Espen Knutsen was aiming to be a role model for young hockey players in his native Norway when he joined the NHL's Anaheim Mighty Ducks for the 1997-98 season at the age of 25.
But Knutsen was also feeling the pressure from a nation of 4.5 million people who were willing him to succeed. Playing for the Djurgarden club in Stockholm, he'd finished second in scoring in the Swedish Elite League the previous season despite missing 11 games. Hartford had selected Knutsen in the 10th round of the 1990 NHL Entry Draft, but his rights were traded to Anaheim in 1996. Early in the 1997-98 campaign, he played on an all-European line with Finn Teemu Selanne and Swede Tomas Sandstrom, but he didn't adjust well to the more physical play of the NHL. Finally, after scoring just three goals in 19 NHL games, he was assigned to the Mighty Ducks' AHL affiliate in Cincinnati, Ohio. With only a one-year contract, he became a Group II restricted free agent at the end of the season and chose to re-sign with Djurgarden in Sweden.
Knutsen was the third Norwegian-trained player to play in the NHL. Bjorn Skaare had played one game for the Detroit Red Wings in the 1978-79 season and defenceman Anders Myrvold had played a total of 13 games for the Colorado Avalanche and Boston Bruins in the previous two seasons.
The slick playmaking center started to play the game at the age of six and later became a huge fan of Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers. Eventually he became too good for Norway after scoring 30 goals in 31 games for league champion Valerengen in the 1992-93 season at the age of 21. He became the glamour boy of Norwegian hockey after being named player of the year in 1994.
He recorded nine points at the 1990 World Junior Championship and was named his team's best player in five of seven games at the 1991 World Juniors.
An injury prevented him from playing in the 1993 World Championship. Because of his size, 5'11" and just 168 pounds, he was susceptible to being hit hard in the corners.
Knutsen signed with Djurgarden for the 1994-95 campaign while continuing to play for Norway at the World Championship tournaments at the end of the season. The 1994 Olympics was a minor disappointment for Knutsen. The Norwegian national team, playing in its own backyard in the town of Lillehammer, managed only one win in the Olympic tournament and finished second last.
Following two more trips to the World Championships (1996-1997), Knutsen became the first Norwegian ever to lead the Swedish Elite League in scoring during the 1999-2000 regular season. Then he signed with the NHL expansion Columbus Blue Jackets for the 2000-01 season and has finished in the top three in team scoring in his first two seasons with the team until injuries plagued him throughout the better part of the 2002-03 season.
After seeing limited action with the Blue Jackets in the early part of 2003-04, Knutsen opted to return overseas.