t concentrate on how others look and what they do in life. The city is so small everyone knows each other, and they feel like a big family.”

“It is very laid back and I love that about it,” he said.

Danish Hockey Fans  

Danish hockey fans are a hardy lot, following their teams to nearby locations (with a Carlberg in hand of course!), cheering, singing and drumming their way through the season.  They even adopted a rascally American into their midst (albeit from afar), sharing the ins and outs of the league and their teams. They’re an especially good bunch, these Danes!

Morten Thøgersen sums it up very well. “I love the White Hawks and always will because they are our local heroes.  Not everybody sees them that way, but those that do follow them through thick and thin. That’s the true White Hawks fan.”

There is a mutual respect by the players and team for their fans as well. “The Danish fans are very good! They are singing all the time, clapping all the time, drums going. They have team songs,” said Tulupov. Every Sunday home game the team would buy treats, pastries and cupcakes for the fans. Everybody could take as much as they want for absolutely free – it was the teams way of saying “thank you” to their fans.”

At the opening of each home game the White Hawks had a unique tradition which impressed Tulupov and he summed up the tradition from a player’s perspective:

“When playing there, especially in our own facility, it was quite impressive just because of the things that the teams do before the game starts is something unique. After the warmups you return to the dressing room and leave your helmet on the bench – the trainers take care of your helmet and visor – and when the players jump on the ice just before the first period they are not wearing their helmets. First thing, the players line up in the middle of the ice against the blueline, not parallel, so you are facing the fans and you stand there until the last guy jumps on the ice and joins the line. Then the line skates down, makes a circle or two around the net, and then they move to the blueline. Now the team is facing the opposing team. The players are only allowed to move after the Captain skates past all of the team standing on the blueline, tapping our pads or jerseys, and after that, in the same order the team skates around the circle and jumps on the bench, and the starting lineup starts the game. It happens very quickly.

“It lets the team salute the fans, and then the other team – it’s highly important and they pay a lot of attention to it.”

At the end of each game there is also a ceremonial display of respect as well. “It is just as much as after every single game – after a home game we skate around the ice, clapping back to the fans that are still there in the stands,” Tulupov said. “And then we go back to the dressing room.”

During special games, end of season matches, and playoff matches, the fans remain in the stands, clapping, cheering, singing and chanting and the team will return to the ice to acknowledge the fans. For those new import players into Danish hockey this often takes them unawares, as it did Tulupov a few times! “I have a habit of just stripping my gear down as quickly as possible, because by the end of the game it just annoys me. It’s greasy, sweaty, and I just feel greasy. Nobody warned me in advance that I had to keep my gear on just because the team jumps back onto the ice again to say hi and thanks to the fans again,” he laughed.

The mutual respect was obvious at the end of the Bronze Medal match in Aalborg where a large group of White Hawks fans traveled to cheer on their team for the last game of the season.  After the game following the Medal ceremonies the fans applauded and serenaded their team, “saluting” them one last time on the ice.

The above video contains the April 5th Danish Bronze Medal presentation to the White Hawks players, all the while their fans were drumming, singing, clapping and cheering for their team. Following that, the fans remained, still clapping and the team skated to the end and “saluted” their fans. And No. 4, retiring longtime fan favorite Christian Schioldan returned to “salute” his fans as well, followed by the coach, Lars Ivarsson. The end of this video also contains the teams welcome home from Aalborg as fans waited to greet them, and celebrated their win with the team.

April 5th Danish Bronze Game in Aalborg, postgame, when fans bring the team back out onto the ice from the dressing room – Video by Morten Thøgersen.

Following the ceremony and final team salute, the White Hawks fans remained in the stands clapping, singing and chanting, calling their team back out onto the ice for one last “salute.” The team returned to the ice from the dressing room, most without much of their gear at all, to clap and “salute” their fans who remained in the arena. Once again Tulupov was caught off guard. “I had no gear on me whatsoever – absolutely none,” he laughingly explained. “I had already cut my laces open – because they were old and I was going to change them anyway since that was the last game and I would not be playing hockey for a while – and I had to jump back onto the ice!”

Upon the team’s arrival back in Frederikshavn that night, their fans welcomed them home from their final season game with sparklers outside the arena. “It was an amazing evening where we got to celebrate our heroes and give them a proper welcoming when they arrived back at our home arena,” Thøgersen said. “It’s fantastic the way fans and players gets to interact with each other. The players went around talking to all the fans all night and signed autographs for anyone who came up and asked, young or old, didn’t matter. But the best thing about that night was definitely saying a proper goodbye to #4 Christian Schioldan. He has meant so much to the club over the years and he is a true White Hawk.”

Fans welcome team home 2

White Hawks fans standing outside the arena with sparklers to welcome the team home after their Bronze Medal match in Aalborg. (Photo. Kirill Tulupov. All Rights Reserved.)

Although I only spent a couple of months watching Danish Hockey, I have developed a great respect for it and have a huge admiration for their fans. The mutual respect and ceremonial tradition between the fans and their teams was absolutely delightful to watch, and the above videos sum up Danish Hockey for me. Just listen to the fans, and watch them as they salute their team in Aalborg’s arena – an away arena! And watch the White Hawks fans saluting their retiring No. 4, Christian Schioldan who meant so much to this team and group of fans for 18 years. Watch and listen also as they call their team back out onto the ice to “salute” them once again.  Someday I hope to experience that in person. *Stick Taps* to Danish hockey and their fans!

3. Kvartfinale, Frederikshavn fører 2-0 i serien. (Scanel Hockey Arena, Frederikshavn) (Photo: Jan Korsgaard)

Kirill Tulupov (in white on the left) and Christian Schioldan, #4, in the 3rd Quarterfinals game vs Odense. Frederikshavn fører 2-0 i serien. (Scanel Hockey Arena, Frederikshavn). (Photo: Jan Korsgaard)