The only knowledge I have ever had of Icelandic sports came from Disney's 1994 box-office hit "D2: The Mighty Ducks." Since then I have assumed all Icelandic athletes were violent hockey players who took out their aggression on underprivileged teenagers from the suburbs of Minneapolis. As it turns out, not everything I have seen in the movie theater is true.
Here in the real world, Gonzaga has a few Icelanders on its men's soccer team, and they are generally much more accepted. "Playing with the Icelanders is very beneficial," said teammate Trevor Conrad. "They bring a whole new style and passion to the game. We are glad to have them around."
In 1999, Tryggvi Bjornsson (who graduated last season) made the first trip across the Atlantic to play soccer in America. A year later, teammate Arni Ingi Pjetursson made the trip as well. Last season the third Icelandic player, Kari Arnason, came to bid his services for the Bulldogs. All three have had very different careers for the Zags, but all three have also made a huge impact on the field.
Before coming here, Pjetursson had heard of Gonzaga but really didn't know much about it. When Coach Einar Thorarinsson came to watch an amateur indoor match he was playing in, he managed to convince Pjeturrson to make the trip and play for the Bulldogs. Nicknamed the "Red Lion," the only expectation Pjeturrson had for himself when coming to the U.S. was to make an offensive impact.
"I didn't expect anything in particular at Gonzaga," said Pjetursson. "I came to score, that was the main goal."
And that is one thing he has definitely accomplished while in Spokane. In his fourth season with the team, he is tied for the lead in points with nine (three goals, three assists) and is on pace to beat his career-high 13 points from his freshman season. In three seasons he has scored eight goals and taken more than 50 shots. In 2001 he scored two goals in a 3-2 victory over San Diego State University in the opening round of the Diadora Classic at Oregon State University, and also scored the game-winner against St. Mary's in a 1-0 victory. He has also made a name for himself overseas, playing for the Icelandic U-16 and U-18 National Teams. Pjetursson was also selected to the All-European tournament team when his U-18 team advanced to the European Finals in 2000.
Teammate Kari Arnason has had a similar impact for the Bulldogs. Arnason was convinced by Bjornsson to play for the Zags in 2002. Arnason led the team in points last year with three goals and one assist, earning himself West Coast Conference honorable mention honors. He credited his success to the emphasis on technical skills while he played in the Icelandic First Division.
"Technique is really stressed in Iceland," Arnason said. "We also understand the game better because we watch it more on television and it is much more a part of our culture. Americans though, are in much better shape and can run forever. So there are differences, but for the most part it is the same game."
Though I now have a much different view of Icelandic athletes, and I have come to appreciate what they have done here at Gonzaga, I still get a rise out of seeing Connie saving Gunnar's overtime penalty shot to win the World Championship for Team USA. And you can't take that away from me.
The Zags can be seen at their home opener against rival Portland on Saturday, Oct. 4, at 1 p.m. on Martin Field.