In order to write his 2012 book 'The Gold Mine Effect,' Rasmus Ankersen travelled the world, living and training with elite athletes in Kenya, South Korea, Jamaica and beyond. His interest was in towns that disproportionately produced stars in the same sport. As it turns out, the native of Herning, Denmark missed one: His own hometown of 50,000 put five players into the NHL all around the same time - Frans Nielsen, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Nick Jensen, Frederik Andersen and Peter Regin.
"I played street hockey as a kid, but I never realized how crazy this story was," Ankersen told me. "The funny thing is I went around the world visiting all these places and wrote a book about it, then realized the most impressive of these stories was right on my doorstep in Herning."
Ankersen had been living in London after his book came out, where he got involved with the soccer team Brentford FC. He convinced the owner to buy a team in Herning, FC Midtjylland, and became chairman, helping the team to a Danish Super League title in his first year while also serving as director of football for Brentford.
As a follow-up to his book, Ankersen has now released a documentary, 'The Hockey Miracle in the Middle of Nowhere,' which puts a spotlight on Herning and the town's team, the Blue Fox.
Ankersen's film traces the roots of Herning's success back to the 1980s, when former star player Frits Neilsen (Frans' dad) became coach. Nielsen had noticed that Herning's players were trying to play too fancy and decided a culture change was needed: the team's new mantra was "Will beats skill," but the team would bring in plenty of skill, too.
The key to Herning's turnaround were three successive import players: American sniper Todd Bjorkstrand, punishing Canadian defenseman Dan Jensen and former NHL playmaker extraordinaire Petri Skriko. All three brought accountability on top of their individual skill sets and Herning began to dominate the Danish League, winning seven titles in nine years during the 1990s. Bjorkstrand broke 100 points three straight years, despite never playing more than 52 games.
With Herning going hockey-mad, a culture developed in town and soon the next generation was popping up: the sons of Nielsen, Bjorkstrand and Jensen all played for the Blue Fox before moving on to North America or other Europeans leagues, as did Regin. Andersen, a late bloomer in net, played for both Herning and Frederikshavn - but his father was also a goaltender for Herning before him.
Ankersen has a couple of theories in the documentary about why his hometown was able to punch above its weight in hockey, but the most compelling has to do with the environment fostered by Frits Neilsen and his famous imports.
"The main thing is the culture that developed – it became the hockey town," Ankersen said. "I always say, 'What if Usain Bolt had been born in the U.S.? He never would have been a sprinter, I think; he would have been a wide receiver in football, or maybe a basketball player because of his height. He became a sprinter because pretty much everyone who has athletic talent in Jamaica becomes a sprinter because there's such a culture for sprinting there. It's the same thing in Herning: hockey was the one and only thing, so anyone who showed the slightest bit of athletic talent would get dragged towards being a hockey player. You have to create this magnet of one thing and that's easier to do in a small town because there are fewer distractions."
The biggest challenge now for Denmark is growing its talent pool. The nation sits 11th in the IIHF women's rankings and 12th among the men, but the men's world junior team was relegated out of the world juniors in 2019 by Kazakhstan.
Like many smaller European hockey nations, the Danes must confront questions of development: is it better for teen players to stay at home, creating better competition for the whole cohort, or should they decamp for North America where they can get more elite competition for their individual games? Ankersen sees a delicate balance on the issue.
"I think, up to a certain age, it's much better to be a big fish in a small pond," he said. "But at some point you need to get out to the big pond. There are a lot of benefits (to staying home) because you get more opportunities and maybe play on two or three teams. Frans Nielsen for example, played on three different national teams in the same year."
Nielsen, Bjorkstrand and Andersen are still in the NHL today, along with fellow Danes such as Nikolaj Ehlers and Lars Eller. What will the next generation look like? That's the big question. But the answer probably will have at least something to do with Herning.
The Hockey Miracle in the Middle of Nowhere is now available on Vimeo.