11:50 am: The hockey sense of Frans Nielsen may be second-to-none on the Islanders. He’s the team’s best defensive forward, one of its top playmakers, a well-rounded player at 26 years old when he’s just hitting his prime.
Then you meet his dad, and it all starts to make sense. Frits Nielsen coached professional hockey in Denmark for two decades. Today, he is a sports columnist and game analyst on television.
Frans Nielsen doesn’t just play like someone who has spent a lot of time at the rink. He practically was raised in one.
“Oh yeah,” said Frans. “After school, my friends would go straight to the rink where my father was coaching. We’d only leave when we absolutely had to.”
For 14 years, Frits Nielsen was the head coach of the Herning Blue Fox. When Frits played, Denmark boys didn’t dream of playing in the National Hockey League. Teams like the Blue Fox were the pinnacle.
The same held true for Frans, raised in Herning.
“Are you kidding? I idolized those guys,” he said. “As a kid, I dreamed about playing for Herning. Every guy who played for the Blue Fox was my idol.”
But their coach was simply Dad.
“Getting to spend so much time around the arena, getting all that extra time to skate and practice when the team wasn’t on the ice, I don’t have any doubt it was an advantage,” said Frans.
Frits is quick to point out that he never coached his sons – Frans of the Islanders, and his younger brother Simon, now a goalie in the Danish league. In his mind, Frans leaving home at age 16 to play against elite talent in Sweden was the ultimate education.
“I supported Frans like any father would, but I never coached him,” said Frits. “Give Frans and his coaches along the way all the credit.”
Scott Gordon, a hockey dad himself, knows Mr. Nielsen is just being humble.
“I’m sure Frans’ father being a coach has helped him,” said the Islanders head coach. “Anytime a young player gets to be around the rink a lot, they pick up stuff – even if it’s just through osmosis.”
Gordon grinned. “Whether they’re paying attention or not, kids pick up a lot,” he said. “I can tell you that I never once told my son, who’s a goalie, about ‘paddle down.’ But he hears me and the coaches here from being around the rink, and it becomes part of his game.”
His coaching whistle retired, Frits Nielsen is now a columnist on hockey and other sports for Herning Folkeblad, the hometown newspaper. He also serves as a studio analyst in Copenhagen and color commentator on Danish league games and international events like the World Championships. Mr. Nielsen has been in the broadcast booth for a few of Frans’ games at the Worlds, but stays away from Team Denmark’s locker room for pre-game preparation. As a former member of the national team himself, Frits knows how important the games are to his son. “He’s always let me be myself,” said Frans.
Frits returned to Denmark on a flight from JFK on Monday night, but not before watching one more Islanders practice, having a few laughs in the players’ lounge and Iceworks and saying a warm goodbye to his son’s teammates. His three-day venture on the Islanders’ charter for a pair of road games was his second Dads’ trip, but Mr. Nielsen hopes there are plenty more in his future.
“Incredible time,” he said. “Watching the games, everyone watching their sons, is the best part. Well, maybe, the afternoons on game-day, too. The players were getting their rest at the hotel, and all the dads would sit in the sun, have a lot of laughs, have a few drinks. I love going on those trips.”
For Frits Nielsen, it’s the least his son and the Islanders could do.
Notes: Despite his optimistic post yesterday on Twitter, Michael Grabner did not practice with the Islanders at Iceworks today. He will not make the trip, so Matt Martin will make his season debut with the big club. As he did yesterday, Martin skated (as per Katie Strang) on a line with Doug Weight and Nino Niederreiter.
After skating on his own the last two days, Rob Schremp participated in his first practice of the regular season with the Islanders.
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