Icelander dreams big in Czechia
by Henrik Manninen|16 SEP 2022
Without the helmet: Johann Ragnarsson on the ice in Belgrade where Iceland competes at the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division II Group B.
photo: Ivica Veselinov
Most roads for a promising Icelandic player lead to its Nordic neighbours. Bucking this long-set trend is teenage goalkeeper Johann Ragnarsson, now carving out a career in Czechia.

“By becoming the first Icelandic player in the Czech Republic, I wanted to do something no Icelander had ever done before. The welcome I have received since arriving has been amazing with everyone supporting and helping me,” said Ragnarsson, who turned 19 yesterday and has high ambitions in his new home.

“The goal is to play hockey professionally, either in the top division or second division, so I hope to stay in the Czech Republic as long as I can.”

Ragnarsson achieved hero status following his displays on home ice last April. Iceland then won gold at the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group B and Ragnarsson was selected as the tournament´s best goalkeeper. In their final game against Belgium, the teenager wrote himself into Icelandic hockey folklore saving 44 shots in an epic 3-2 win against Belgium.

“It was a crazy game and I am still living from the highs of that. I played the best game of my career and the team had a really good game. We played at home and with the support we got from the stands, it was an amazing experience,” said Ragnarsson on his memories of playing an integral part in winning Iceland’s first gold medal at the men’s senior level since 2006.

Five months on, Ragnarsson is currently aiming to continue his rich vein of form for Iceland’s U20 national team as newcomers at the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division II Group B in Belgrade, Serbia. His progress of late is all down to a combination of hard work and making a bold leap into previously unknown territory for an Icelandic player.

“When the time was right for Johann to go abroad during the summer of 2021, we first looked at Sweden as an alternative. This has been the path for many Icelandic players. But a lot of them return home after four to eight months after hardly having played a game,” said his father Ragnar Johannsson, who supports the Icelandic U20 national team as equipment manager.

Instead, Czechia became the most enticing prospect, thanks to Miloslav Racansky, a Czech-born naturalized Icelandic national player and coach.

“I started coaching Johann at the age of 12-13 and he is a really friendly, responsible and humble kid. But I told him it was not going to be easy, not too many people speaking English and so on, but he wanted to do it. So I contacted my uncle who is working for the club I started playing with in Czech Republic,” said Racansky, currently the assistant coach of the Icelandic U20 national team.

With Covid-regulations once again making travel possible, Ragnarsson embarked on his Czech adventure in July 2021. Staying with Racansky’s parents, Ragnarsson soon found his feet in Vlasim, home of 11,000 people, where the common language at first was the town’s passion for hockey.

“I was 17 when I moved and at first it was a bit scary. I didn’t speak Czech, but everyone was so friendly. Hockey-wise, the first thing I noticed was the discipline around the team. You show up an hour before practice and when the coach is talking you sit there quietly. In Iceland these things are different. Of course, the speed and the quality of hockey are also different. Rytiri Vlasim, the team I started with, had a senior team playing in the fourth division, but the level was much higher than I had ever played in,” Ragnarsson said.

He gained valuable experience during the 2021/22 season as backup goalie for the senior team of Rytiri Vlasim and in rotation for a starting spot for the club’s junior team. Eager to continue to push himself upwards in his new environment, a successful try-out in March this year saw him being offered the position as starting goalie for SC Kolin’s U20 team for the 2022/23 season. Since then, the team’s relentless pre-season training regime and working daily with a goalie coach is different from Iceland and certainly paying off.

“Pre-season with SC Kolin included one week with four practices a day. But otherwise, we had two practices a day all summer. I can see why the coach decides to do this because when we played our pre-season games we looked really good,” said Ragnarsson as he outlines his highly set ambitions for this season.

“At first, my plan was first to go abroad. The second step was eventually moving to a better team and I made it happen. My goal now is to do the best I can for the junior team of SC Kolin, develop my game and hopefully make it to the senior team playing in the Czech second division, or at least practise with them. At the end of the season, Iceland’s national team will play at the World Championship Division II Group A in Madrid. Playing together with your childhood friends and representing my country is the highest goal and my time in the Czech Republic has helped me develop to get there,” said Ragnarsson.

Iceland’s men’s national team hit its peak in 2014 when finishing second behind Estonia at the World Championship Division II Group A. 17 players on that Icelandic roster had during one point of their careers skated in either Sweden, Finland, Denmark or Norway.

As far as recent results are concerned, Icelandic hockey once again appears to be on the way up. Both the men’s and the women’s national teams won gold last season. With Iceland’s hockey program now looking for continued progress, could Ragnarsson’s positive experiences help attract more Icelandic youngsters to opt for Czechia?

“In Johann, I can really see the improvement from his time in the Czech Republic. They have worked with him for one year and he is now stepping up the divisions, so I hope to bring over more Icelandic players to the Czech Republic. There are already two kids here on the U20 national team being interested,” said Racansky.

The 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division II Group B continues today and tomorrow. You can follow the games and watch them live and for free on the tournament page.
2022 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division II Group B