The Northern Lights Hockey Tournament – 5 November 1, 2014
Dawn in Reykjavik. Climbing on the bus to the Egilshöll arena, riding through empty streets at 7:30 on a Saturday morning, we pumped ourselves up for hockey—which was, after all, the reason we’d come to Iceland.
Our team, largely hailing from North Toronto, had trained with coach Ethan Rill in sessions at North Toronto Arena and my home rink, Bill Bolton. We’d also managed to get in two practice sessions on Olympic ice before coming to Iceland, where all three rinks in the country are Olympic sized. That meant drilling with Ethan at Upper Canada College, and I’d been bemused to find myself skating on the George E. Mara rink, named in honour of a UCC old boy who had captained the Canadian Olympic hockey team in 1948, leading Canada to gold.
The team was called the Ottawa RCAF Flyers, and I’d met George Mara in 2006 to research a never-made movie about the Flyers’ historic post-war victory. Retired from a long career in business and hockey—he was briefly president of the Toronto Maple Leafs—Mr. Mara graciously gave me a series of interviews. Eventually he started opening up about behind-the-scenes manoeuvring at the Olympics, and hinting at hidden scandals.
One day, saying good-bye in his Avenue Road penthouse, Mr. Mara told me he was going into the hospital for surgery and would see me again in a couple of weeks. He died on the operating table a few days later. I’ve always wondered if Mr. Mara started opening up about the Olympic backroom manoeuvres because he had a premonition, and what he would have told me if he’d survived.
But that’s another story, and this one is about decidedly non-Olympic hockey, despite the size of the rink. Our North Toronto team spent the better part of our weekend in Iceland at Egilshöll arena, playing four games against the two Icelandic teams at recreational level, the intense SR team from Reykjavik and the jolly Valkyrjur women from the northern town of Akureyri, a group of self-described hockey moms whom I’d played the year before. The tournament is usually bigger, but with only three teams in our division, we would play each team twice in two days, and hope to make it into a fifth game on Sunday that would determine the recreational champions.
Walking into the Egilshöll sports complex, we discovered that after two more days of the men’s tournament, the reek from the equipment room reached further into the foyer. Over the weekend, the circle of reek would continue to expand, the pong of sweaty socks and jocks finally reaching almost to the front door, enveloping the line-up of people buying movie tickets for the cinema upstairs, and making even industrial-strength popcorn smell tasty.
Heading past shelves of rental skates and indoor soccer pitches, we found our tidy dressing room outside the rink. Iceland demonstrated its egalitarian spirit: our dressing room was connected by an open corridor to the one occupied by the rival SR team, whom we were to meet for our first match-up.
Tournament organizer Deirdre Norman bridged the gap between the two rooms as well as teams. Deirdre would be playing defence for the SR team, partly to beef it up and partly to make it fair for us to play with an Icelander in net. The first game, a modest young woman named Karitas would play for us, and soon arrived to pick up her navy blue North Toronto jersey. I remember hoping that we wouldn’t disappoint her, knowing that we were expected to lose, but crossing my fingers that we would acquit ourselves credibly.