Published December 1, 2006
Forget everything you think you know about Icelandic hockey.
For Icelanders this will mean accepting that hockey is at least fairly popular here (500 players and counting). For outsiders, know that what Disney’s 1994 film D2: The Mighty Ducks implied about Icelandic hockey was not exactly accurate. The vision presented of a Scandinavian hockey culture (played by some tall, silent, blond dudes) is probably more aptly illustrative of the situation in Finland, if anywhere. Iceland itself has been forced to overcome a series of obstacles imposed by its small population and rapidly changing climate conditions to build its emerging hockey culture. Iceland does not currently compete in the Junior Goodwill Games, against a team of American hoodlums or otherwise.
Icelandic hockey was born in Akureyri around the middle of the 20th century, and the northern city continues to pride itself on its locals’ skills with a puck. Originally played on frozen ponds and rivers in wintertime, unpredictable weather made practising difficult in the north and impossible in warmer areas of the country. By 1990 Iceland had built two outdoor artificial rinks. Though manmade ice was an improvement on previous “facilities,” Viðar Garðarsson, Chairman of Ice Hockey Iceland, told the Grapevine that melting still caused problems. Reykjavík’s rink “often looked more like a duck pond” than an ice rink.” Covers for the existing arenas in Akureyri and Reykjavík were constructed by 2000 and later, a third indoor rink was added in Reykjavík.
Since the creation of a national competitive league in 1991, Icelandic hockey culture´s rise has been perceptible. The national league is currently composed of three men’s teams – Skautafélag Akureyrar (SA) in Akureyri, and Skautafélag Reykjavíkur (SR) and Björninn in Reykjavík – and two women’s teams – SA and Björninn. While this bodes well for the international and domestic competition in years to come, a rising interest in hockey, and ice sports in general, has led to more logistical problems for current programmes.
Even with no speedskating to speak of, and curling still in its infancy (introduced in 1996 and only competitive for the past three years), ice-time at the nation’s rinks is booked solid. Between figure skating programmes and hockey’s junior and competitive leagues (many of whose male players cross-upwards through the three age divisions to play for multiple teams while they can) there is only barely enough time to fit everyone in. Considering that regular season games go untelevised and are barely attended by local press, the enthusiasm is impressive.
Icelandic hockey culture, as such, might be somewhat new domestically, but Icelanders have been competing in hockey abroad since the early 20th century. Icelandic emigrants to Canada attempted to gain entrance to the nation’s hockey teams. After being repeatedly denied, they formed the Winnipeg Falcons. The Falcons won the prestigious Allan Cup in 1920. Icelandic national team jerseys commemorate their Canadian hockey playing ancestors with a maple leaf and falcon crest. A native of Canada, new SR and Icelandic national team head coach Ed Maggiacomo brings the crest’s symbolism full circle.
Speaking with the Grapevine, Maggiacomo, former Danish women’s national team coach, said the schedule was tight. “Of course, you always want more ice… but people are pretty good about sharing with the national team.” Though ice-time is currently a logistical problem, it doesn’t appear to be a sensitive issue for those involved. Ice Hockey Iceland’s Chairman Viðar Garðarsson told the Grapevine that, though it is difficult to continue to build Iceland’s hockey enthusiasm without more space, he feels there is definitely a developing hockey culture here. Pausing for a moment after seeing his son send his second puck that week flying into a light fixture and showering the ice with glass, Garðarsson said that expansion in ice facilities will come. The process is slow, but growing local support for hockey will help, and eventually more ice will be available for Iceland’s athletes, he stated.
Maggiacomo isn’t the only Canadian with the Icelandic programme this year. Icelandic teams recruit foreign players for the regular competitive season. This year two Czech citizens, brothers, are playing for SR as well as one Canadian. When I asked Coach Maggiacomo if the relative shortage of players growing up in the sport in Iceland was a problem for the national men’s team recruitment he replied no, stating that every country’s programmes are different. “Some have big junior leagues and some don’t,” Maggiacomo explained. “It’s not a problem.”
When Coach Maggiacomo returned to the ice, his wife Carol told me he is training some of the older players to act as coaches to younger players. Teaching strategies of instruction in the sport of hockey could be his “legacy to leave behind,” as Carol put it, for hockey playing Icelanders down the road. Carol explained that the players brought in from abroad aren’t “super-star players… And the team is starting to see that… They’re here to help them improve.” Carol also commented on the idea of a hockey culture here in Iceland. “You’re instantly embraced by hockey people,” she told me, going on to say that even so far away from Canada she feels at home at the ice rink.
Last year was Maggiacomo’s first in Iceland. It was also the year that the Icelandic team hosted and won the Division III World Championships, competing against Turkey, Luxembourg, Armenia and Ireland. The championship brought “about 2,500 people, most of whom had never seen a game before,” Carol told me. Iceland’s win at that tournament earned them a spot in Division II for the 2007 event. I asked Coach Maggiacomo what Icelandic fans can expect from team Iceland this year. “We’re looking to stay in Division II,” he said, “and to get stronger” in the process.