Stepping off an airplane for the first time at John F. Kennedy International Airport represented a drastic life change for Frans Nielsen, who traded-in simple living and the small-town charm of Herning, Denmark, for the bright lights of the National Hockey League and Long Island, N.Y.
“Coming from a small town, such as Herning, and coming to New York City, it was amazing, and a little scary, too,” said Nielsen, of his first trip to America.
It didn’t take long for the son of a youth counselor and a former Danish hockey player to realize that he was predisposed to play hockey at a very high-level. What Nielsen wasn’t so sure of was reaching the NHL. And who could blame him? After all, his self-doubt was backed up by one pretty significant fact: No Danish born and raised player had ever played in the world’s top league.
Of course, that was before Nielsen blazed his own Scandinavian trail, playing in his first NHL game on January 6, 2007 at the Raleigh Entertainment and Sports Arena in North Carolina.
“Growing up in Denmark, nobody ever believed that any Dane would ever make it to the NHL, so my dream was to play in Sweden, but even a bigger dream was to play in NHL,” said Nielsen, a veteran of five Elitserien seasons in Sweden.
Nielsen, born on April 24, 1984, was the first child for Hanne and Frits Nielsen. They later provided Frans with a younger brother, Simon, and a sister, Signe. The Nielsen children used to spend hours with their dad at the local ice rink in Herning, a small industrial community in west-central Denmark.
Frits Nielsen played and coached hockey in Denmark. As a player, he was a high-scoring forward, who played 14 seasons – 11 with Herning and three with Aalborg BK. After he stopped playing, he took over as coach of the Herning Blue Fox, a team that his sons later played on. Now Frits is a sports writer for the local newspaper – Herning Folkeblad – writing about hockey and soccer in the area.
Frits Nielsen, who coached Herning for 12 seasons, left the coaching profession before his boys were old enough to play for the local team. Weary of the possible pitfalls of coaching his own sons, Coach Nielsen retired from the game following the 1995-96 season. That decision sat well with Frans, who wasn’t fully onboard with the idea of playing for his dad.
“I think it would be tough to coach your son,” Frans Nielsen said.
The decision that Nielsen would pursue hockey as a career path was made early on in his development when he moved to Sweden shortly after he turned 17. But he admits, if the decision to play hockey wasn’t made, he likely would have tried being an airline pilot.
“I always wanted to fly,” said Nielsen, who once was employed as a custodian at a Mitsubishi dealership in Herning.
However, it didn’t take Frans Nielsen long to develop into one of country’s top young hockey prospects. Even though soccer was more popular in his country at the time, Herning was a good city to grow-up in for a boy fixated on polishing his hockey skills and reaching higher aspirations. And by the time Nielsen was 15-years-old, he was gaining recognition as his nation’s best young hockey player.
“It was always hockey for me.” Nielsen said, “I started playing some golf when I was real young, and that was only in the summer, so in the wintertime it was all about the hockey.”
After he turned 16, Nielsen was invited to represent Denmark in the 2000 IIHF World Junior Championship in Latvia. Though it was an inauspicious adventure for the team – the Danes finished fifth out of eight teams – Nielsen compiled seven points in five games.
A few months later, he was playing for his hometown team, the Herning Blue Fox. And despite being the youngest player on a roster whose players averaged 24.4 years of age, Nielsen managed to shine, winning the Danish League’s 2000-01 Rookie of the Year award in his only season with Herning.
Making the move from the Danish League to Sweden was a huge jump for Nielsen, who thought the biggest difference was in the advanced off-season training, where it wasn’t uncommon for Swedish league players to train 10 times a week away from the ice during the summer months.
“It’s almost more tuff than the (regular) season, actually,” Nielsen said. “It was crazy, but it was something that was good for me. But I probably wouldn’t be in the NHL today if I didn’t go through all of those summers in Sweden.”
Nielsen’s biggest growing years came in Sweden, whether it was in SuperElit or Elitserien, the nation’s top proving grounds for the NHL.
“I grew-up watching the Danish League and my dad was coaching and I was always around that,” said Nielsen, of his introduction to pro hockey. “They were my idols on that team. All my idols were in Herning, and we won the league title the first year that I was there. In Sweden, I made the national team and after we won the B Pool, we got moved up to the A Pool, and won that too.”
Something Nielsen said he doesn’t expect to forget anytime soon is his first Elitserien goal, which came October 5, 2002. Already up 1-0 over Timrå, Nielsen took a pass from 37-year-old Malmö teammate Peter Andersson and broke in on goalie Kimmo Kapanen.
“The first goal in Sweden I remember just like I remember the first game and the first goal in the NHL,” Nielsen said. “I had a 2-on-1 with Peter Andersson, who once played for the (New York) Rangers many years ago. It was an amazing feeling. Probably not as big as scoring your first NHL goal, but it was still a dream at that point.”
Nielsen’s NHL dream took a step toward reality when eight weeks after his 18th birthday, the Islanders drafted him in the third round of the annual amateur draft. Even though he was 87th player selected in 2002, Nielsen could still hear the doubters, who said no Danish player would ever make the jump to the NHL.
Six months after the Islanders selected the skilled play-making Dane, he got his first true test against NHL talent when Denmark competed on the international stage for the first time in 54 years. Taking on traditional hockey powerhouses – like Canada, Sweden, the United States and Russia – at the 2003 World Championship in Helsinki was no small task. But the idea of qualifying for the world championship for the first time since 1949 sent the entire Danish nation into hockey euphoria.
Of course, the jubilation was only heightened after a pair of historic upsets when Denmark defeated USA, 5-2, in a tournament-opening game. Six days later, Denmark posted a 2-2 tied against Canada, the eventual tournament champions.
Though Frans Nielsen didn’t score in six tournament games, the experience of playing against the world’s superstars proved to be a solid litmus test.
Nielsen’s psyche received an additional boost when during the NHL’s lockout in 2004-05 many Europeans returned to Elitserien and brought some of their North American buddies.
“A lot of good players came back that year,” Nielsen said. “(Henrik) Zetterberg, (Peter) Forsberg, the Hossa brothers were all there. I kind of proved to myself that year that I can compete with those guys, and that I wasn’t that far away. That was probably a very important year for myself.”
Initially, NHL ice-time wasn’t in abundance for Nielsen, who spent his first two North American seasons bouncing between the NHL and the Islanders’ minor league affiliate in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
In his first two seasons with the Islanders, he averaged 7-minutes of ice-time with three goals and two assists in 31 games during 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons. But the limited playing time allowed him to become acclimated – on and off the ice.
“Every second that I got on the ice was great,” Nielsen said. “I played on the fourth line, kept it simple and tried to not make any mistakes. I had to show them that I was responsible and that they could play me, and that I could compete at this level.”
His time in Bridgeport with fellow Europeans – Robert Nilsson, Petteri Nokelainen and Masi Marjamäki – really helped ease Nielsen’s transition. But the biggest influence for him was veteran forward Jeff Tambellini, his linemate in Bridgeport and New York.
“He really taught me a lot about the game over here,” Nielsen said of Tambellini. “He was very important to me. We had a great chemistry on the ice, but he’s been around this North American game for a long time and he helped me a lot.”
The NHL game eventually slowed down for Nielsen. He’s gotten used to the speed, and his confidence has soared, and in 2008-09 he finished as the Islanders’ fifth-best scorer with 33 points, including 24 assists.
But Nielsen’s benchmark was set during the 2009-10 season. A solid skater, who reads the game quite well, Nielsen is creative with the puck, as well as being very accountable in his own zone. He showed those defensive skills for the Islanders when he ranked second on the team with a plus-4 rating in ’09-10.
Shortly after the conclusion of the Islanders’ season, Nielsen joined up with Team Denmark for the 2010 World Championship in Germany. Staging upsets was no longer on the minds of the Danish players; this time they were out to prove that they were championship contenders. And it sure seemed that way, as Nielsen and his mates started the tourney with three victories in the first four games. The wins over Finland (4-1), USA (2-1) and Slovakia (6-0) paved the way for the Danes to a quarterfinals showdown with Sweden. While Nielsen earned an assist on a Jesper Damgaard goal, the Danes dropped a 4-2 decision to the Swedes.
Despite the loss, Nielsen had a successful ’10 world championship experience, netting two goals with three assists. He also earned player of the game accolades for scoring two goals in Denmark’s tournament-opening 4-1 win over Finland, and he was named one of Denmark’s top three players for the tourney – along with forward Peter Regin and goalie Patrick Galbraith – as selected by the 16 team head coaches.
The 2010-11 season was Nielsen’s third full season in the NHL. He managed to establish career-highs in goals (13), assists (31), points (44), and plus-minus rating (+13), and tallied his 100th career point when he assisted on Michael Grabner’s second-period goal in a 4-3 shootout win Feb. 10 at Montreal. His seven short-handed goals led the NHL, and he finished tied for 13th overall in the league with 66 takeaways.
Nielsen also led the Islanders with five shootout goals in eight chances (62.5%), and tied the Islanders’ all-time record – set by Bob Bourne in 1980-81 – with his seventh short-handed goal of the season in a 3-2 loss at New Jersey on March 30.