An ironic lack of ice in Iceland let hockey long go unnoticed in the world of Icelandic sports. But thanks to a dedicated group of puck-handling enthusiasts, hockey is rapidly cross-checking its way into the national spotlight.
I admit it. Disney duped me. I saw D2: The Mighty Ducks in 1994 and walked away thinking that all Icelanders eat, sleep, and breathe hockey. So imagine my shock seventeen years later when I came to Reykjavík and learned that the locals weren’t casually playing hockey while skating to work. Perhaps my expectations were unrealistic, but nevertheless Iceland stands as the lone Scandinavian country where hockey is not widely followed by the public. While football and handball dominate the sports headlines, hockey is relegated to a small blurb at the end of the local sports page and rarely televised.
Most Icelanders pay no attention to hockey, but that’s not to say all. Small groups of hockey lovers have kept the sport alive for years. Organised clubs have been playing in Iceland since the 1940s. But in the last ten years, hockey in Iceland has gone from the hobby of a few to an emerging national pastime. Advancing any sport on a national level comes with challenges, and hockey is no exception. Iceland’s hockey organization, Ice Hockey Iceland, is taking on the task and finding success.
ACHIEVING A HIGHER LEVEL OF PLAY
I spoke with Viðar Garðarsson, president of Ice Hockey Iceland, at the Laugardalur Sports Centre. Viðar, like most Icelanders, never played hockey as a child, nor was he an avid follower. That changed when his son Þórhallur started playing nearly seventeen years ago. Hockey has since become a major part of Viðar’s life, as his son now plays for Skautafélag Reykjavíkur in the Icelandic league, and Viðar has gone from hockey dad to president of Ice Hockey Iceland. He now faces the challenges of improving the national team, expanding the domestic league, and promoting participation among young Icelanders.
Viðar acknowledges that hockey’s standing in the Icelandic world of sports is far from where he would like to see it, but that things are changing. “The hard fact of reality is that our playing level is nowhere close to expect to play top teams in US or Europe.” Nonetheless, Team Iceland is steadily improving its level of play. For years, Iceland fluctuated between Division III and Division II within the International Ice Hockey Federation, though now the team feels comfortable in their position in Division II. They cemented their spot last year with a bronze medal finish in their division tournament.
Despite the promotion, Iceland still faces some hurdles. The level of play in the lower divisions can be inconsistent, as was evident when Iceland suffered a 20-0 smackdown at the hands of Lithuania in 2002, or when Iceland delivered a massacre of their own in a 50-0 win over Armenia in 2006. Though increasing the overall skill level is certainly crucial, advancing the state of hockey in general is a war fought on many fronts.
MORE RINKS MEANS MORE PARTICIPATION
The state of hockey in Iceland has been making long strides since the establishment of the country’s first domestic league in 1991. The Icelandic hockey league is currently made up of three mens teams: Skautafélag Akureyrar, Skautafélag Reykjavíkur, and Björninn in Reykjavík, and two women’s teams: Skautafélag Akureyrar and Björninn. Upon its establishment, the league had only two outdoor rinks, upon which the presence of ice, and therefore the ability to practice, was entirely weather dependant.
All that changed in 1998, when Iceland built its first indoor skating rink. Since then, two additional indoor rinks have been added and the playing level in Iceland has progressed dramatically. However, more rinks are needed, Viðar says. As of now, hockey teams must compete with other sports for time on the ice, such as figure skating and curling, as well as public skating. So more ice means more time to for hockey practice.
One community in Egilsstaðir has taken on that challenge in a grass roots initiative. A group of hockey enthusiasts has come together to build their own rink with a plastic roof to shelter it from the rain and wind. With the new roof, Egilsstaðir is giving Iceland its newest hockey club, where Viðar is jetting off for the inauguration after our interview.
Getting more youngsters to take up the sport, or “widening the base” as Viðar puts it, is another important role in expansion efforts. From children to senior players, there are around 600 hockey players in Iceland, and from those you might get one or two who grow up to be truly gifted stars. Viðar compares Iceland’s hockey situation to that of handball, in which the national team ranks a remarkable 13th in the world. “If we had a pool of six or seven thousand kids, [as in handball] we would be playing in top ten!” he laughs. “And that is the long term goal.”
REACHING OUT TO THE PUBLIC
Viðar is also reaching out to the media, and in this aspect hockey has seen some surprising success. Local newspaper Morgunblaðið now includes reports on Icelandic league games, where there was nothing only four years ago. The most resounding indicator came last year when the state television station televised the Icelandic league’s championship game, unsure of how the ratings would play out. Viðar explains his amazement that the game scored 22 percent of the viewership, beating the top games in the English Premier League. “It was unbelievable! And even the TV station did not believe its own eyes!”
The strength of hockey’s emerging fan base can be seen in the consistent figures of live attendance. At most league games Viðar estimates between one hundred-fifty and three hundred spectators. Compare that to handball, which sees around twenty or thirty, and hockey seems to be really taking off. That dedication no doubt led to Iceland being chosen as host to the 2011 Women’s World Hockey Division IV Championship. As the spotlight begins to shine more and more on hockey, the media and the public are taking notice.
MOVING ON UP
The World Championship tournament (under 18, Division III) in Mexico City begins March 13, and Iceland’s Young Men’s National Team is on its way there. The winner of the tournament will move up to Division II. To do that, Team Iceland will have to defeat Israel, Ireland, South Africa, and Mexico. This tournament is especially important for Iceland, as they have recently struggled to secure their spot in Division II. They have made it there twice, but each time they have ended a season in last place, causing them to fall back into Div. III, as was the case last year. But Viðar thinks their chances are good. “We are always on the edge of Division II and Division III, so we have a definite possibility.”
With significant gains in facilities, participation, and media attention, it seems hockey’s continuing progress is inevitable. Viðar attributes the success so far primarily to the group of dedicated volunteers within Ice Hockey Iceland who give immeasurable amounts of time and effort for the betterment of the sport.
So where does the president of Ice Hockey Iceland see his programme in five years? “In the elevator, between first and second division.” He goes on to explain that he has faith in hockey because the sport seems to fit well with the mentality of Icelanders. “We like the speed. We like the action. We like the sport.” With all the success Icelandic hockey has seen in the last few years, it appears this elevator is only going up.
Update: Team Iceland Triumphs In Mexico