Arts & Culture No Longer an Oddity, Israeli Hockey Emerges As an International Power

Israeli ice hockey no longer is an oxymoron, thanks to lots of heart, a bunch of Russian-born talent, a state-of-the-art Canadian-built rink and a couple of Montreal residents who know how to win. The Israel Ice Hockey Federation sent its best national junior team to Montreal this week, where it played an exhibition team against the Laurenhill Academy Lynx.

Israel’s 14-17 year olds fared far better than they had against Bialik High, a Montreal Jewish day school, on their last trip in 2003.

On Sunday, Israel out-skated and out-hustled the local team for an 8-1 win. Eli Sherbatov, 14, who now makes his permanent home in the Montreal area and has become one of the team’s superstars, scored two goals, including one of the game’s prettiest.

The venue, Samuel Moscovitch Arena in the predominantly Jewish municipality of Cote St. Luc, was filled to the rafters with a flag-waving, pro-Israel crowd.

The sell-out was no great shock, nor was the outcome of the game: This isn’t just any junior national team the crowd had come to see, but one that has won international medals.

Israel is on the map as an international amateur ice hockey power. If you find that hard to believe, the speed at which it happened is equally surprising.

In 1989, the seeds of Israel’s interest in ice hockey were planted when the huge influx from the former Soviet Union began and young Russian immigrants began sharing their enthusiasm for the game with Israelis.

An amateurish arena in Tel Aviv was supplanted by the Canada Center, a gorgeous, high-tech facility built with Canadian donations in Metulla, near Israel’s border with Lebanon.

Israel’s national amateur senior team won a gold medal in international competition this past year and its junior team captured the bronze. Both feats had the amateur hockey world abuzz.

The 2003 visit to Canada may as well have been 1,000 years ago as far as Alan Maislin is concerned.

Israeli hockey “had no business plan back then and wasn’t more than a bunch of guys playing shinny,” said Maislin, a Montreal business and Jewish community leader.

Two years ago, Maislin became chairman of the Israel Ice Hockey Federation at the urging of its president, Sergei Matin.

“Today we are a structured organization — no different, in principle, than Team Canada or Team USA, though we still have major obstacles to overcome,” Maislin told JTA.

The key to Israel’s success has much to do with the man Maislin chose to instill in Israeli hockey a winning tradition, acquired from time spent with the Montreal Canadiens, the winningest team in National Hockey League history.

When the Israeli team was in Montreal in 2003, a practice was organized featuring several Quebec-based guest coaches with winning backgrounds, including Jacques Demers, who won the Stanley Cup as the coach of Montreal’s 1992-1993 team; Jean Perron, who accomplished the same feat as Canadiens coach in 1985-’86; and Pierre McGuire, who won two Stanley Cups while a scout with the Pittsburgh Penguins organization.

In the end, Maislin asked Perron if he was interested in coaching for Israel.

“Are you kidding? I’m Catholic. Who wouldn’t want to go to the Holy Land and spend time there?” he replied.

Perron coaches both the senior team, which competed in Division III and landed its gold medal in a competition in Belgrade, and the junior team, which competed in Division II and won its bronze medal in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Perron spoke with JTA after the junior team’s exhibition victory Sunday. Perron said he had made some fundamental changes in the program since taking over.

“What I did was show the kids how they should be reacting during a game, to teach them about the culture of professional hockey, things like not yapping on the bench during the game and during practice,” he said. “They had the skills but they had no one to show them how things were done in the big leagues around the game, if you know what I mean.”

He’s expecting bigger things in the future.

“Our wins so far have been a big accomplishment, but I think we can go farther next year,” he said.

There remains a lot of work to be done. The goal is for Israel to win gold in both of its divisions when the world championships are held in Metulla in 2006.

“The key to our program is building a rink in central Israel, in Tel Aviv, one that isn’t over three hours away from the population we’re trying to attract,” Maislin said. Ground should be broken on a new arena in 2006.

“We want to see 2,000 players in Israel” — there are some 500 today — “and a berth in the Olympics and the new arena are necessary for that to happen,” he said.

Montreal is one stop on the squad’s North American tour — the team is also playing in northern New Jersey, Miami, Philadelphia, Ottawa and Toronto.

Hockey “is a game made for the Israeli psyche,” Maislin said. “It’s fast and hard-hitting.”

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