“When I was 19, I met up with some girls that were living in the [school] dormitory where I was living,” said Gudbjartsdottir, who grew up playing a variety of sports. “They said, ‘well you’re a sports person... we were thinking of setting up a women’s hockey team with a club here in Akureyri, would you like to be with us?’ [Hockey] was just supposed to be keeping me in shape for football, but it ended up being me playing football in summer to be in shape for hockey.”
When Sarah Shantz-Smiley, a well-known figure in Iceland’s hockey community who grew up playing in Canada before representing Iceland at several World Championships, had to step down from coaching the U18 national team, she asked Gudbjartsdottir and Murphy to take the lead.
“It was an easy choice to say yes,” said Gudbjartsdottir, who is also the vice president of Ice Hockey Iceland. Murphy, who hails from South Africa, but has called Iceland home for the last decade, has represented both countries at the World Championship level, and has been coaching hockey since first moving to the Northern Hemisphere.
“Somehow I ended up always stepping up and coaching [my team in Reykjavik] when we needed a coach,” said Murphy, who now works with players across various age groups. “I just always end up helping people so I think it became a natural thing. But I’m still very much a player and love playing myself.”
With Gudbjartsdottir in Akureyri in the north, and Murphy in Reykjavik in the south (Iceland’s two hockey hotbeds), both have witnessed and been involved in the recent growth of women’s hockey at the high performance level.
“[The clubs and national team] were getting girls that had been practising from maybe three to six years old and they were faster, fitter, better skaters, with better puck handling, shooting,” said Gudbjartsdottir. “And they started going abroad, playing in Sweden and also in the States. That meant that we had more players that had more quality and all of a sudden we had 28 players to choose from [for the senior national team] instead of only 18 or 16 players.”
In part due to having more girls in each club that start at younger ages and stay in the game as they get older, Iceland has been able to form a U18 women’s program. They hosted a 4 Nations tournament with Spain, Poland and Great Britain in November, in which they lost to Poland and Spain and beat Great Britain 2-1 in a shootout. Now they will be tested by Spain and Australia in round robin play as they make their U18 Women’s World Championship debut at the Division II tournament in Istanbul starting tomorrow.
“It’s also going to be a big learning experience for a lot of the girls,” said Murphy. “And I think they’re going to do all they can to step up to the plate and show that they are worthy of being there.”
To say that Iceland has been successful on the international stage this season so far is an understatement. In April, the men’s team won World Championship gold for the first time since 2006, earning promotion to Division II Group A. In May, the women’s team also earned promotion to Division II Group A, winning World Championship gold for the first time since 2008.
“I think it’s a team that will be playing with their heart,” said Gudbjartsdottir of the roster lining up in Istanbul for the Division II U18 Women’s Worlds. “They will give it all. They are fighters and are strong. That’s always been a sign for the Icelandic team, we have strong players and we play hard.”
Note: Iceland will have its U18 women debut at the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship Division II in Istanbul. All games from the tournament can be watched live on IIHF.com on the tournament page on IIHF.com starting Monday.