Greenland handball
Greenland Handball Federation

Greenland seizes sports moment as Iceland plays in World Cup

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Ingi Olsen may be a bit biased, but he asserts that this is, by far, the biggest sporting event that Greenland has hosted.

“They said yesterday that about half of the population is watching,” the national team head coach said by phone.

And that was just a group-stage game.

Greenland is hosting the Pan American Men’s Handball Championships for the first time. Matches air live on national TV in primetime and are archived on its YouTube page (even the ones not involving Greenland).

None bigger than Saturday and Sunday. Greenland, not all that surprisingly, advanced to the semifinals after beating Colombia, Paraguay, Uruguay and Canada (and losing to Brazil) in its six-team group.

Every win and the one loss were expected. Handball is a national sport in Greenland, which has never played in a Pan Am final. Brazil is the defending Pan Am champion.

Greenland gets favored Argentina in Saturday’s semifinals (6 p.m. in Inussivik, the 1,000-seat indoor arena in Nuuk, streaming on Kalaallit Nunaata Radioa’s YouTube page).

The U.S. is not in this tournament after it failed to qualify in April. Greenland, which has about 60,000 people (one-fifth the size of Iceland), beat the U.S. at Pan Ams in 2014 and 2016. (The Greenland women also beat the U.S. in 2015.)

The U.S. has zero Olympic handball medals and an 8-39-1 all-time record in Olympic men’s and women’s play. It hasn’t qualified a men’s or women’s handball team for the Games since it hosted in Atlanta in 1996.

Still, that Greenland can outperform the U.S. in any Olympic sport is an achievement. Credit Denmark, which has four Olympic handball titles.

“A lot of Danish people living in Greenland, teachers and so on, they brought the handball to Greenland, 30, 40 years ago,” said Greenland assistant coach Rasmus Larsen, who said he played in the first 110 matches for Greenland’s national team in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Olsen, a 49-year-old coach who played for the Faroe Islands’ national team and moved to Greenland in 2012 for a job with BankNordik, conceded that his Greenland team will likely be playing in Sunday’s third-place game rather than the final.

Semifinal opponent Argentina reached all 10 Pan Am finals between 1996 and 2014, winning six of them, and was the only North or South American nation to qualify for the last two Olympics.

“We would win once in a 100,” versus Argentina, Larsen said.

Playing for third place is OK. The Pan American Championships are a qualifier for the 2019 World Championships. The top three teams from Pan Ams advance to worlds, which will be hosted by Germany and Denmark. By winning either of its last two games, Greenland will qualify for worlds for the first time since 2007. That’s the goal.

Greenland is an autonomous territory of Denmark and does not field its own Olympic team. That could change if the Faroe Islands wins its fight for Olympic recognition. Greenland and Faroe Islands athletes have competed for Denmark at the Summer and Winter Games.

“Greenland has, at the moment not any activity going on, regarding to be recognized as an IOC member,” Carsten Olsen, secretary-general of Greenland’s sports confederation, said in an email. “But it is a big wish and we are preparing, in small steps, to be ready if we one day can be recognized.”

Greenland Handball
Via Greenland Handball Federation

For now, the highest level athletes representing Greenland can reach are some sports’ world championships (but not the World Cup; Greenland is not recognized by FIFA) or the Arctic Winter Games.

Greenland hosted the Arctic Winter Games for the first time in 2016, which Olsen called the biggest event in Greenland’s history until this month’s Pan Am Championships. Medal events included dog mushing and the finger pull.

Early forms of handball, an Olympic medal event since 1972, date to ancient Greece. In ancient Greenland, the Inuits would contest village-wide games using a blown-up animal’s bladder or a moss-stuffed skin.

“Handball is still the most popular sport in Greenland,” Olsen said, “but futsal is coming rapidly.”

The Greenland men’s national team includes about 10 players from Nuuk, the capital, another three living elsewhere in Greenland, one in the Faroe Islands and a few who play club ball in Denmark, Olsen said.

“We just went to see the prime minister to have some dried fish and some Greenlandic food, and he had some presents for us,” Larsen said Friday, adding that the PM attended their last two games.

The highlight of Pan Ams thus far was a 31-29 win on Monday over Uruguay, the biggest threat to Greenland finishing second in the group behind Brazil to reach the semifinals. Uruguay tied it 29-all with two minutes left in the 60-minute game before Greenland scored on consecutive possessions, including a clock-expiring dagger from Miki Heilmann.

Players and fans — Olsen estimated 1,500 squeezed into Inussivik, but the official figure was 1,920 — celebrated while the traditional post-game music played — “Kalaallit Nunaat Pillugu” by Julie Berthelsen, so famous in Greenland she goes by one name. Julie also sang the national anthem for Greenland’s first match of Pan Ams.

“One hour after the [Uruguay] match was finished, almost nobody left the building,” Olsen said. “They were celebrating with the boys, the victory, as if we already came to the world championship.”

Iceland’s tourism board has a banner to the right of the arena scoreboard with its slogan, “Inspired by Iceland,” peering to the court.

While much of the world is fixated on that nation’s soccer story, those in Greenland, especially those standing and waving the Erfalasorput below that advertisement, are rallying around their handball team. The differences are many — starting with sport visibility and revenue, plus the lands’ identities (“Iceland are vikings,” Larsen said. “Greenland are Inuit. It’s a different way of life.”)

But there are also similarities.

“They’re playing with their heart, a small country against the rest of the world,” Larsen said. “We’re trying to copy the spirit.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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Greenland Handball
Greenland Handball Federation

After 2 years off, NHL veteran returns with Olympic goal

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The U.S. Olympic hockey team in PyeongChang — the first without NHL players since 1994 — should include an array of collegians and veterans in minor leagues and Europe.

It could also include a previous Olympian who hasn’t played professional hockey in more than two years.

Ryan Malone, a 37-year-old forward who earned a silver medal at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, will try out for the Minnesota Wild during a preseason training camp starting next week.

Malone is setting realistic expectations — not to return to the NHL (though it would be incredible), but to make a minor-league team so he can be eligible for PyeongChang. He would love for his two boys — Will, 9, and Cooper, 7 — to watch him in South Korea.

“Either way I’m looking at it as a win-win for me to get back into the game on borrowed time and enjoy it,” Malone said in a phone interview Wednesday. “That was something I never even dreamed about or thought was possible [to play in the Olympics]. To have that experience and put on those colors, you get goosebumps talking about it. To have the slightest chance to do that again is well worth taking for me.”

He is older than all but one previous U.S. Olympic hockey player (Chris Chelios, who played at age 40 in 2002 and 44 in 2006 and is an assistant on the PyeongChang team).

The comeback began earlier this summer, when Malone was coaching in Minnesota’s “Da Beauty League.”

Despite the farcical name, the summer league is competitive. NHL.com called it “a glorified pickup game” for NHL and college players.

One night, Malone’s team was short on players. He laced up and felt pretty good for a retiree.

Earlier this summer, Malone had called USA Hockey GM Jim Johannson about a possible scouting gig. USA Hockey must scour the NCAA, Europe and U.S. minor leagues for talent to fill its 25-man Olympic roster.

So Malone decided to call Johannson again, but this time to ask about playing for the U.S. Malone was told that he would be eligible for Olympic consideration as long as he was playing in a non-NHL league (and not in the top minor league, the AHL, on an NHL contract).

“They’re in my corner,” Malone said of USA Hockey. “They have a good sense of my character and the player I am. It’s up to me to go out there and prove it.”

Malone made more calls that led to a tryout with the Wild, whose general manager, Chuck Fletcher, worked in the front office for the Pittsburgh Penguins when Malone was on that team a decade ago.

Malone debuted in the NHL with the Pens in 2003 and tallied 51 points for them in 2007-08, highlighting an 11-season NHL career. He opened 2009-10 with 19 goals in the first 38 games for the Tampa Bay Lightning and was named to the Vancouver Olympic team.

Malone can’t forget being on the bench when Zach Parise tied the gold-medal game with 25 seconds left, and for when Sidney Crosby won it with a golden goal. His silver medal has been in storage for a month or two as he has been between houses.

In April 2014, Malone was arrested for cocaine possession and driving under the influence and later sentenced to 12 months’ probation. His contract was bought out by the Lightning, and by the next year he was out of pro hockey.

Malone confirmed that his retirement wasn’t brought on by the arrest, but rather from leg injuries.

“I literally had legs like a 70-year-old lady,” Malone said, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and confirmed that he underwent surgeries for varicose veins. “I feel better now than I did probably my last two years in the league.”

Malone might not be the only player with Olympic experience eyeing the 25-man U.S. team for PyeongChang.

“There are some guys that have a rich history in the NHL and with USA Hockey that we think could potentially really help this roster,” Johannson said last month, without naming names.

A pair of 2006 Olympians — John-Michael Liles, a 36-year-old defenseman, and Brian Gionta, a 38-year-old forward — played in the NHL last season but are currently free agents.

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Handball: Hansen leads Denmark to gold, ending 8-year French reign

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Denmark’s Mikkel Hansen scored eight goals to end France’s reign as Olympic men’s handball champs at 8 years.

Lasse Svan, Kasper Sondergaard, and Henrik Toft Hansen scored four a piece in the 28-23 win over France on Sunday in Rio.

WATCH: Full match replay

Denmark had not finished higher than fourth at an Olympics, while France beat Iceland and Sweden for gold in the past two Games.

Nikola Karabatic scored five goals for France in the loss.