When Frans Nielsen steps into his favorite café in Kreuzberg, the first embarrassing rays of sun shine through the windows on the chairs and tables. Spring air from outside makes its way into the café, where the Dane, in a black tracksuit and baseball cap, orders a latte macchiato. The waitress speaks English. Nielsen’s friendly face blends seamlessly into the overall picture among the students as they open their laptops and make themselves comfortable at the wooden tables. The Scandinavian’s slender stature, well-groomed three-day beard, and accent-free English make him sound like a hip software developer rather than a man who’s been around for more than two decades with a bat in hand and helmet on his hand. The head of the ice skates which is scheduled for the third quarter-final match of the German Ice Hockey Championship on Thursday (7:30 pm, Arena am Ostbahnhof).
Mr. Nielsen, you recently played your 1500th professional match. What does this number mean to you?
This means that I am getting old. No, I didn’t know anything about it at first. Someone told me that number at the start of the season, but I didn’t think about it anymore. It sounds gigantic and crazy – but when I look back it’s now 22 years since I first played professionally in Denmark.
Too long time spent on the ice…
To be honest, I haven’t felt this much for a while. More after seven or eight years because it all happened so fast. I’m proud of this number because it shows that I’ve taken good care of my body over the years. But of course luck is part of it.
Remember the other brands, your 1000th game?
No, when I did I was probably playing in the States. I guess you only care about those numbers when your career is coming to an end.
You were with Eisbären in Berlin for six months, before that you played in the NHL for ten years and made your first steps as a professional in Sweden. What are the differences between leagues, countries, and cultures when it comes to ice hockey?
I think the big difference is simply the financial strength of the different clubs. In the NHL, you play against the best players in the world every night. It’s quite a challenge, you have to be at it’s best every night. When I played in Detroit, the environment was amazing. Detroit is simply a city of hockey, which is rather an exception in the United States. There are often other major sports that outperform ice hockey, unlike Canada where ice hockey is the biggest sport everywhere.
How do you see that in Germany?
Well, soccer is the biggest sport here, but with polar bears, everything looks very professional. There are North American investors here, and many North Americans are in the club, and I feel that every day. The way hockey is seen here in polar bears and how it’s supposed to be played in North America sounds pretty nice to me. With so many other top teams in Germany, I’m also seeing a trend towards the NHL style.
what do you mean by that?
On the ice, it’s all about checking the mortgage, the game is very physical. I was surprised at first because the ice here is bigger than it is in the NHL. I didn’t think it was possible to keep playing physically. Of course, this is also due to the large number of North American players here – all of them have internalized this way of playing since childhood. This culture personally made it easier for me to move to Germany.
“The great atmosphere was one of the reasons for moving to Berlin”
And what differences did you notice in fan cultures?
Very big differences! Here in Germany, I am very impressed with the lively fans who created such a great atmosphere in the halls. This was also a reason for me to move to Berlin – I noticed this when I came to Germany for international matches. Before closing, there were 12,000 spectators, almost every match, which is a lot.
Is it higher here than it is in the NHL?
Sure, this North American fan culture doesn’t exist like that. Of course there is also cheering, but people don’t come into the hall with drums. During the playoffs, 15,000 came to the arenas, but not as regularly as here. It was very different in Canada. I think the fans out there know a lot about the sport. You come to the arena, sit down, and pay close attention to what is happening on the ice.
How is it in your home country? What is the importance and status of ice hockey in Denmark?
Similar to Germany, football is Denmark’s largest sport. I also think that handball is second only to ice hockey. Unlike ten or 15 years ago, the Ice Hockey League no longer had the financial means to sign the best players from abroad. Now, however, a salary cap has been fixed, sending the league back into action once again. This year, three of the top four teams were eliminated in the first playoff round.
“It was the last chance for the Olympics”
A dream came true this year when you competed in the Tokyo Olympics for the Danish ice hockey team. How do you look back at the tournament?
Yes, it was actually a dream come true for me. It was my first time at the Olympics and a great moment when we finally qualified after all these years. The Olympic Games are unique. They reach a much larger audience than other leagues because people who don’t usually watch hockey are sitting in front of the TV and watching the matches. Even the NHL Stanley Cup Finals are ultimately watched only by hockey fans, so doing the Olympics is something completely different, it seems the whole world is watching. The Olympics have always been a big goal for me and I knew this year would be my last chance.
This sounds like a great experience for someone in your career.
Yes that was it. Everything was at stake before the final match of the qualifiers. I knew, I would either stop, or make my dream come true. I was over the moon when we won the match.
How did you fight the tournament in light of the difficult political omens?
We all knew it wasn’t going to be an ordinary Olympics. Boycotting games was out of the question for us. I think our situation was similar to that of footballers who now go to Qatar: they are not responsible for awarding championships in these countries either. All the Olympians have worked very hard for four years to compete. No one should forget that.
Games with almost no spectators and strict segregation rules between competitions can also be difficult for you. How did the athletes deal with the epidemiological situation during the Games?
We haven’t seen the Olympics as usual – and as they should be. But we were relatively free to move around the athletes bubble, and look at other competitions, as long as we followed the rules. The athletes themselves were very careful, isolation was a nightmare and no one wanted to get injured. Of course we couldn’t do any sightseeing trips, but in general I would have guessed it would be worse beforehand.
The polar bears go to the playoffs as the best player
I came back to Eisbären after the Olympics and played the second half of the season. Now you and your team are the favorites for the playoffs. How do you prepare for this crucial end of the season?
Thanks to our consistent performance this season, we qualified for the finals early and were able to rest some players, which is an advantage for us. We’ve both been physically prepared to give it our all and struggle on the ice because the playoffs are more intense and demanding than the regular season matches. For me as a player, the hockey game is the greatest thing and I look forward to every game.
Interviewed by Vincent Bosch.
“Internet nerd. Avid student. Zombie guru. Tv enthusiast. Coffee advocate. Social media expert. Music geek. Professional food maven. Thinker. Troublemaker.”