Winning the NHL’s Stanley Cup is always about writing history.
In today’s NHL however, few Cup-winners can claim to be his nation’s first player to ever do so.
For Lars Eller, this has not only become a reality, but one he emphatically made possible by wrapping up his team’s 2018 Stanley-Cup championship run with the Series-winning goal.
With his closest family members in attendance on a hot June night in Las Vegas, and what seemed like half of his native Denmark following the action back home in the wee hours of the central European morning, a truly unique history was indeed written, capping off a career-best season and playoff run for the ages.For anyone following Alex Ovechkin or any of the Capitals on social media, the highlights of the Caps Stanley Cup celebrations have been festive so say the least.
But for the man who had written Danish history on that Cup-winning night, it was only a week ago, on 8th August, which was truly special. Eller, along with his new friend Stanley, got to share this incredible accomplishment with all those important people, and the community back home, that were there with him from the beginning.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in life trying to envision such a day as this one, but I didn’t know it’d be like this,” exclaimed an emphatic Eller to a crowd of press, family, and friends on the morning of the 8th. “It’s just fantastic to see all of you here today!”
And that’s exactly where he kicked off this special event: at a special location with family and friends, and a few members of primarily the local press.
Of course, he wasn’t entirely alone on this day. His Washington Capitals had a TV crew accompanying the Cup, collecting a number of pictures, interviews, and film clips of the day’s happenings. And naturally, wherever the Cup goes, so too does Hockey Hall of Fame Vice President Phil Pritchard. The “Keeper of the Cup” has already been to 26 countries thanks to his guardianship duties, but it didn’t decrease how special this day was as the Cup made its first official visit to Denmark.
“I’ve been to Denmark before, but never with the Stanley Cup, and well, it’s not very often that I’m the fattest guy in the room, but I certainly am today,” he explained in jest. “We’re looking forward to spending the day with Lars and everyone, seeing Danish culture and traditions first hand, and tasting the food and drink. Actually, we were handed “Gammel Dansk” as soon as we got off the plane, so we’re already doing ok.”
Some laughs were shared and the mood was set. Several hours were spent taking all sorts of pictures with the prized trophy while several handfuls of people raised the Cup in unison with Lars. There were a ton of smiles along the way and even a round of Scandinavia’s cherished backyard game of “Kubb”, with the Cup firmly planted as the hallowed King in the middle of the playing field. The Cup itself also played host to everything from Champagne to Danish culinary delicacies to the odd baby or two.
You’d have to think that the event, and the accomplishment itself, was enjoyed by hardly anyone more than Lars’ father Olaf, who himself was not only was a professional player in Denmark and suited up for his nation at eight different world championship tournaments, but who continues to serve Danish ice hockey as the coach of the nation’s U20 team, among others.
“Seeing Lars win the Cup was totally unbelievable. From round to round, we always thought it COULD happen, but still, once it did happen, it was just unbelievable. Tears were shed,” stated a very reflective and elated Mr. Eller. “I was very lucky to be in North America and witness it live. I saw the games in Washington, but then we had the great fortune to be treated by the Washington Capitals organization, which invited four members of every player’s family to fly out to Las Vegas to be there for Game 5. So, we were definitely in the right place at the right time.”
This allowed him to see Lars in the right place at the right time as well, as the younger Eller scored the game-winner that very night, something that didn’t really surprise the elder Eller.
“Interestingly, just for fun, I looked up some old articles back when Lars was drafted and the St. Louis organization described him has the type of player who has the ability get better and better when the games get more important. You can actually see this now when you look at his numbers. He’s played over 600 NHL games and comes in at roughly 0.3 points per game. But in these playoffs, he contributed at a clip of over 0.5 points per game and had a few very big game-winners along the way.”
Often Lars’ coach and mentor throughout the years, one could only imagine what was going through his mind in those moments of victory. “You know, I thought immediately of all the tough times Lars experienced on the way to winning that cup,” he explained.
“He was drafted by St. Louis and then broke his hand, missing 12 weeks, and well, St. Louis wasn’t ecstatic about that. It was hard learning experience for him. In the course of his next four seasons, he had two serious shoulder injuries, which set him back considerably at that time. They say that if you’re going to make it to the NHL and establish yourself, there’s going to be a price to pay.”
“He had three big setbacks along the way in his first five years of being an NHL prospect and player. So, like he’s said even here, he’s played with a lot of good players, many of whom are better than him, but he’s overcome adversity and paid the price that almost every champion has to pay. And he was willing to pay it. I had to think about just that when he and his teammates charged the ice in celebration.”
Olaf was accompanied in Vegas by Lars’ mother, wife, and brother Mads, who himself plays professional ice hockey in Denmark. After three seasons in North America, primarily playing in Canadian juniors, Mads headed back to his home club in Rodovre and is coming off his best season to date. For him, the moment was one that he won’t soon forget.
“It was absolutely amazing! Words can’t describe it. We were just so emotional and excited. There was just a lot of joy to go around. I was there in Las Vegas when it happened and it was so special to be there and a part of it together with our mom, dad, and Lars’ wife. I’m so glad we had that opportunity and think it meant a lot to him as well, that we could be there and witness that.”
Like just about any younger brother, Mads has looked up to Lars for many years now and followed his career intensely, watching him go from the St. Louis Blues to the Montreal Canadians and now flourishing with the Washington Capitals, noting that there were many thoughts along the way that make this accomplishment so very special.
“Naturally, every player hopes he ends up on a team that competes and were he can contribute. There have been some ups and downs over the years, especially in Montreal, but then again, there were times when the Canadians were very competitive as well. They made a run and almost got to the finals that year Carey Price got injured. So, Lars has been close before.”
“But going to Washington has been a good move for him. He’s settled down and can kind of relax a bit. He’s in a team where he has a set role and can go out and concentrate on his job every night. It’s a dream come true to come to a team like Washington, which has been competing seriously for years now and where you know there is that goal of excellence.”
“It’s different though, because when you’re a young kid coming from Denmark, you’re not really thinking “I’m going to win the Stanley Cup one day.” You may be thinking that if you really go far, you can maybe make it to the Swedish elite league or something like that. This achievement goes above and beyond anything a Dane has done before in the world of ice hockey.”
The intimate Cup-time activities soon gave way to a well-advertised public event. Once the clock struck 2 pm, Lars showed up at the town hall for the Copenhagen district of Rodovre, which also plays host for the ice rink and club where he spent his childhood. A lively crowd had gathered despite the mid-day timing of the event during the work week – a number of people watching out of the town hall office windows – and several stands were set up serving refreshments and selling sports paraphernalia. A number of jerseys and t-shirts representing the Capitals, Denmark, Lars Eller or basically all three could be seen throughout the crowd.
Mayor Erik Nielsen, who also played ice hockey and has been part of the local club’s supervisory board for many years, opened things up with a speech that led to rousing applause and led to a group singing a Danish folk song. That was followed by a hockey-based ask-and-tell presentation by one of Denmark’s most noticeable TV sports broadcasters as well as a speech held by Carla Sands, the USA’s ambassador to Denmark. Once the speeches were over, roughly a dozen raffle winners had the opportunity to head up onto the stage and take pictures together with Lars and the Cup.
For anyone watching from the outside, it was clear during this portion of the day’s event that what Lars had done was truly special and of immense importance for Danish ice hockey and indeed for the overall sports scene in Denmark.
“Lars winning that Cup means a heck of a lot,” his father explained. “It means that everyone in Denmark has had to pay a little more attention to the sport. It’s a huge achievement by a capable Danish athlete. It’s been a big year, because hosting the World Championships put the sport in a new light here in Denmark. Now the media has their focus on the ice hockey player Lars Eller. He has done something incredibly special. He’s not only the first Dane to win this ice hockey trophy, but the first Dane to win a major North American sports trophy. Now everyone has simply had to pay attention, so it’s a huge step for the sport in this country!”
Brother Mads could only add to that sentiment, further explaining how incredibly important this year has been for the sport of ice hockey in Denmark.
“Lars’ achievement is simply huge and you can tell for sure how big it’s become thanks to all the publicity and media coverage, much like you’re seeing today, what it’s done to shed light on the sport here. It’s a national achievement that hasn’t happened before. This has been a big year for us, hosting the World Championships and then Lars winning the Cup. Hopefully this will be the push the sport needs in order to build some more rinks and get some more young kids playing. We can already see the positive impact and see how the interest is growing and developing.”
“When we were first awarded the World Championship back in 2016, the media was already asking what that’s about and how great it was for the country. That was already a big step, because people here generally know about soccer and handball, but getting the World Championship had them informing themselves more about ice hockey. Then Lars won the cup and it has just been all over the media. People who didn’t really follow hockey are finally starting to talk about it. But it’s also being mentioned in the same breath with any great international achievement by a Danish athlete. It’s arguably the biggest international accomplishment by a Dane in our nation’s sports history.”
With the official ceremony at the town hall having concluded, Eller grabbed his daughter and the Cup, and jumped into an classic Buick with style, naturally featuring the same shade of red as the Danish flag, to lead a parade over to the local ice rink that his original club, the Rodovre Mighty Bulls, calls home. An even greater crowd awaited him there and Lars was given a hero’s welcome as exited the vehicle, headed up to a DJ’s stage, and hoisted the Cup in the air to crowd singing what appeared to be the club’s own special hymn.
The club’s (and other local club’s) various youth players and junior teams headed out for photos and handshakes with Lars and the Cup. One simply had to wonder if one or two of those kids would one day be hosting the Cup in Denmark as well.
The official part of the day’s celebration ended at the arena’s VIP Lounge, where roughly 250 people – largely with a hockey background – congregated with food and drink to share the Cup more intimately with their nation’s biggest ice hockey hero. A lot of the socializing took place with the state of Danish ice hockey and player development serving as a promising topic of discussion.
“This is just great seeing this young man win the Cup and bring it here to share with the kids and community,” said Morten Green, a retired forward who captained Team Denmark when Lars first made his way into the national team.
“I’ve moved into the business of being an agent and can say that we’ve got some good young men coming along who want to the achieve the exact same thing. Lars has showed them the way and it’s a path they want to follow on.”
In general, when looking at the achievements of Denmark’s U20 team in finding a way to remain among the world’s top 10 for the past four years as well as how many Danish juniors have been cutting their teeth in Swedish, Canadian or American junior leagues, the country justly has the right to be excited about the future.
“I must say that retaining the class has really been a huge achievement for us. That’s something we’re very proud of,” explained Olaf Eller, thinking with his coach’s hat on at this point.
“I can emphatically say that Lars is a role model for the young men I’m coaching. Our kids are looking beyond simply sticking around with the other boys and all of them have that dream of one day making the NHL. Through Lars and others, they’ve seen that it is possible. And now they’ve seen that it’s even possible to win the Stanley Cup.”
Coach Eller wasn’t bashful to talk about some of the young Danes he felt may be future NHLers and what else the ice hockey world has to expect from waves of future players.
“There’s a young man named Alexander True who signed with San Jose. I think he will make it. He has a big body and great character. He can take on the role asked of him. Then there’s Joachim Blichfeld, who also has a big body and ironically, was drafted by San Jose. He will make it too. Then there’s one of the most highly skilled defensemen I’ve seen, another large-bodied player drafted by Detroit, Malte Setkov. He could break through and make it too. Jonas Rondbjerg, who was surely very in tune with this year’s final as he’s a Las Vegas prospect, certainly has a special set of skills, and he can make it too, even if it takes a bit of time.”
“I can also tell you that more players are coming. I’ve also been working as a coach for the U18 level and we’ve recently held a camp here in which we had a good group of boys who, at 15, 16, 17, are as good as Lars was when he was that age. Now, I can’t say if they’ll be as good as he is when they’re 10 years older, as that is certainly up to them. Ultimately, their character will have to show through at the right times, but the skill sets are there to go very far.”
Lars once again took to the podium to share some final words to the event.
“There are many people I’d like to thank for playing the role they did in making it possible for me to be in the NHL and ultimately win this trophy. There were many coaches and teammates in this club who contributed. They helped me not only become a capable ice hockey player, but also helped shape and develop me as a person.”
“But I also have to truly thank my father and mother for standing by me and supporting me the whole way. I couldn’t have done any this without the many sacrifices they made over the course of many years.”
“And then there’s the most important person in my life, someone who has been by my side through so much and in so many situations, having faced so many challenges in accompanying me through my career. She’s not only my inspiration, but also my best friend, my wife Julie.”
This was encountered with a round of applause, reminding visitors of an important aspect of a hockey player’s life that often goes forgotten. Being the wife of a professional hockey player surely has a number of perks, but requires an incredible readiness and ability to make sacrifices, especially when the money is on the line.
“It’s an interesting life and it’s a lot of fun when everything is perfect, and you don’t have any sick kids or family members that aren’t doing well. In our case, we have a 8-9 hour flight home if there should be any family emergencies or things we have to tend to here,” relayed Julie Eller in describing what it means to accompany a husband through his life as an NHLer. “I’d say that for the time we’ve been in North America, good 95% of it has been an incredible journey that we’ll always cherish, but 5% of the time, things have been hard. If a close relative has been sick or passes away, you can’t just be there to tend to them. I’d say that’s really the biggest challenge whatsoever.”
But when that Cup is won, it becomes quite a ride for the whole family.
“It’s hard to put it in words. When you enter the world of professional hockey, your husband’s job is first and foremost, and your world revolves around it. It plays the central role in our lives for the years in which he’s a pro player. And obviously, they all want to win. The biggest thing they can do is win. So when that actually happened, it was absolutely surreal.”
“As the playoffs went on, we kept talking it down. We wanted to take it all in, but with a grain of salt. Once they made the finals, we kept saying that that alone is an amazing thing and we’d always be able to look back at it as being something huge when his career is over. But then it suddenly happened… He was a champion after five games. We would have never have thought it’d have gone that fast.”
Lars was on course to become a free agent this summer, but decided to re-up with Washington for five years. This can be understood as a rather clear statement about not only the organization and, but the quality of life not only Lars, but also Julie and their child are experiencing.
“Oh, we love it. We felt at home the minute we became a part of the Washington Capitals organization and I think that’s one of the chief reasons Lars re-signed with the team before actually hitting free agency. We did not see the need to leave and explore other options.”
With a child now of schooling age, being content with the overall living situation is an absolute must in order to be able to concentrate on the work on the ice. And it’s not the type of consideration that Lars and his family are facing alone, which serves as a strong bonding point among the players.
“Oh, it definitely plays a big role,” furthers Julie. “Our daughter was beginning school and the team is, well, an awesome team. There’s always a good vibe. Everybody likes each other. There are lots of kids in the same age range. Re-signing and remaining a part of the Capitals’ organization was really just a no-brainer.”
Just like sharing the Cup with everyone back home was clearly a no-brainer for Lars Eller.
Sure, he could have chilled out at pool and held a little – or wilder – picnic party like some champions do when they have their day with the Cup. But he understandingly felt that this accomplishment meant too much to the people back home, the ice hockey community in Denmark, and everything the Danish Ice Hockey Union has been working so long and hard for.
And he was clearly happy that his day with the Cup – a truly long and eventful August 8th - had been spent in just this manner as he wrapped up the event, “Finally, I’d truly, truly like to thank everyone for coming out and sharing this day with me and our community. It’s been terrific and a day I’ll never forget!”