AKUREYRI, Iceland – It may be the country's second in terms of population, but as far as development of women's hockey is concerned, Akureyri is very much on the forefront in Iceland.
From sagas dating back a thousand years to that of a group of pioneering emigrants that formed the core of Canada's team winning Olympic gold at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Iceland's impact on ice hockey history goes back a long way.
In a more recent chapter, Iceland became a member of IIHF in May 1992 and being relative late bloomers of organized hockey helped by the strong historical position of women in Icelandic society, has got the women's and men's game out of the starting blocks on a more equal footing as they stand united for increased recognition and exposure of the game.
"Hockey itself is a very new sport in Iceland so we don’t get a lot of media coverage or sponsors so we really have to advertise ourselves if we want to get new players into the sport," said the captain of Iceland's women’s national team, Linda Bra Sveinsdottir.
25-year-old Sveinsdottir is based up in Akureyri, Iceland's second-largest urban area with a population of 18,000. A 390-kilometre drive on the ring road from the country's capital Reykjavik, this northern outpost housing one out of the three covered rinks in the country is in undisputed pole position when it comes to women's hockey.
Akureyri is today home of more than half the female players in Iceland and has two teams competing in the top division of the domestic women's championship. With participating numbers on a steady rise, it puts much of this success down to the diligent work of her Canadian head coach whom she worked with at both national and club team level.
"We have about 130 female players in Iceland right now. Sarah Smiley is the Head of Development for Women’s Hockey in Iceland and the work she has done is beyond amazing with the number of female players doubled or even tripled since she started her work here around 10 years ago and it’s still increasing," said Sveinsdottir.
The arrival of the 2015 IIHF World Girls' Ice Hockey Weekend offered another opportunity to further push ahead the promotion of the future of the women's game. In Akureyri it became a team-effort, on as well as off-ice as newcomers were welcomed to get acquainted to the game.
"All of our players on the women’s team were asked to come and help out so everybody had a job to do," said Sveinsdottir. The newbies were registered, offered to borrow any equipment needed before a two-hour session out on the ice ensued where they were split into groups with basic drills followed by playing matches against each other.
"Overall, I think there were about 60-70 girls on the ice and of those over 30 were new to the sport. Most of the new ones were around 10 years old but the youngest one was 4 while a few were around 20," she said of a day which concluded with various photo opportunities with the national team players before hot chocolate and cookies were served.
While the ice rink in Akureyri was bursting with activity, further south in the capital of Reykjavik, a Global Girls' Game was played as part of the 2015 IIHF World Girls' Ice Hockey Weekend. Team Blue stepped out on the ice against Team White held at the Egilsholl rink as a part of an adult recreational tournament that celebrates the wide variety of hockey on offer in Iceland.
"Our Global Girls' Game was an international game with players from Iceland and Canada playing in mixed teams. The youngest participant was 6 years and the oldest player was 57. We played it with a change on the whistle and we wanted to show the audience that hockey is for everyone," said Sveinsdottir about a game with a 2-1 win for Team Blue over Team White during a day which hopefully can help to bring more girls to the game in the capital region, which houses two out of three indoor rinks in the country.
"While Reykjavik has not come quite as far in the development the number of female players has been increasing there as well over the last years. It is a work in progress and we are hopeful that we will continue to increase the number of female players in Iceland over the next years," said Sveinsdottir, who more closer to her home in Akureyri can look back at a hectic weekend where it appears that quite a few of the girls taking part in the weekend festivities will come back for more.
"We could hear girls trying to persuade their parents to let them start practising hockey full time as they were leaving the rink so we hope we will have some new faces on our practices soon. Our next step now is to do a little follow up and send them an e-mail with a link to photos and basic information about practices with our club," said Sveinsdottir.