One of the initiatives in the effort to grow women’s hockey has involved an international commitment. From the IIHF launching its IIHF Mentorship/Ambassador Program to the recent trend of American and Canadian players competing in Europe, the future shines brightly for the game’s future.
Among the remarkable women who are working tirelessly towards developing the game overseas, one of the true feel-good stories belongs to Sarah Smiley. Having first laid roots in Iceland in 2006, the Toronto-born Smiley has become the heartbeat of women’s ice hockey in Iceland.
“I first received the email about playing and helping with women’s hockey development in Iceland in the spring of 2006. I had always been interested in playing abroad and was at a time in my life where I was unsure what the next step was (recently graduated from University and had not started a career). I jumped on the chance for an adventure.
What I liked about the possibility of going to Iceland was that it was not only about playing but also about the possibility to coach and work for a developing program. In the fall of 2006 I went to Iceland on a one year contract and have been there ever since.”
Of note, her Toronto roots would help contribute to an exciting chapter for Icleandic hockey. Deirdre Norman, the founder of Toronto’s The Women of Winter shared a unique connection. Smiley grew up playing at the Bill Bolton Arena, where Norman would one day eventually work. Eventually collaborating with Winter Games gold medalist (and CWHL co-founder) Sami Jo Small and Billy Bridges, the all-time leading scorer on Canada’s ice sledge hockey team, Canadian Hockey Day in Iceland was born in 2011, bringing free skills classes.
It would prove to be part of an important initiative that added a level of importance to women’s hockey. With the annual Iceland International Ice Hockey Cup Tournament an important day in the nation’s sporting calendar, the addition of a women’s division has provided a strong feeling of acceptance.
During 2011, Smiley was on-hand for another landmark moment in Icelandic hockey history. The nation hosted the Division IV 2011 IIHF Women’s World Championships, which saw Iceland finish in third place.
Accumulating victories against Romania (3-2) and South Africa (5-1), Hanna Hemisdottir and Flosrun Johannesdottir were Iceland’s scoring leaders at the event. As a side note, blueliner Anna Agustsdotir earned the Directorate Award as Best Defender.
One year later, Smiley was on the ice for the Icelandic national team as the squad competed in Group B play at the 2012 IIHF Women’s World Championship Division II. Managing a 2-2-1 record, Iceland prevailed in their opening game against Belgium, which resulted in Smiley obtaining an assist on Birna Baldursdottir’s second period goal. She would also earn a pair of assists on goals scored by Steinunn Sigurgeirsdottir and Gudrun Blondal in Iceland’s 6-2 victory against South Africa.
Throughout all her experiences with the Icelandic national team, the most enjoyable aspect about helping women’s hockey grow has involved seeing young players flourish into future stars.
“The most exciting thing for me at the moment is the potential to play or coach players that I have coached since they were six and seven and are now becoming National Team players (I am not sure whether I will be coaching or playing this year with the National Team because of a long term injury I have been battling). It has been an absolute privilege to watch them grow into strong young women with so much talent and love for the sport and be a part of their journey.
I also love greeting new faces at the rink no matter what age, and helping introduce them to the sport and wondering just how far they might go in the sport or how much joy they will get out of it. That never gets tiring!”
Prior to Iceland, Smiley assembled a solid hockey career in her native Canada. Her postsecondary career consisted of suiting up for the Windsor Lancers as a right wing in Canadian Interuniversity Sport play, where she was recognized as a CIS Academic All-Canadian in 2003-04.
Among her greatest accomplishments was competing with the Montreal Axion (pronounced Action) in the original NWHL. Surrounded by such world-class talent including Hockey Hall of Famer Angela Ruggiero, it was a season that culminated in the opportunity to win a championship.
Of the four goals that Smiley scored that season, three were game-winning tallies. With only 14 penalty minutes in 35 games played, she showed very disciplined play. Perhaps the greatest victory for Smiley was the learning experience that emanated from her glorious time with the Axion.
Exposed to Lisa Marie Breton-Lebreux, one of the key builders for pro women’s hockey in Montreal, she would certainly become a positive influence on Smiley. Breton-Lebreux would eventually become a co-founder of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and would revive the Axion as Les Stars de Montreal, eventually obtaining a sponsorship with the famed Montreal Canadiens.
Smiley also obtained wisdom from Axion head coach Yanick Evola, a former star player in the QMJHL and at the CIS level with the St. FX X-Men. Currently the bench boss for the Ottawa Gee-Gees program, Evola would also emerge as an influential figure in her eventual future as head coach.
“Naturally this is one of the biggest highlights of my hockey career. Playing alongside players like Lisa Marie Breton, Caroline Ouellette, Charline Labonte, and Cathy Chartrand (the list goes on!) was an honor. I learned so many things about the ins and outs of the game and also what it meant to be a dedicated athlete on and off the ice.
I also learned many things from my coach that year, Yanick Evola. His coaching style had such a wonderful balance of hard work and joy for the game. I have tried to apply all of the things I learned that season into my own coaching.”
Having employed the love of the game throughout her career, one of the key values learned from playing hockey in Canada, it is an aspect that Smiley has translated to her career in Iceland. Her drive and effort to help build the game there is reminiscent of an earlier time when Fran Rider was helping to establish the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association and developing a Canadian national championship.
In addition to coaching and playing, Smiley has also taken on roles of organizer and educator, providing an all-around effort to building a foundation for the game in Iceland. The growth in the legacy of her career is definitely synonymous to the rise of the sport’s popularity in Iceland.
Of note, she is among a rare group of women in the history of IIHF women’s hockey (which also includes Canada’s Danielle Goyette) to have played and coached at the national team level, adding to a legacy that has brought confidence, empowerment and increased self-esteem to many ambitious young female athletes.
"There are so many things that Canadians do very well at hockey. Yet, the most important one that I have tried to teach or lead by example here in Iceland is an unabashed love for the game.
Whether it is the great feeling that comes from finishing a 7am skating practice, or the fun that you can get up to with your team on a 5 hour bus trip, or the sense of pride you feel pulling on a national team jersey, there are just so many ways to enjoy the game. I like helping Icelanders have the opportunity to do that.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Photo credits: Girls hockey day in Iceland (11th of Oct, 2015) taken by Elvar Freyr Pálsson.
Image as head coach for the women’s national team in 2011 supplied by Sarah Smiley.