During the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A in Galati, a battling Icelandic team silenced an expectant home crowd of 2,600. Despite being emphatically outshot 21-41, Iceland blanked a Romanian national team full of professional players in their shock 2-0 victory.
“They were one of the best teams we have beaten. I remember we had played close games with them in the past at the World Championships. In Zagreb 2011 we were, for instance, leading before they came back to beat us,” said Andri Mikaelsson, who played as a centre on Iceland´s second line during that memorable victory played on 6 April 2017.
Since that spring evening in the Romanian port city of Galati, the twist of fortunes of the two national teams has been drastically different at World Championship level. While Romania has climbed up to compete in Division IA last spring, Iceland has plummeted to Division IIB.
This week, Iceland returns to Romanian for the Olympic Qualification. Three groups of the second out of four rounds take place this week. In Brasov, Romania will host Iceland, Israel and Kyrgyzstan between 12-15 December. The four teams will compete for the top spot with the group winner advancing to the third round played between 6-9 February 2020.
“It will be my first Olympic Qualification tournament so I am looking forward to it. We got a lot of rookies coming through and the team looks good,” said 20-year-old up-and-coming defenceman Sigurdur Thorsteinsson.
Playing their club hockey for Iceland’s reigning champions Skautafelag Akureyrar, Thorsteinsson and 29-year-old Mikaelsson are two generations of Icelandic national team players who played their part when Romania was beaten in their previous meeting in 2017. Upon their return to Southeast Europe, Iceland arrives at the Olympic qualification with a new-look team.
“During the last few years, we lost key players such as Emil Alengaard, Robin Hedstrom, Jonas Magnusson and Jon Gislasson, who have all gotten older. New players have been getting in and we now have a pretty young team,” said Mikaelsson.
Having made his debut for Iceland in 2009 in Novi Sad, Serbia, Mikaelsson is these days one of the seasoned veterans on the Iceland roster with many fond memories from playing in south-eastern Europe.
As a good skater with fine battling abilities, Mikaelsson was part of the Iceland roster that returned to Serbia and its capital Belgrade during the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A, when the Nordic nation finished with the silver medals behind Estonia.
“Our best result was that second place in Division IIA in Belgrade. I think we can get back up to that level again. Once the younger players get more experience, we will get better and get up once again. We also need more rinks and more teams. Then I think we will develop faster,” Mikaelsson said.
Aiming for a swift return to those former heady heights, one player Iceland harbours high hopes to lead with example is blueliner Thorsteinsson. With good vision and useful in offence with a lethal shot, he was only 16 during his previous visit to Romania suiting up for Iceland’s senior national team at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A.
“I was a rookie back then, so I didn´t get to play that much. But it was fun and exciting to be part of it all,” said Thorsteinsson, who singled out another teammate from Akureyri who so far played in 21 consecutive senior World Championships for his invaluable assistance. “The players took very good care of me, especially our captain Ingvar Jonsson, who has a lot of experience and is a very good player to learn from.”
Despite Ice Hockey Iceland formed as recently as 1992, the Nordic country has a proud ice hockey heritage stretching way back in time. Dating back to the Icelandic sagas a thousand years ago to the Winnipeg Falcons, a team founded by Icelandic emigrants in the Canadian province of Manitoba that later won gold for Canada at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium.
Mikaelsson, who so far skated in eleven straight senior World Championships previously, took part in the Olympic Qualification for PyeongChang 2018. Iceland then travelled to Valdemoro, Spain, with high expectations to upset the odds in November 2015. An opening day narrow defeat on penalty shots against Serbia was then followed up by a 3-5 loss against Spain before China was rolled over 11-3.
“I felt before travelling to Spain that we had a chance to win that Olympic Qualification tournament. The games were close, but it didn’t go so well for us,” recalled Mikaelsson as he now gets ready for his second tilt at the Olympic qualifiers this week and a welcomed break from the weekly grind of the domestic league.
“I just love playing for the national team in international tournaments against teams we have not played against before. In the Icelandic league, we play against the same three teams and the same players so often, so by now you’d even know their mothers’ names,” he said.
The second round of the Olympic Qualification starts today with the group in Brasov, Romania. Tomorrow the other two groups will start in Barcelona, Spain, and Sisak, Croatia. You can follow the games in our live ticker and for the games from Barcelona and Sisak you will find a live stream on the linked tournament page.