By: Kevin Kinghorn
The whispers were expected last year when coach Mike Williamson and his Portland Winterhawks drafted a lanky no-name from Denmark.
With a hockey history about as long and storied as most bus transfers, Denmark's hardly a place you'd go rooting around for new prospects.
Especially considering a kid with a Danish birth certificate has never suited up in the WHL's 40-year history, let alone starred on a Portland team thick with veterans.
"We went with him based on an agent's recommendation, and Vancouver's recommendation," admits Williamson. "Sometimes you have a line on guys and sometimes you're throwing a dart a little bit."
Call it a lucky toss.
Jannik Hansen, the Canucks' ninth-round pick in 2004, arranged his own flight to Portland for training camp this summer determined to open eyes.
"We felt a bit fortunate when Jannik showed up," says Williamson, who admits to being skeptical of a European from a country famous for sticky pastries and bronze mermaids. "He played more of a North American style right off the bat. I don't think we knew that coming in."
"We saw a lot of skill and hard work in training camp, but as soon as we got into games against other teams, we saw the competitive side rise to another level."
For the first time in his career, Hansen fought. It happened so fast the first time he says he didn't know he was in a fight till it was over.
"It was a big adjustment, but it's a thing I like," he said. "You can give your team some momentum when you're down, not like in Denmark."
It wasn't just the scraps that hurt. Hansen absorbed plenty of punishment in the opposition's crease, but when he wasn't flat on his back, he chipped in goals. He earned bloody noses and bruises along with the points, but most of all, he earned respect.
"It's what sets him apart from a lot of other Europeans and other players in the league," says Williamson.
"He's stuck up for his teammates and shown some frustration when the team wasn't playing well."
In the midst of a winter slump - coinciding with leading scorer Brandon Dubinsky missing 18 games with a knee injury - Williamson looked down his bench and his gazed landed squarely on Hansen.
"We had a lot of key injuries, and times in January and February when they were feeling the worst, we leaned on Jannik pretty hard. And he stepped up."
Hansen finished the year second only to Dubinsky in team scoring, and was the WHL's highest scoring rookie with 24 goals and 64 points in 64 games.
He was one of only two forwards to finish the season with a plus rating, and emphatically shook his 'soft' European tag.
"A lot of guys that you bring over from Europe are strictly skilled guys that you rely on to play on the power play and bring offense," says Williamson. "But when Jannik sets his mind to it, he can do anything because he's willing and able to compete physically."
Giving and taking lumps isn't Hansen's only game, just the surprising part.
Hansen grew up in Rodovre, just outside of Copenhagen. His father Bent, was a famous Danish hockey player and got Jannik started early.
A lack of competition meant Hansen played on two or three different teams in a season, and against much older kids. It not only helped him learn how to skate and pass at an elite level, but also how to compete.
"Maybe playing with an edge is something I've had to have," says Hansen. "I was thrown into a men's league at 16 years old. So I've always been matched against older and stronger players."
All the same, by draft day Hansen had yet to prove he could play in smaller North American rinks where it's harder to hide and where scabby knuckles are a by-product of the sport.
Despite moving as high as 41 among all European skaters in Central Scouting rankings, the Canucks scooped Hansen off the bottom of the draft-day floor with the 287th pick.
"Our amateur guys who watched him play in Denmark say he's a great skater with great hands," explains Stan Smyl, the Canucks' director of player development. "But you're taking a chance when players are playing in a country like Denmark. How competitive are they? How will they handle the physical part of the game? But he was so good over there and he's had so much experience at a very young age."
Hansen repaid Vancouver's faith the following season.
At 18 years old, Hansen averaged a point-a-game in the Danish Elite League and was the youngest player at the IIHF World Championships in Innsbruck, Austria last May.
"He's a lot more poised because he's had that experience," says Smyl. "Jannik doesn't take anything out there and he dishes as much as he takes. He competes hard. He's got a little bit of [Jarkko] Ruutu in him - but maybe he's got a bit more finish that Ruutu."
Hansen will not be a star like Markus Naslund. He will not have the clever flash of the Sedin Twins, nor the speed and tenacity of a Matt Cooke. But in his own way, along with players like Luc Bourdon and Alexander Edler, the Dane with the bull-dog appeal could bring long-sought depth to Vancouver's erratic farm system.
"He's really smart," says Smyl. "He knows the game. Coming from over there, you think he's going to be a little soft, but he's not. He's a very intelligent player and he's very reliable."
The mocking whispers about Portland's Danish gamble have long since ceased. The Winterhawks are locked in a first-round battle with the Seattle Thunderbirds.
Hansen is skating on the first line with Dubinsky, and is carrying more than just a Danish passport; he finds himself lugging the Winterhawks' Memorial Cup aspirations as well.
"We're only going to go as far as a handful of guys are going to take us," says Williamson, "and Jannik is one of those guys."