By Richard Kelly
For a hockey goaltender trying to slug his way up the ladder and create an NCAA opportunity for himself, Emil Gransoe has faced more obstacles than most.
From having zero knowledge on how the North American hockey landscape works, to the critical steps of academics, the Topeka Pilots netminder could easily be a case study of exactly how difficult it is to forge a career.
But the 19-year-old native of Gentofte, Denmark – a suburb of Copenhagen – has stayed the course. Patience has certainly been a virtue for Gransoe, and he has finally found himself in a good place to showcase his skills.
Gransoe, at 5-11, 175 pounds, grew up like most other kids in Scandinavia and North America, idolizing Danish players making it to the NHL, early morning practices and lots of tough love from a multitude of coaches. But what has separated Gransoe from most other goalies is how he is wired. His reputation as being mentally bulletproof is well deserved, according to his coaches.
Gransoe has played for the Danish U18 and U20 National teams under coach Olaf Eller, the father of Washington Capitals forward Lars Eller, for the past three seasons. The Danish junior program has been on an upward swing for the past 5 years and plays in the A Group – amongst the world’s best junior countries.
“Emil has always been an extremely hard-working and dedicated player,” said Eller. “And he is very well-liked in the room. I think wherever he goes, he has the ability to win his teammates over, which is critical.”
New Topeka Pilots head coach Simon Watson echoed Eller’s thoughts.
“He’s a tough kid, mentally and physically,” said Watson. “He plays bigger than he is. His truest value as a goalie is his compete level. He doesn’t quit.”
Gransoe has played on the big stage in the World Juniors – Grand Forks, N.D., Toronto and Montreal – which has prepared him well for his final year of junior hockey and college hockey. Although playing against Canada, USA, Russia and other hockey powers, the Danish delegation always put up good fights and a few upsets along the way.
“You’ve got to remember,” said Pilots goalie coach Joe Clark, who spent a decade as a head coach in Scandinavia. “Denmark has less than 25 ice rinks in the entire country. The USA, Canada, Russia and many others have literally thousands. It speaks well of the Danish ice hockey culture to put a dozen or so players in the NHL with more to come.”
Whether Gransoe is part of that NHL lifeline is debatable, but he is planning on being a part of the NCAA picture next year.
“It all started at the U18 World Juniors in Grand Forks a few years ago,” said Gransoe, who will turn 20 at the end of September. “It was my first experience with hockey over here. We walked through that incredible arena at North Dakota, and I was hooked. From that point on, I wanted to play Division 1 college hockey.”
BUFFALO, NEW YORK – DECEMBER 26: Denmark’s Emil Gransoe #1 makes a save against USA’s Logan Brown #22 during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)
Later that summer, Gransoe and his father – Per Gransoe – got him signed up for a pair of USHL training camps. The first one was in Waterloo, followed later that week with a trip to the Omaha Lancers main camp.
That’s where Clark first saw Gransoe.
“It’s fairly rare to see Danish players over here, and with my background in Denmark, I searched out his dad just to introduce myself,” said Clark. “They weren’t sure of the plan ahead, so I gave them my card and told them if I could be of help, please give me a call.”
Sure enough, the call came. Gransoe had landed with a team in the Eastern Junior League, and that experience wasn’t for him.
“We didn’t have any room for a goalie in Topeka at the time, but I did offer him a spot as the 3rd goalie here,” said Clark. “He had an opportunity to get some coaching and simply train and maybe he’d get some games, but there were no guarantees. At least it would give him a feel for the NAHL.”
The following season Gransoe found himself with solid ice time with Topeka. He again took some beatings, but his work ethic never faded. And he gained more experience at the International level, competing at the World’s again.
“Playing on that stage has given me some experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything,” said Gransoe. “I feel confident in a lot of things. How to carry myself, and how to handle the pressure of playing on a stage like that. You have to prove yourself every minute.”
Gransoe could be a great story of how to persevere.
“His battle level is really high,” said Clark. “And his style reminds me a bit of Thomas Greiss. Not the biggest goalie in the world, but he finds a way.”
Clark, who most recently was the Midwest scout for the New York Islanders, is also part of the NHL goaltending group Net360 out of Kelowna, B.C., of which Greiss is a part of.
“Emil has the mindset you want in a goaltender,” said Clark, who also mentored Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck – another Net360 goalie – years ago in the NAHL. “He doesn’t quit on pucks, his practice habits are elite, he can take a beating, and can single-handedly win you games.”
Clark pointed to a game last year at the NAHL Showcase in Blaine, Minn., where Gransoe tossed up a 54-save shutout against one of the league’s best teams, Fairbanks.
“That was a great example of his abilities as a goaltender, both mentally and physically,” said Clark. “He knows all eyes are on him and he loved every minute. Hellebuyck was and is the exact same way.”
This season, with his team re-branded and a new head coach, Gransoe will again partner with 1999-born goalie Sam Metcalf and newcomer Henry Dennee, another 1999-born goalie.
“This is a very competitive position for us, which is exactly what we want,” said Watson. “We have confidence in our goaltending, for sure. They are experienced, and that means a great deal at this level.”
Gransoe said that having Metcalf and Dennee fighting for ice time is how it should be.
“It keeps me, personally, on my toes,” said Gransoe. “I know I can’t take a day off anyway, but Sam and I and Henry push each other. It will make us all better.”
Off the ice, Gransoe had to make up for a year-plus of taking high school courses online that didn’t translate well with NCAA standards. With the help of his father, however, he’s caught up and is scheduled to graduate next spring.
“We never had a clear picture of what was acceptable and what wasn’t,” said Gransoe. “So I’ve had to work a little extra hard on my academics to get caught up. I’m in good shape now.”
As Gransoe prepares for the NAHL Showcase this coming week in Minnesota, he is confident of his ability to catch an NCAA school’s eye.
“Any schools looking at him are going to get a guy that doesn’t quit,” said Watson. “He competes in practice, and you see that in his games as well. He doesn’t quit on any puck or any play.”