Iceland’s late love for hockey

Polar circle island hopes to catch up and reach Division I

22.08.2010
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“Ó, guð vors lands! Ó, lands vors guð!“ The Icelandic players proudly sing their national anthem following a victory against China in the World Championship Division II. Photo: Irina Kivimäe

REYKJAVIK/AKUREYRI, Iceland – One could easily assume that a country named Iceland is predestined to be a hotspot for a sport often called ice hockey, but that’s not exactly the case, yet.

Although the island is larger than Ireland or Sicily, it is inhabited by little more than 300,000 people. Having a small population doesn’t necessarily mean no success in sports. At least, Iceland is a remarkable 13th in men’s handball, but that also means that this sport along with football is in the centre of attention on the sports pages of newspapers.

Hockey hasn’t been that much of a topic until recently, although the men’s national team has climbed to 38th in the newest IIHF World Ranking.

How can a cold country with the largest glacier between the Arctic and Antarctic circles not be better on ice, and how can it have most success in “summer sports”? It’s paradoxically the lack of ice. Icelanders don’t skate on their glaciers – most of them even live hours away from ice. And building ice rinks hasn’t been an option for a long period.

Iceland’s ice hockey age began in the ‘50s in the northern town of Akureyri. Locals played on frozen ponds and rivers, but due to the unpredictable weather it wasn’t that easy to organize hockey in Akureyri and even less so in the more populated South. The winters aren’t as freezing as in other parts of the same latitude such as Alaska or Siberia thanks to the Gulf Stream, but is more temperate, like in Central Europe.

It took until 1987 and 1990 that the first two artificial ice rinks were built in Reykjavik, the country’s capital, and Akureyri, which was the starting signal for organized hockey and for one of the world’s smallest national leagues. In 1997 and 2000, both rinks received a roof and a third indoor rink was built just outside Reykjavik. It was then when Iceland started competing with national teams in the World Championship program. (Yes, Team Iceland didn’t exist in reality when Disney gave the tall, blond, tough guys some credit in the second Mighty Ducks movie in 1994.)

The league included three teams last year with the ice skating clubs Skautafelag Akureyrar (14-time champion) and Skautafelag Reykjavikur (league champions five times), and Björninn Reykjavik – the “Bears”. The same three clubs also form the leagues in several junior categories and also of the women’s league that has been extended from two to three teams for the upcoming season.

Money plays no role in the league. “We’re all amateur players,” says Thorhallur Vidarsson, who works in a bar downtown Reykjavik, plays for Skautafelag Reykjavikur, and has also represented Iceland internationally. “We all have regular work or study. And we have to pay for our own equipment and the bus rides to road games.”

There have been some imports too, especially before the crisis that halved the value of the Icelandic currency. Daniel Kolar played third-division hockey at home in the Czech Republic and became the league’s scoring leader in Iceland. But these imports come for other work to Iceland and aren’t paid either by the teams.

Despite tough games and the challenge to make the national team, hockey has been a recreational sport for most players and the practices are seldom in full attendance. Only when players assemble for the national team before a World Championship tournament do they have a camp and a glimpse of professionalism.

It’s tough for all the teams to get ice time and it’s not unusual to practice in the morning or late night. But with stars in his eyes Thorhallur Vidarsson talks about positive trends. Like the fact that newspaper coverage has increased. And during the final series, which Akureyri won against Björninn in a packed arena with 1,500 fans, the Icelandic state television even broadcast the deciding game live for the first time in history. “It’s a milestone for us,” he says as awareness for the sport is growing among Icelanders.

The ratings were beyond imagination with a market share of 25 per cent for the first-ever game of the Icelandic league and the station is talking with Ice Hockey Iceland about extending the coverage for the new season.

Hockey is emerging in the country. The number of players has grown to almost 600, who bring the three busy rinks to their limit even if other ice sports are almost inexistent. It’s maybe not a huge number, but more than China, Croatia, and South Africa. And consider the small population. For each 512 inhabitants you have one registered hockey player in Iceland. The “hockey density” is not as good as in Canada (67) or Finland (85), but still better than in Slovakia (630), the U.S. (659), Norway (730) and many other top-division countries. Iceland is the seventh-most hockey-crazy country in the world if you want to go according to players-per-capita figures. And the enthusiastic hockey family in Iceland gets more and more a feeling of growth.

Foreign coaches bring their knowledge to the players. Ed Maggiacomo from Canada used to be the national team coach for several years until he was succeeded by Richard Tähtinen. Another Canadian, Sarah Smiley, is coaching the youth teams in Akureyri as well as the women’s national team.

Tähtinen was born in Stockholm as a kid of Finnish and Icelandic parents and came to the island to learn his mother’s language. But as it often happens in life, his stay was prolonged.

“I actually ended my career in Finland due to injury, but when I first skated in Reykjavik, the zamboni driver told me I must play for their team”, the former junior player of the Lahti Pelicans said. That’s what he did. He played for Skautafelag Reykjavikur and was later hired as a coach there and also coached the national team, first as an assistant, later as a head coach. And he met his fiancée along the way. Although next year he will focus on studying in the psychologist program and a new national team coach will be hired, he will continue to be involved with his club.

“Icelandic hockey is so small that it’s sometimes hard to understand certain things. You face questions as a coach you never faced before. You need more players to become leaders. But development is going on. It just needs more teams and competition,” Tähtinen said. “The World Championship was definitely the best time as a coach because the players are more dedicated, like professionals. It’s a better level of training and winning the bronze was a great achievement.”

Tähtinen describes the players as hard-working, with power and speed and they never give up. “That’s very Icelandic,” he said, although the team is missing experience. Some 17 out of 22 players that won the medal were below the age of 23.

Some young players also try to go abroad for better development. Some of them already started playing for the senior national team. Said Tähtinen: “We now have four juniors in Sweden, three players in the second Danish league, two in Norway’s U20 league and some that live in the U.S.”

The growing interest in ice hockey will also be seen on the ice when the season begins. The senior league gets a fourth team, the Vikings, a farm team of Skautafelag Akureyrar.

“I’m happy that the sport is growing,” said Vidar Gardarsson, the president of Ice Hockey Iceland. “Now we try to push communities to build new ice rinks.”

There were plans for two more rinks in the Greater Reykjavik Area in Hafnarfjördur and Kopavogur, but since the financial collapse of the country those projects are off the table.

Vidar Gardarsson got involved in hockey through his son Thorhallur Vidarsson and is still officiating games, too. With his involvement he’s not alone within the organization. “Many parents want to help hockey. Only the General Manager is paid, and all others are volunteers. We want to make the sport bigger and better,” said Gardarsson. “We want to become a top-three sport in Iceland. It has the potential to be one of the biggest sports in Iceland, but we need facilities. The sport is perfect for us. It’s fast, it’s fun, it has so much action, we just love the game and our mentality is good for ice hockey. Even Olafur Rafnsson (President of FIBA Europe and the Icelandic Olympic Committee) once told me he’s sure that ice hockey will be big in Iceland.”

Despite little prospect for new rinks at the moment, Gardarsson remains positive. Especially since the Icelandic national team won its first-ever medal in the World Championship Division II this year. They won the bronze thanks to victories against China, Israel and New Zealand.

“We started competing with the men’s national team in 1999 and have slowly, but gradually moved upwards,” Gardarsson said. “It was our goal to get away from the bottom. Our next goal is to move up to Division I in five years.”

Also the outgoing national team coach thinks playing in Division I against the likes of Great Britain and Ukraine is more than fiction. “Division I? Why not? We just need more teams and competition. Producing hockey players doesn’t depend on the nationality,” Tähtinen said.

Although it might take some more years to battle for promotion, the Icelanders will certainly not give up their ambitions while their sport is growing. Next year they will play in Division II Group B in Zagreb, Croatia, against Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, China and Ireland. Iceland will also host the World Women’s Championship Division IV in Reykjavik.

MARTIN MERK


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