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Alengaard keys rising Icelandic team

by Bill Meltzer
Several years ago, a Canadian sportswriter decided to have some fun with his readers, telling folks about a mysterious hockey prospect from Iceland who had the NHL scouting world abuzz.

The player was raw in terms of skill development had a remarkable combination of size, speed and shooting ability that overwhelmed the low-grade competition he faced.

The player's name: Sloof Lirpa (read the name backwards), who was supposedly Iceland's answer to Mario Lemieux or Wayne Gretzky.

Well, believe it or not, there really is such a player. He is not an NHL prospect, but the 22-year-old was a very good junior hockey player in the Linköpings HC system in Sweden and a solid Swedish minor league and U.S. collegiate player for two seasons before deciding to return to Sweden to play for minor league (Division 1) team Mjölby. His name is Emil Alengaard, or Alengård in his native language. And he's very much a real person.

A dual Swedish-Icelandic citizen born in Linköping, Alengaard suits up internationally for the Icelandic national team. As a country that plays in the lower divisions of international hockey (originally Division III, which is the bottom group, followed by a promotion to Division II), the Icelandic team plays against lesser opposition than Alengaard has faced with his club teams.

"I realized that I wasn't going to be able to make the Swedish national team, so I focused instead on helping Iceland," Alengaard said. "First thing I did was to call the Icelandic hockey federation and explain to them I have a dual citizenship and that I was interested to play with the national team. The first year I played in the U-18 Championship, U-20 Championship and later with the seniors during the same season. Now I can only play with the seniors, but it's very fun. We always play the championships in April which means I always can represent Iceland in the end of every season which I am very proud over."

Over the course of his still-young international career, Alengaard has often run roughshod over the opposition and gives his team the opportunity to win games. Of course, being a team sport, hockey success is the product of a collective effort. But at the lower levels, a single dominant player can provide his team a head start toward winning.

At the Division III Under-20 World Championships in 2006, Alengaard racked up an outstanding 20 goals and 29 points in four games. He then followed it up with 13 points in four games at the senior level Division III Worlds, as the Icelandic team earned a promotion to the Division II level. The following season, in addition to averaging over a point-per-game on Linköping's top junior team (18 goals, 44 points in 41 games), the 5-foot-11, 194 pound center scored 6 goals in five games at the Division II World Juniors and also gained his first Division II senior international experience.

After playing a couple years in the Swedish minor leagues and enrolling at New England College, where he played for two seasons and posted 25 points in 26 games during the 2009-10 season, Alengaard decided to accept an offer to return to Sweden to play for Mjölby. All the while, he has continued to play for the Icelandic men's team. At the 2010 Division II World Championships he compiled 6 goals and 12 points in five games and helped lead the Icelandic team to a bronze medal.

"The standards of Division II international level teams are very scattered. Our Icelandic team would probably do a good job against the Swedish Division II top teams. On the other hand, I don't think teams like Estonia, who won our division at the Worlds this year, could play in the top of Swedish Division I. As far as quality down at the Division III level goes, the standard compared to the Linköping J20 team would be like playing against a kid's team," Alengaard said.

Iceland is a physically large but sparsely populated (about 300,000 people) island nation. Ranked 38th by the International Ice Hockey Federation, there are, by the calculations of the IIHF's Martin Merk, per capita more registered hockey players in the Icelandic population (1 in every 512 citizens) than Slovakia (1 in 630) or the U.S. (1 in 659). But that only amounts to a pool of about 600 players in a country that has three rinks and lacks a professional league.

Nevertheless, the hockey scene in Iceland is burgeoning. Ice hockey is the top priority at the existing rinks and the three-team amateur Icelandic league – Skautafelag Akureyrar (the 14-time league champion) and Skautafelag Reykjavikur (5 titles) and Björninn Reykjavik – features highly spirited games. For the first time in Icelandic hockey history, the 2010 championship finals were broadcasted on national Icelandic television this year, drawing a 25 percent audience share according to and packing the house. There is likely to be extended coverage during the 2010-11 season following the success of the initial broadcast.

In terms of the Icelandic national team program, the country has made impressive progress over the last four years. It is typical of newly promoted teams to quickly get relegated back down to a lower division, but the Icelandic team has been able to defend its place in Division II and made strides each and every year to the point of capturing its first Division II senior-level medal this year. The big challenge now will be to continue to grow the sport in Iceland.

It won't be easy. Despite the country's name, there is a lack of viable natural ice to skate on in the sparsely populated land of glaciers, hot springs and volcanoes. The Icelandic economy suffered a complete collapse and all projects to build additional rinks are on indefinite hold. In addition, many people have moved out of the country due to the economic situation, and the player pool can't grow very much anyway. Meanwhile, the existing player pool needs more available ice time (the country's rinks are already booked solid) to hone their skills, the national league needs more teams and the player development chain wider array of professional caliber coaching and higher grade opposition to continue its climb toward the Division I level.

Those steps may take years to be completed. But, regardless of what the short-term future brings, the Icelandic team will continue to be a tough opponent for Division II opponents. Meanwhile, a player such as Alengaard will remain the closest thing to an Icelandic international hockey star.

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