Unraveling how Lilli Friis-Hansen made history

Rensselaer’s Lilli Friis-Hansen ’22 will be representing her home country, Denmark, as a part of the country’s women’s hockey team's inaugural appearance at the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, China. Friis-Hansen has many accolades both at RPI and in her home country as a result of her success on the ice. In order to learn more about her experiences on and off the ice, I conducted an interview with Friis-Hansen on behalf of The Polytechnic.

Lilli Friis-Hansen grew up in a “mixed household” in Denmark with an American mother and Danish father. A product of the Danish public school system, Friis-Hansen states that the schools focused on “educating the citizen” beyond academics and concentrated on “social skills” and thinking of “the common good.” She also details the difference in having more independence at a young age. For example, Friis-Hansen recalls that “I used to bike to and from school, the two-mile bike each way by myself from when I was nine to ten years old.” In that same vein, Friis-Hansen tells me about the carefree days of childhood where she and her friends would bike to a local minimarket and figure out how much candy they could buy with all their coins.

Once Lilli Friis-Hansen found herself in America, she noticed many differences between the nation and Denmark. Her biggest adjustment was transitioning to “living in English,” but there were other facets regarding American food from portion sizes to the large variety available at grocery stores. Also, Friis-Hansen often had to remind herself that she shouldn’t be walking alone–especially at night–since she was used to Denmark being a very safe place.

When it comes to athletics, Friis-Hansen tried out a diverse amount of sports in her youth including badminton, horseback riding, soccer, tennis, swimming, and of course hockey, but when it became time to decide upon a sport, hockey “wasn’t a hard choice.” Her exposure to hockey began with her older brother’s best friend introducing both her and her brother to the sport. Although her older brother stuck around for only one season, Friis-Hansen “fell in love” with hockey and continued playing it on a boys' team. At the young age of 14, she was invited to training camps with Denmark's national team. From there stemmed the idea of playing collegiate hockey. According to Friis-Hansen, most Danish women do not play in Denmark's national league as the teams are “lopsided” and inconsistent; instead, most Danes look at international options to further their careers by either playing in Sweden or taking the college path by playing at an American institution.

In order to start her collegiate journey, Lilli Friis-Hansen originally visited Sweden, but found it difficult to be noticed. She also received some offers to “play a gap year in the U.S.,” but once she came into contact with the RPI coaches, everything fell into place. The idea of meshing Division 1 athletics along with strong academics was a no-brainer for Friis-Hansen. Despite her busy practice schedule, Lilli Friis-Hansen is involved on campus as a part of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee. When asked about who inspires her the most, Friis-Hansen credits the coaching staff and her teammates of both past and present, but her greatest inspiration is teammate and stallmate Lauren Severson (Gr). Severson’s passion and dedication to the game reminds Friis-Hansen why she loves playing hockey.

On the topic of favorite matches at Rensselaer, Friis-Hansen noted two from her freshman year. First was when RPI beat Cornell during the first round of playoffs to force a game three. The second game was her first Mayor’s Cup in which RPI defeated Union, and she sat with the trophy from the Times Union Center to the Houston Field House. Friis-Hansen feels as though she has grown tremendously both as an athlete and as a person from her experience at RPI. Regarding her skills on the ice, her game sense and fundamentals have strengthened. When it comes to character, she learned how to be a better leader, teammate, and friend, and COVID-19’s impact had “forced her to make tough decisions.” Overall, Friis-Hansen’s experience at RPI changed her as a person.

On top of being a hockey extraordinaire at Rensselaer, Lilli Friis-Hansen was also at the top of her game in Denmark. In 2017, Friis-Hansen was the captain of the inaugural U18 team at the IIHF U18 1B World Championships and continued to participate for all four years. Friis-Hansen appreciates the experience of an international tournament, and the socialization that came with it to build one’s network. She values the importance of the U18 team being established to help strengthen the national team. During the 2021 IIHF World Championships, the Danish women were eliminated in the preliminary round. Despite a lot of inconvenient and extenuating circumstances for the team, Friis-Hansen notes this a fantastic learning experience for the team to “make some fundamental internal changes within the team.” She credits these changes to why the team looked different and stronger entering Olympic qualification. During the final qualification tournament, Denmark beat both Italy and Austria, needing just one point to advance to the Olympics. After coming back from being down 2–0 against Germany, Denmark pushed the game into overtime, guaranteeing a point and a spot in Beijing. Friis-Hansen recounts the whirl of emotions after the match as “indescribable joy,” “disbelief,” and “a dream come true” with hugging and crying by team players. She even recalls the referee coming up to her after the match and asking if the team would be attending Olympics in which she shared their excitement.

Lilli Friis-Hansen is the first player from the women’s hockey program to play in the Olympics. She will start playing February 4, 2022, in her first match against China. To follow Friis-Hansen’s Olympic journey, click here to view the women’s ice hockey schedule.

Editor's Note: The article incorrectly referred to Severson as Friis-Hansen's "soulmate" rather than "stallmate." The Polytechnic apologizes for any confusion this may have caused.