The two dressing room jokes about Vancouver Canucks winger Jannik Hansen are that if he had any hands at all, he'd be a 30-goal scorer, and that he is the best practice player on the team.
The latter is no accident, because when you're the 287th pick of the draft from a non-traditional hockey nation, you don't get to the NHL without busting your tail.
Hansen, the star of Vancouver's 1-0 victory over the Boston Bruins on Wednesday, never relents and treats every drill as though it were the Stanley Cup final. It's a good thing, too, because now he is playing in the real Cup final, the first Dane to do so.
The Canucks winger can't exactly regale anyone with memories of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier or the epic 1994 final between the Canucks and New York Rangers, because growing up in Herlev, Denmark, he had no lens into the NHL. His first exposure to hockey's Holy Grail came just five years ago, when he left home for the Western Hockey League's Portland Winter Hawks.
These days, however, Denmark is getting a glimpse of its native son, and in Game 1, the land of Hamlet saw him use his elite speed to generate scoring chances against the plodding Bruins. The 25-year-old also set up Raffi Torres's game-winning goal, after a heads-up play from Ryan Kesler, and he helped the Canucks kill six penalties.
His participation in the final "has created more attention [in Denmark]to it, and I know they are starting to show the games now," Hansen said. "It's definitely drawing attention."
And the attention is deserved.
After all, Denmark is an emerging hockey nation, which only got serious about player development when Hansen was an up-and-comer. This year, six Danes played in the NHL, including Lars Eller of the Montreal Canadiens and Frans Nielsen of the New York Islanders, who is turning into one of the better defensive forwards in the league.
About 10 years ago, the country imported coaches from Sweden, and began developing a stronger class of players. The result has been some first-round draft picks, such as Eller and Mikkel Boedker of the Phoenix Coyotes, and it should continue this year at the draft. Oshawa Generals forward Nicklas Jensen is expected to be selected in the opening round.
"You're seeing the fruit of that now," Hansen said. "I think you've just seen the start of this, because younger and younger players are leaving earlier than we did to test themselves and so on. They're definitely getting better."
Hansen, Torres and centre Maxim Lapierre have developed chemistry with their mix of size, speed, and fore-checking, and as Kesler noted after Game 1, when Vancouver's third line is clicking, the Canucks are a very difficult team to beat.
The line's aim is to create doubt in the minds of opposing defencemen, and get them to rush into silly decisions with the puck. That wasn't Hansen's dream role, because like many young players, he was once offensively oriented.
But when he joined Vancouver's farm team in 2006, teammate Mike Keane and coach Scott Arniel suggested he work on the defensive side of the puck and turn himself into a checker, because his hands weren't gifted enough to be a consistent NHL scorer. He heard the same thing from Canucks coach Alain Vigneault and general manager Mike Gillis in an exit meeting last year, and heeded their message to play more physically.
"If you want to play on a team that's competitive, and wants to play for the Cup, you have to fill whatever role is given to you," Hansen said. "You look at our lineup, there are only so many players who can play on the first and second line, and if you don't have the skill sets that they do, you've got to find a different way to contribute."