World junior darlings Denmark prepared to give it their all in quarterfinal game against Team Canada

World junior darlings Denmark prepared to give it their all in quarterfinal game against Team Canada

Prior to coming to North America for the world junior championship, Denmark's George Sorensen had played in a total of two games.

With his hometown team in the top Danish league, the Herning Blue Fox, the 19-year-old is the backup goaltender. Since he doesn't get a lot of work, he has to make the most of the few chances he gets. There was the World Jr. A Challenge in Kindersley, Sask., in the week leading up to the world junior championship, where Sorensen helped Denmark claim silver.

Here in Toronto at the world's premiere junior tournament, Sorensen has received his biggest opportunity to date and he has quickly become a fan favourite by backstopping the unlikely Danes to a quarterfinal berth.

"It has been more than excellent," said head coach Olaf Eller of Sorensen's play. "He has been exactly the guy who has kept us in games. It has been terrific what he's been doing for us."

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The Danes qualified for the tournament by winning the Group A Division I final last year in Poland. Up until this point, Denmark had only been to the tournament's top tier twice and both times they were quickly relegated.

This time they have a cadre of elite players from the Canadian Hockey League – including Nikolaj Ehlers, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Mads Eller, Mikkel Aagaard and Sonny Hertzberg. But on a team featuring top NHL draft picks like Ehlers and Bjorkstrand, the improbable hero of the group has been the little-known Sorensen.

Members of Team Denmark celebrate their shootout win over Switzerland during preliminary round hockey action at the IIHF World Junior Championships in Toronto on Tuesday, December 30, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese
Members of Team Denmark celebrate their shootout win over Switzerland during preliminary round hockey action at the IIHF World Junior Championships in Toronto on Tuesday, December 30, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

"He gives us confidence in knowing that we can play our game," said Ehlers, a first-round pick of the Winnipeg Jets. "We know that he’s going to be on top of his game every single time. He's an amazing goalie and an amazing guy off the ice. He plays his best every single game and he works hard to keep us in the game.

"We have a good team, but he's one of the big reasons that we even made it this far."

Listed at a very generous 5-foot-10 and 165-pounds, he isn't exactly what most people picture a world-class goaltender to look like, but he gets the job done. Over the course of his career, the 19-year-old has represented Denmark internationally at almost every level, including one game with the national men's team.

"He's had to compensate for his size," said Hertzberg, a defenceman with the OHL's Oshawa Generals. "He has to think about things that no one else thinks about because he has to be smart. He has to position himself in other ways because he's that small."

Ehlers believes that shooters can be deceived into thinking Sorensen is an easy target because he is so compact in the net.

"Every player wants to shoot high on him," said Ehlers. "But the way he plays it makes it hard on the players. Even in practice you go out there and you try to score and you get lucky if you get it in."

Sorensen was first introduced to hockey by his father, Erling, who was a security guard at the arena for the top team in Herning. It was there in the concourse that young George would watch and mimic the moves of the goalies.

"The coach saw me and asked if I wanted to play in goal," said Sorensen, who was then enrolled in the team's minor hockey program.

A few years later when star Herning goaltender, Kim Fonnsbech, made a surprise appearance at his birthday party, he was hooked for life.

"I was a little kid and he was my hero," said Sorensen. "He came to my party and he was my favourite player."

TORONTO, ON - DECEMBER 30: Forward Mikkel Aagaard #7 of Denmark celebrates a goal against Switzerland during the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship on December 30, 2014 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Dennis Pajot/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - DECEMBER 30: Forward Mikkel Aagaard #7 of Denmark celebrates a goal against Switzerland during the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship on December 30, 2014 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Dennis Pajot/Getty Images)

Sorensen and his teammates now have the opportunity to become heroes to a whole new generation of Danish hockey players.

Denmark’s run in the round-robin, where they picked up a point in every game save one, culminated with an historic 4-3 shootout win over Switzerland. It was the first time the Danes had ever won a game in the tournament's top-tier. Thanks to their popularity and success, one of the large TV channels in Denmark will be broadcasting their game against Canada in the quarterfinal on Friday. According to Danish general manager Ulrik Larsen, the success at the world juniors will help greatly when it comes time to get government funding for their hockey programs.

It's a big break for the country of 5.6 million people considering hockey has to fight with sports like soccer, handball, triathlon and badminton to get good athletes.

"I think for youngsters home in Denmark they can see that young guys in Denmark can play at a high level and compete on a high level," said Olaf Eller, whose sons Mads and NHLer Lars are among Denmarks top stars. "So hopefully it makes it even more interesting for young guys at home to start playing ice hockey - that's the main thing for us."

The underdog Danes have been the darlings of the tournament with many fans throwing their support behind the team in Group B. Having tens of thousands of fans cheering is a new experience for many of the players. The largest arena in Denmark - the Gigantium Ice Arena in Aalborg - only seats 5,000.

There were more than 13,000 on hand to see them beat the Swiss in the shootout.

"It's such a great feeling," said Sorensen of playing in front of the big crowds. "It's an enjoyment to be on the ice, every second, every moment to be in front of that many people who are chanting for us."

Against Canada, however, it'll be a different story. They know they won't have home ice advantage as far as crowd support goes. On Thursday, Eller met with the team to discuss how they would handle a loud, hostile crowd. He said it would be difficult, because they wouldn't truly know what it was like until they experienced it firsthand.

"Be prepared," Eller said he told his players. "It's a total different scenario; it's a total different game. We haven't played a game on that level before. We've played in relegation, but not against a home team who expect themselves to be the champions.

"So expect a scenario that is crazy."

TORONTO, ON - DECEMBER 30: Forawrd Oliver Bjorkstrand #27 of Denmark celebrates his shootout goal against Switzerland during the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship on December 30, 2014 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Dennis Pajot/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - DECEMBER 30: Forawrd Oliver Bjorkstrand #27 of Denmark celebrates his shootout goal against Switzerland during the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship on December 30, 2014 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Dennis Pajot/Getty Images)

David versus Goliath doesn’t even begin to describe the disparity between the two hockey countries. Still, there is a lot of familiarity between the two teams. Ehlers has played in Halifax with Canada's starting goalie Zach Fucale and he's already given his teammates a scouting report on the netminder.

"I had a talk with the guys and I talked a little bit about (Fucale)," said Ehlers. "But it's going to be a fun game playing against him... hopefully I'll score on (Fucale)."

Sorensen says he's watched a couple of Canada's games on TV and knows he's going up against a very deep, very talented group. One of his best friends is Bjorkstrand, who plays for the WHL's Portland Winterhawks. As a result, Sorensen says he's most familiar with Canadian forward Nic Petan, who also plays in Portland, because he's watched the Winterhawks on the Internet.

"They might be the best offensive team in this tournament," said Sorensen, of Team Canada. "We'll have to give all we got, all night, to just stay in the game against Canada because they are just a good team. We'll just have to fight our asses off to be in that game.

"We'll give it everything we got because we have to or it's going to be a difficult game."

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