Hockey Under the (Almost) Midnight Sun May 29, 2013

Akureyri, Iceland.

Our two Toronto women’s recreational hockey teams arrived in northern Akureyri almost two weeks ago to play Icelandic women in a tournament close to the midnight sun.

On Highway One approaching Akuyeyri

On Highway One approaching Akuyeyri

Sunset, maybe 11 pm. Sunrise around 3: 30 a.m., with bright twilight in between, as I can guarantee after my way home well past midnight from those necessary dissections of the day’s events.

The Dame Gretzkys from Chesswood Arena in north Toronto have been playing together for eight years. My team, the Ice Caps, was thrown together from among skaters from elsewhere who thought it would be a hoot to play hockey in Iceland.

It was, and I’ve got the bruises to prove it.

We landed in Keflavik airport outside Reyjavik on May 16, then drove for the better part of the day northeast to Akureyri amid rounded, sculpted-looking mountains still topped with snow. It’s been a late spring in Iceland, and the temperature hovered around seven degrees, rising to 14 as the weather warmed during our stay in the north.

Arriving in Akureyri, courtesy of our bus driver, Steini, we dropped our hockey bags at the rink, marvelling at its excellence.

Picture an Olympic-sized ice surface in a town of 18,000 people—one of three rinks in Iceland. The ceiling vaults above the ice

The rink at Akureyri, Iceland

The rink at Akureyri, Iceland

in high arched wooden beams that make it look like an upturned fishing boat. The ice itself is marked with circles and lines for curling as well as hockey (which can get a little confusing on the off-sides).

Our two Canadian teams would share a dressing room, where we were told we could leave our equipment between games. It was an increasingly-pungent dressing room, even before taking into account the packages of dried, fermented shark snacks the Icelandic women later gave us as a welcome to their remarkably beautiful country.

We brought them pucks and water bottles and shot glasses. They presented us with the dried fish, skin creams, licorice, chocolate and vials of ash from the famous eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2012, which shut down European air space.

Our Icelandic competitors giving us swag

Our Icelandic competitors giving us swag

One Icelandic team member told us how she drove outside Reykjavik to fetch some ash for us as a souvenir, following a whirlwind in the distance, and opening her car door on a swirl of grit that filled her hair.

 

The two driving forces behind the hockey tournament were Sarah Smiley in Iceland and Deirdre Norman of Toronto, who runs The Women of Winter hockey program and website (www.thewomenofwinter.com), and was my wonderful partner on the Ice Caps defence.

Sarah is a Canadian with dual Icelandic citizenship—a former player for the elite Montreal Axion of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. She now manages the Icelandic national team and is the country’s Director of Women’s Hockey Development. Wearing the latter hat, Sarah helped organized the tournament to give Icelandic women a chance to play with more teams than they usually meet with.

That first evening, Sarah met us in our Akureyri hotel, a place of clean lines and Scandinavian blond furniture. A remarkably

Sarah Smiley, driving force behind women's hockey in Iceland

Sarah Smiley, driving force behind women’s hockey in Iceland

open, energetic and upbeat woman, instantly adorable, Sarah told us she’d answered an ad for the development job eight years ago spending a year playing hockey in Australia.

She’d been delighted to get the gig, even after learning she was the only person to apply. By then she had fallen in love with

Iceland (as she later would with an Icelander) and she’s spent the past eight years building Icelandic women’s hockey teams at all levels: competitive, recreational and children’s.

Among those we played was an extraordinarily talented 11-year-old girl elevated to the teenage team. A blur on the ice heading by.

Our time in Akureyri was a mixture of hockey and sightseeing: whale and puffin-watching one day in Husavik, an hour’s drive away, and another day spent touring mudpots and geothermal eruptions, visiting the falls of Goðafoss and walking to Lake Myvatn, one of the great birding sites in the world.

Iceland boasts some of the most  beautiful waterfalls I have ever seen, though I’ve always loved Bridal Veil Falls outside Vancouver. Goðafoss roars down like a small Niagara: the falls of the gods. Around the year 1000 C.E., Icelandic Lawspeaker Þorgeir Þorkelsson Ljósvetningagoði of the country’s parliament threw his old Norse idols into the falls after decreeing that the country would be Christian, and the name has been passed down for a millenium.

Around Goðafoss, the snow was only slowly receding, revealing blueberry and blackberry plants growing low to the ground, and outcroppings of jagged black lava. A pair of rock ptarmigan flitted between them, still in their white winter plumage, the black eye stripe clearly visible through my binoculars.

Eruption of steam, near Lake Myvatn

Eruption of steam near Lake Myvatn

Hotsprings near Lake Myvatn

Hotsprings near Lake Myvatn

Geothermals next, where one of the hockey players—a chemical engineer—explained the mechanics of the water being held under pressure at more than 100 degrees C underground, then erupting into the air at precisely 100 degrees, since water can’t boil above that temperature in the open air. She identified sulphur and iron around the site, and the micro-organisms of different colours growing on the wet surface in a palette of great beauty.

After the mudpots, it was back on the bus to Lake Myvatn, famous for its midges, which feed the astonishing population of waterbirds. It was our good fortune to arrive when the lake was still half-frozen and there were no insects in sight. The late spring saved us from bundling up under layers of nets, free to hike the nearby trails down to the lake, where the ducks were

Lake Myvatn

Lake Myvatn

already arriving—including a beautiful pair of horned grebes—and snipe drummed through the air. Whooper swans filled the nearby fields and streams, and we watched a snoozing Great Northern Diver—otherwise known as a loon.

Both teams also spent an afternoon soaking at Myvatn’s geothermal spa, a smaller and far less touristy version of the Blue Lagoon outside Reykjavik, where the water is turquoise and the lava boulders bordering the site are black as the sand on some volcanic islands.

In Akureyri that evening, we dove into some of the town’s excellent food. Given Akureyri’s population of 18,000, you wouldn’t expect much in the way of cuisine. But Rub 23—which has a sister restaurant in Reykjavik—provides fresh fish and lamb, those Icelandic stap

les, morphed through international tropes into sushi and excellent chops. That’s also where a very polite Icelandic diner told our teams that the decibel level in the restaurant and had gone up considerably as soon as we arrived, and he would like to hear it go down.

Akureyri, 12:30 a.m.

Akureyri, 12:30 a.m.

“Keep quiet,” an obliging forward hollered across our two tables.

Hockey? The Dame Gretzkys were undefeated and took the tournament cup, while the Icelandic All-Stars beat the Canadian All-star team in the final game. Our Ice Caps team described by one of the organizers as “brave,” arriving in Iceland after only having played together twice. I’m happy to report we’d turned into a cohesive unit by the last game, when we held our opponents scoreless after an opening goal two minutes into the first period, and scored a fine goal of our own in the second (which unfortunately the refs failed to see).

We won, anyhow. Hockey in Akueyri, hiking and riding the huge swells of the North Atlantic just 70 kilometres below the Arctic Circle. Constant light, porpoises in the harbour, minke and humpback whales off-shore. Ducks, barnacle geese and the pretty song of the redwing in the scrub.

Whale-watching boat, Husavik

Whale-watching boat, Husavik

Every reason to go back next year. And maybe take the cup ourselves.