New York Islanders center Frans Nielsen sat down to take part in an exclusive interview with XN Sports writer Sean Hartnett. In this one-on-one, Nielsen chats about growing up around hockey, his early years with the Isles, his passion for Manchester United, and his friendship with tennis ace Caroline Wozniacki.
Nielsen, 30, has played an integral role in the Metropolitan Division-leading Islanders’ 29-13-1 start. Since becoming an NHL regular in 2008, Nielsen has thrived as a two-way centerman and key special teams contributor.
History was made when Nielsen made his NHL debut on Jan. 6, 2007. He became the first Danish citizen to play in the NHL. Nielsen looked back fondly at his earliest hockey memories spent around his hometown team, Herning Blue Fox.
Frans was constantly around the team because his father, Frits, coached the team for 14 years.
“With my dad coaching in my hometown, I grew up in that environment,” Nielsen said. “I was definitely lucky. All of my idols were playing for the senior team. I got to be in the locker room every day and talk to them. It was special. I think you only get to do that if your dad is the coach.”
Nielsen would take the ice after the senior team finished practices. He basically had to be dragged off the ice. He’d take the ice with the desire of emulating his local heroes.
“Back then, it was tough to get NHL games on TV in Europe,” Nielsen said. “It was tough to follow it. I grew up watching all the players in the Danish league and the national team.”
Finnish forward Petri Skriko played nine NHL seasons before returning to Europe. Skriko played his final six seasons with the Blue Fox and helped the club capture four championships. He was twice named Metal Ligaen Player of the Year.
Nielsen credits Skriko for making a big impact on his path to the NHL. Skriko served as Nielsen’s first professional coach 2000-01. Nielsen was just 16 years old and playing alongside European veterans.
“I don’t know how they did it — but they signed him and he stayed there for six, seven years,” Nielsen said. “I got to watch a guy like that every day. He became my coach my first year when I made the senior team. If anyone knew what it took to get to the NHL, it was him. When I was 16, he told me — there’s 5,000 guys in the world that have the same talent as you in your age group. You have to work harder than everybody else. It’s up to you if you want to make it to the NHL. He helped me a lot.”
That hard-working nature has never left Nielsen. He constantly maximizes his talent through sheer hustle every time he takes the ice. Nielsen has also developed a reputation as a shootout specialist. His all-world backhand is incredibly difficult for goaltenders to stop. He remembers perfecting his shootout moves in minor-league Bridgeport.
“When I was in Bridgeport, the coaches down there worked with me,” Nielsen said. “It started there. We worked on it a lot. I’ve stayed with it for a lot of years now.”
Nielsen remembers how approachable the Isles veterans were in his first season in 2006-07. He remembers soaking up wisdom from big-name vets and the benefits of playing alongside them during his first playoff campaign.
“There were a lot of guys, we had some good leadership that year,” Nielsen said. “Bill Guerin, Chris Simon, Richard Park, Mike Sillinger. In my first year in 06-07, we made the playoffs. There were a lot of veteran characters you’d learn a lot from just from being around them. Those guys who’ve been in the lineup for a lot of years – they knew what it was all about.
“Sillinger was the kind of guy who helped my game by just being around him. He’s a guy who played the right way every night.”
Now a veteran himself, Nielsen is proud to wear the ‘A.’ He is proud to pass along advice to Isles youngsters, though he feels the best way to lead is by providing the right example.
“I’m not the biggest talker, but I always try to lead by example on the ice through hard work,” Nielsen said. “It’s a little bit like what Silly used to do for me. I always help guys out there and point out to them how to become a two-way player. If they come up to me, of course I’ll talk to them. I think it’s important to lead by example with the way you play.”
When Nielsen is away from the rink, he enjoys following English soccer giants Manchester United. Danish goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel was his idol.
“I love watching the Premier League,” Nielsen said. “Manchester United is my team. Back in ’92, I became a Man United fan. A lot of it had to do with Peter Schmeichel. He won the Euro Cup and then he signed with Manchester. It started from there. I remember Cantona too. He was amazing and had his collar flipped up. I remember Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole playing so well during the treble year of 1999.”
In 1999, Manchester United won the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League. Last season, the Red Devils fell from defending Premier League champions to seventh-place under the disastrous reign of David Moyes. Nielsen is encouraged by the progress under new head coach Louis van Gaal.
“It didn’t go too well for Manchester last year,” Nielsen said. “He’s a disciplinarian. They’ve been doing it a little different than normal, buying a lot of players. On paper, they definitely have a good team. Hopefully, they will be in the Champions League again next year and this will be the start for some more championships.”
Nielsen is friends with Danish tennis ace Caroline Wozniacki. The 24-year-old is ardent Liverpool supporter. She has warmed up at various WTA events wearing Liverpool jerseys.
“Caroline is a good friend of mine,” Nielsen said. “I always go and watch her at the U.S. Open. Yeah, I know she’s a big Liverpool fan. It was tough last year with Liverpool beating Manchester 3-0 at Old Trafford. I kind of kept it out of the conversations.”
Nielsen’s hero, Schmeichel helped usher in tremendous success for Manchester United. Nielsen is hoping to bring back the glory days for Isles fans through playoff success.