Israeli ice hockey makes tracks

Israel’s junior hockey team players ‘love the action and speed of the game.’It could be a rink anywhere in North America. The kids, in their hockey gear, scramble onto the ice and begin practice. They’ve got a former NHL coach …

Israel’s junior hockey team players ‘love the action and speed of the game.’It could be a rink anywhere in North America. The kids, in their hockey gear, scramble onto the ice and begin practice. They’ve got a former NHL coach training them. And the jersey of legendary Montreal Canadiens captain Jean Beliveau is on display in the rafters.

But this is not Montreal, New York or Philadelphia. These players speak Hebrew and their uniforms bear a Star of David.

Meet Israel’s junior national ice hockey team – the only team from the Middle East that competes in the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship.

They practice three times a week in Metulla, the northernmost town in Israel, straddling the Lebanese border. Why Metulla? Because this is the site of the Canada Center, Israel’s only Olympic-sized skating rink and sports complex (built courtesy of Canadian Jewry).

In the summer, the hockey devotees congregate in Metulla for the annual Roger Neilson Hockey Camp where, last year, they were trained by Jean Perron, the former NHL coach who led the Montreal Canadiens to the Stanley Cup in 1986. Perron – who is now head coach of the Israeli junior team – will also be working with them in North America next month and in Israel this summer. The rest of the year, local Israeli coaches, almost all of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union (FSU), train the team.

Ice hockey in Israel was started in the late eighties by North American and Russian immigrants. It was given a major boost around 1990 with the massive influx of immigrants from the Soviet bloc. Today, the coaches, as well as most players on the senior (adults) team, still hail from the FSU.

But new generations of native-born Israelis have adopted the game, and they make up the majority of players on the junior (under 18) team. Players like Daniel Gada, 17, whose parents didn’t even know what ice hockey was when their son joined the team three years ago.

“They still can’t follow a game,” bemoans Gada, who says he tried the more common Israeli sports – soccer and basketball – but settled on hockey. “I just got the bug.”

Another talented sabra player, Oren Zamir, 16, was spotted by Perron and selected to study this year at Notre Dame College – a hockey boarding school in Canada that has produced many NHL luminaries. The 5’10″, 197-pound right- winger is the first Israeli – and only Jew – at the Catholic school in Wilcox, Saskatchewan.

“It was a little strange at first,” Zamir told ISRAEL21c, “since I didn’t have any idea where Saskatchewan was, and many of my schoolmates were surprised to learn that we have cars in Israel; they thought it was just a desert.”

Zamir, who grew up next door to the Metulla center, has been playing hockey since he was 8. “I love the action and speed of the game,” says the high school student who dreams of going pro.

A handful of players are Israeli-born offspring of immigrants from English-speaking countries. Junior team captain Raviv Bull, who was born and bred on Shamir, a kibbutz in northern Israel, is the son of a Canadian-born mother and British-born father. He took up hockey when someone built a roller hockey facility on the kibbutz. Bull says one of the highlights of his hockey years is being coached by Perron. “He is mesmerizing and pushes us really hard.”

Perron, who also trained Canada’s Olympic team, says he never dreamed he’d coach a hockey team in the Middle East.

“Jean Beliveau is my idol. Once I saw his sweater in the rink in Metulla, I felt right at home in Israel,” recalls Perron, who was asked to coach the team by fellow Montrealer, Alan Maislin, Chairman of the Ice Hockey Federation of Israel. Perron does it for free.

As for the level of his trainees, Perron told ISRAEL21c: “Given the number of games they play – maybe ten a year – it’s unbelievable that they have the skills they do. What particularly impresses me about them is their mental fortitude. These guys are tough. During drills, they refuse to give the puck away – even if the other guy is bigger, they don’t give in.”

Maislin, a businessman and longtime hockey aficionado, also thinks the players have what it takes. “This is a fast, hard-hitting sport – it fits the psyche of Israel,” he says.

The growth of hockey in Israel seems almost surreal to the teams’ longtime coaches Boris Mindel and Sergei Matin, both from Russia, and Latvian-born Edouard Ravniaga. “I played in the national league in Russia,” recalls Mindel, “but I never thought I’d be able to work in hockey once I came to Israel.”

Matin also thought his hockey days were over when he immigrated. “Being able to be part of the hockey world again has boosted my spirits enormously,” says Matin, who is both a coach and general manager of the Israel Ice Hockey Federation.

The main hurdle preventing a further spread of hockey in Israel is the scarcity of rinks. At present, there are only two – the one in Metulla, and another in Ma’alot, also in northern Israel. That limits the hockey culture to the periphery of the country. Members of the senior team, most of them working men with families, come from all over the country – sometimes traveling three or four hours each way – for a weekly practice in Metulla.

Cross-country travel is not feasible for most youngsters – which is why the members of the junior team are all from the northern part of the country.

But there are exceptions – like the diehard Horowitz family. For over 16 years, the family lived in Kfar Adumim, a small town in the Judean desert – some 4 hours from Metulla. But all three children – Lisa, now 19; Michael, 16, and Liam, 13, got the hockey bug.

When Lisa was 15 she left home to live alone in Metulla in order to be able to play ice hockey. When her brother Michael threatened to do the same, the family decided to pick up and move to the northern town.

Now Michael plays on the junior team, while Lisa, who was recently drafted into the army, spends every free moment training. She says she would like to study hockey abroad, and return to Israel to coach the country’s first girls’ ice hockey team. Little Liam, who plays regularly too, seems to be following the family tradition.

It was their parents, Montreal-born Lilach, and especially their father Wayne, an ex-New Yorker, who instilled the passion for hockey in their three children. Now they’re paying the price. Since September, Wayne, a lecturer in the Department of Assyriology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has had a four-hour commute to work, and Lilach was forced to find a new job.

Not every hockey-loving Israeli is ready to go to such lengths to play. So, Maislin and others are trying to raise funds to establish more ice rinks in the center of the country. “The future of hockey in Israel really depends on us setting up more rinks,” he says.

In the meantime, the members of Israel’s junior team are looking forward to playing the Mexican team in Los Angeles in February, followed by a training camp in Toronto, and the world championship in Sofia, Bulgaria in March (where the team will compete in Division 3).

It won’t be the first time the juniors have competed in the world championship. But this time think they stand a better chance than ever – given the coaching of Perron, and the newly honed skills of their teammate Zamir, who’s been training in Canada.

Says a confident Michael Horowitz: “Our goal is to win the championship. Perron has made us realize that we can.”