Barracuda’s great Danes bidding for NHL duty

Photo: Kavin Mistry

by Nick Nollenberger | AHL On The Beat

There are just six active players in the NHL from Denmark. Of the 15 Danes that have reached the NHL in its history, four of them have played at some point with the Sharks: Mikkel Boedker (2016-18), Jannik Hansen (2016-18), and current San Jose Barracuda forwards Alexander True (2019-present) and Joachim Blichfeld (2019-present), who are trying to become the next crop of Danes to reach the NHL on a full-time basis.

Denmark is a country made up of only 6 million people, a far cry from True and Blichfeld’s current home in California that was estimated to have a population of 39.5 million in 2019.

For True, being able to represent the nation of Denmark is a huge point of pride.

“You want to represent your country anytime you can and it’s an honor to be able to do it. It feels good to have Denmark on the map, especially for the younger kids to have someone to look up to.”

True, 23, a native of Copenhagen, just surpassed 200 games in the American Hockey League with the Barracuda and earned his first NHL game action at the end of the 2019-20 season, appearing in 12 games with the Sharks while collecting four assists.

Blichfeld, 22, is a native of Frederikshavn, a city located four-and-a-half hours northeast of Copenhagen.

“Being from Denmark, it’s a small country, so it definitely feels good to be one of the few guys in the league,” said Blichfeld.

Blichfeld skated in three games for the Sharks in 2019-20. Both True and Blichfeld have appeared in two games each this season in the NHL.

So far this year, Blichfeld, who was the Barracuda’s only AHL All-Star in 2019-20 as a rookie, leads the team in goals (12) and points (22), while True is second in scoring (20) and first in assists (11).

In 2018, Denmark hosted the IIHF World Championship, a huge accomplishment for a nation still growing to love the game. Seven years prior, in 2011, Jannik Hansen became the first Dane to reach the Stanley Cup Final with the Vancouver Canucks.

True and Blichfeld first met before coming to San Jose, as they were opponents in the Western Hockey League.

Photo: Zak Krill

“We started playing against each other when I moved to Portland and he was playing for Seattle,” said Blichfeld. “So, that was fun, playing against another Danish guy so far from home and then we were together on the national team… so it’s been fun.”

The most notable international stage that both True and Blichfeld have represented Denmark was at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship in Montreal.

True has a connection to the NHL through his father Soren and his cousin Nikolaj Ehlers. Soren was drafted by the New York Rangers in 1986 and Ehlers is a perennial 20-goal scorer for the Winnipeg Jets.

Even with good family genes, True was a long shot to reach the NHL. He spent three seasons with Seattle in the WHL but went undrafted in 2015. Coming off a WHL championship in 2017, the Barracuda signed the 6-foot-5 center to an AHL deal before the 2017-18 campaign.

In his first year of pro, he played all 68 regular-season games with the Barracuda and led the team’s rookies in goals (15) and points (28). He then signed an entry-level contract with the Sharks that following summer.

“For me, growing up and playing hockey in Denmark, to begin with, it was all I knew, but we played a lot of tournaments in Sweden and there were some really good players in Sweden, so you kind of knew that hockey in Denmark was maybe not the best when you met some of those really good Swedish teams,” said True. “But it was a really good experience growing up playing hockey in Denmark. It’s different because you know everybody in your age group… in that way, it is kind of special, and different maybe from North America or Sweden where the hockey community is way bigger.”

Unlike True, Blichfeld was drafted, but with the second-to-last pick in the 2016 NHL Draft.

Photo: Kavin Mistry

In 2018, according to a Hockey News article, just 2.6 percent of the 644 skaters in the NHL were drafted in the seventh round. So, Blichfeld was not a shoo-in either to reach the world’s highest level.

Blichfeld could have turned pro before the 2018-19 season, but the Sharks thought it would be better for his development to go back to junior. He proceeded to earn WHL MVP honors as he led the league with 114 points (53 goals, 61 assists) with Portland.

Off the ice, True and Blichfeld are inseparable: best of friends, roommates, and each other’s biggest supporters. When Blichfeld received his first NHL recall last season, there was no one happier than True, who at the time had yet to play in the NHL despite being one of the Barracuda’s most consistent and effective players the prior two seasons.

“We talk about how nice it is to be living together. You can go home every day and talk stuff through in Danish,” said Blichfeld. “If something is wrong, we’re there for each other, so it helps a lot that we can be together.”

“We’ve been playing against each other for many years and playing together on national teams for many years and in many tournaments. We for sure have a bond through that, 100 percent,” said True.

Because of the NHL and AHL’s delayed start due to COVID-19, both True and Blichfeld had a chance to begin their 2020-21 season back home in Denmark.

“I would say the teams are getting better back home,” said Blichfeld. “It’s been a while since I’ve been able to see the junior teams play but I had a chance to play for my hometown team before I got here… It was a fun experience and I got to play with some good players and I was happy I got that chance to play there.”

True and Blichfeld have aspirations of playing in the NHL on a full-time basis, not just for themselves but for the next generation of young Danes hoping to reach the pinnacle of the sport.

They issued some advice on what they’d say to young Danes wanting to reach the NHL.

“First of all, just have fun, enjoy playing, and you have to work hard to make the most out of your potential,” said True. “Be a sponge, try to learn as much as possible, and get better every day. Try to learn as much as possible and ask lots of questions.”

“Just enjoy it and have fun,” said Blichfeld. “As long as you’re having fun and enjoying it, that’s the most important thing.”