Iceland has more to offer than football and handball, an activity that actually makes use of, you know, ice
On the shortest day of the year, the women’s hockey team from the Reykjavík suburb of Grafarvogur are on a long journey north. They go by the name Björninn (“The Bear”) and they’re driving 386 kilometres to play the Akureyri women’s team, one of two teams they can compete with in the entire country.
Björninn formed in 1998 at Laugardalur, Reykjavík’s sole ice rink. A few women, two of whom had been playing on the Reykjavík men’s team, scouted open skate nights for women that could complete a team. “If they could skate, we invited them to try ice hockey,” says Flosrún Jóhannesdóttir, who has been with the team since the beginning.
Chicks With Sticks
While another women’s team, SR Reykjavík, formed to compete against Björninn, rink space wasn’t growing as fast as the demand to use it and practices were becoming more limited. For Ingibjörg Hjartardóttir, who started with Björninn in 1999 at 15, practicing late was tough with school the next morning. “Sometimes we wouldn’t be able to practice until 11:00 [p.m.],” she says, “but you did it because you loved it.”
When the Egilshöll ice rink was built in Grafarvogur, Björninn left Reykjavík behind and moved the team out there, fifteen minutes from Laugardalur.
“Moving Björninn to Egilshöll meant better ice times,” Flosrún says. It also meant becoming a better team than SR Reykjavík. Björninn started practicing three to four times per week and in 2005, when the Women’s National Team (The Iceland Falcons) was formed, several of Björninn’s players were recruited to it.
Today, eight women from Björninn also play for the National team, including Flosrún who has played in two world championships for the Denmark Women’s National Ice Hockey Team.
Despite experienced players like Flosrún and Ingibjörg, many of the Björninn women have only been playing for the last three to five years, as hockey has gotten little —but growing— exposure. One of the players from Björninn found the team when she heard it mentioned on the radio a few years ago.
The full Björninn roster is twenty-or-so women who range in age from 17-years-old to their mid-30s. Not all of them make it to the games in Akureyri, which can occur several times in one week during the playoff season, but there are always enough on the ice to avoid forfeiting games.
Taking On Akureyri
The Akureyri team, which was first to get started, is the best one. It had the great fortune of getting Canadian Sarah Smiley, who came to Akureyri eight years ago to coach and play for the Iceland Women’s National team.
Smiley’s arrival can be traced to the influx of women in northern Iceland on skates with hockey sticks in hand. Today, she is also the director of Women’s Hockey Development in Iceland, and as of 2011, there were 71 registered female ice hockey players in Iceland.
Today, Björninn are a fierce contender for Akureyri’s spot at the top, and the mixture of pre-game excitement and nerves speaks to the weight of this game in particular. Beating Akureyri on their rink isn’t common and it means that for the next game, Akureyri will have to play in Reykjavík.
At the Akureyri Ice Arena, the men’s team plays first, ending in overtime and a shootout in which a player from Grafarvogur nixed the team’s efforts by skating speedily towards the goalie, stopping abruptly and illegally spraying him with ice.
The women play shortly after and, quite shamelessly, the Arena charges entry to the men’s games but not the women’s. In an ideal world, this would supposedly make the women’s games more inclusive. Regardless, the men’s game only has about ten more patrons than the women’s fifteen or so.
The game does not build-up slowly, but explodes and within the first five minutes, both teams have scored goals. The Akureyri players are fast and skilful, setting up well-orchestrated passes and calculated strikes on the net.
But Björninn plays like a team that drove six hours to beat the best team in Iceland. They’re bold, taking risks and skating wildly at the net, shooting at every opportunity without reservation. Björninn wins four to three, but Akureyri put up a fight. By the end of the game, Björninn goalie Guðlaug Ingibjörg Þorsteinsdóttir has defended 35-shots-on-goal.
Small crowds and the small number of teams are likely to change as local media slowly pull their collective heads out of the narrow ass of football and handball coverage.
Hockey, women’s in particular, is likely to receive far more mention over the next year, starting April 24–30, when Reykjavík hosts the qualifying games for the Division II International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Women’s World Championship.
Read more about female sport in Iceland: