DUNEDIN, New Zealand – It was different. Staying at the University of Otago students’ residence was a new experience for the Icelandic U20 team that currently competes at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division III.
All eight teams at the championships stayed together at two residential halls at the university campus.
“I like it,” assistant coach Emil Alengaard said. “It’s pretty charming and a beautiful place. I see no problem with it. It is always good to do something different. Our players like the single rooms instead of having two or three players in each hotel room. From a coaching point of view it’s much better.
“The biggest worry of the players just now is that the WiFi connection is not working. It’s a big issue for them. Our guys kept asking the university staff when the Wi Fi would come back on. There was one place on the campus where it worked and they congregated together there.”
Otherwise the tournament went smooth for the Icelanders. They beat Israel (3-0) and Chinese Taipei (7-2) while losing to China (4-1) to make the semi-finals where they’ll meet Turkey on Saturday.
South African head coach Marc Giot also liked the accommodation.
“It’s the first time we haven’t stayed at a hotel,” he said. “It’s a different dynamic and more homely for the teams,” he said. “The guys from different teams interacted with each other. There was no TV and it got them out of their rooms.”
The University of Otago opened in 1869 and is the oldest university in New Zealand. Six teams stayed at St Margaret’s College that was opened in 1914 and the other two teams at the more modern University College.
Iceland has 395 junior players but not all of them are capable playing international hockey.
“We can pick the team from 30 to 35 players,” head coach Magnus Blarand said. “The competition isn’t that big compared to Sweden. In this age group Sweden would have 1,500 players to choose from.”
He compared the domestic ice hockey league of Iceland and the Netherlands.
“They have a professional league in Holland. I wouldn’t consider the league in Iceland to be professional. It is much too low. Isolation is a problem for us.”
The Icelandic national league started in 1991 and now has six teams. The dominant club has been Skautafelag Akureyrar from Iceland’s northern city. There are imports but players who come to Iceland don’t move there to develop their game.
“If they come to Iceland it is for adventure,” Blarand said. “It is not to develop their game, become professional hockey players and make some money.”
The first indoor arena was built in 1997 and there are now three indoor rinks in the country. It would like to have more to develop the sport.
“They are talking about getting a new Olympic standard ice rink in Reykjavik but it is difficult because there is a lot of politics around the issue. We hope it will happen.”
Iceland was involved in the Olympic Qualification tournaments last year and this led to an interest in ice hockey being taken by the Iceland Olympic Committee.
“We were beaten in the first of the three qualification rounds needed to get to the real tournament,” Alengaard said. “We were very far off.”
While the Olympic Games may be a long way off at the moment for Icelandic hockey other sports have been given a spark of inspiration by the performances of the football team that reached the quarter-finals of last year’s European Championships.
“There is always the possibility but if you are realistic it’s probably going to take some time before we reach that standard,” Blarand said.
While it is important to get more ice rinks in Iceland the recruitment of players is also significant.
“Football in Iceland is by far the biggest sport, and the competition makes it hard to get into teams,” Alengaard said. “Ice hockey is low on the list of sports. It is weird because Iceland is more of a winter than a summer country so it should be easy to start playing hockey. But it is the total opposite.”
Blarand said that “there is not a lot of knowledge about ice hockey in Iceland. It is a lot easier for parents to buy some boots and shin pads for football.”
Another problem is that there is no organised coaching programme in Iceland.
“I was involved with the Olympic Committee coaching program in setting up a basic course for ice hockey,” Blarand said. “But where do we start? If we have really good coaches but no kids it’s no use but if you have a lot of kids but bad coaches they would drop out.”
The irony is that public skating on the ice is popular in Iceland.
“Parents go to the ice rink with kids on a Saturday evening to skate and listen to music,” Alengaard said.
While this is a good beginning it is also detrimental to the development of ice hockey because there are not enough ice rinks,” Alengaard said.
“We get ice time that is bad for us. Public skating gets the best times and sometimes we have to finish close to midnight. We are degraded. Getting ice time is a problem for us.”
Figure skating is bigger than ice hockey in Iceland and this also creates problems.
“The rinks need to be maintained and the public skating gets public money to maintain it,” Alengaard said.
The two biggest problems for Icelandic ice hockey are the geographic isolation and the lack of finance.
“A lot of players are pretty skilled but because there is no real competition they don’t get the real development they deserve.”
The memory of the 2012 Iceland team winning the under-20 Division III gold medal at Dunedin is still an inspiration for Icelandic hockey players.
There was a huge outpouring of emotion from the team when they won the gold medal.
“It meant a lot to them and it would be the same if we won this time,” Blarand said. “Yes it would get publicity in Iceland but I don’t think that 300,000 people would come and meet us at the airport as they did with the soccer team.”
The goal of the team is the same as in 2012.
“Our goal is to win every game,” Blarand said. “But we try not to focus too much on the result of the tournament.
“We are looking at the long term and want to do the right things in our games.”
Iceland won promotion at Dunedin in 2012 and it stayed in the higher grade until 2015 when it finished last. It finished fifth in the Division III last year.
Blarand, 41, played club hockey in Sweden as a goaltender before starting coaching in 2002. He has been Iceland’s head coach since 2015.
Alengaard, 29, played in 12 senior tournaments for Iceland and has scored a record 77 points. His mother is from Iceland but he grew up in Sweden. It is his first year as an assistant coach with the Icelandic U20 national team.
Ice hockey was first played in Iceland in 1950 on ponds and rivers and the country has been a member of the IIHF since 1992. It was beaten by Israel 11-0 in its first international in 1999.
The senior national team won the Division III in 2004 and 2006. Iceland’s best international ranking was 30th overall in 2014 when it finished runner-up in the Division II Group A.
The Dunedin Ice Stadium is the largest ice stadium in New Zealand with its Olympic size skating and ice hockey arena and an additional curling rink.
“It’s not the same standard that we have in Sweden but it compares well with Iceland,” Blarand said. “The ice quality is very good. When we went to practice at Mexico last year there was too much water on the rink.”
Alengaard summed up the goal of the Iceland team at the Dunedin championships.
“We want to make a statement that Icelandic hockey is going forward,” he said.
The eight-team tournament continues with the semi-finals and the placement games on Saturday. All games can be followed in the free live stream and live ticker here