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In the beginning, ice hockey players in Israel had it tough.
"I made aliya in 1981 from Hamilton, Ontario", says Mike Green, now a resident of Ra'anana. "I was just a kid, enrolled in a hesder yeshiva out in the Negev. I'm big - I look like I'd be good at sports, but basketball was the local game and I was really bad at it. So the guys would ask, 'If it's not basketball, what sport do you play?' I'd say, 'Hockey.'"
"Then they'd say, 'What's hockey?' So I'd explain: It's a game you play skating on ice, using a stick to hit a little black disk into a net."
"The next question was always, 'What's ice?'"
"Israel was a very different country in 1981," Green laughs. "One of the guys did know what ice was - 'It's that cold stuff we get in drinks at weddings, right?'"
A large chunk of the credit for getting ice hockey up and running in Israel goes to Paul Shindman, a Toronto native who made aliya in 1987.
"To get anything started in Israel, you have to be crazy, inspired or rich - or a combination of the three. I'm in the crazy category. Here in Israel, every Canadian jock dreams of hockey - so for me to help get a team going, to live out that dream of playing hockey here, has been great. I still play; about once a month I get up to Metulla. There's a group of older guys who play. It's a great group," says Shindman.
Hockey players still face a territorial disadvantage in Israel.
"The only Olympic ice hockey rink in the whole country is in Metulla," says Green, noting that there is another one-third rink in Ma'alot.
"Still," he says, "Israel's national team is one of the best."
In April, Israel played its best tournament ever, defeating Iceland to win the gold medal at the International Ice Hockey Federation Division II Group B World Championships in Belgrade.
"Ice hockey is alive and well here, but it's hard for most of us to get to Metulla, which is about as far north as you can go and still be in Israel," says Green.
Israel's first venture into international ice hockey was the World Championships in 1992, but the early days were pretty dark. "In 1993, we were at the Internationals. We were really getting creamed," Shindman recalls. "Latvia beat us 32-0, and Ukraine beat us 28-0. I happened to be sitting near Rene Fasal, who's now the president of the IIHF [International Ice Hockey Federation]. He leaned over and said, 'I'm really impressed with the poise of the Israeli team. You're playing your hearts out, and I want to congratulate you.' That was great. There we were, taking a real shellacking, but Fasal went out of his way to encourage us, to urge us on."
All the early encouragement worked: Now Israel's team, coached by Canadian Jean Perron, will be playing in Division I of the IIHF World Championships.
The sport was nonexistent in Israel less than two decades ago.
"My first few years were frustrating because I love hockey and there was simply nowhere to play," says Green. "After Paul came, things started to change. Then the Canada Center was built, which helped a lot."
Metulla's Canada Center, named for its Canadian donors, is a massive sports complex with indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a soccer field, sports hall, squash courts, weight rooms and an indoor sport shooting range, in addition to the Olympic ice rink.
Immigration from the former Soviet Union also helped. "Wherever there's a concentration of Russian immigrants, there will be hockey. In 1990, there was another big wave of immigration, and a group of Russians started to play in Bat Yam", Green says.
"It was a small, very primitive rink - sometimes you'd be skating on asphalt. The rink was intended for figure skating, not hockey, so we'd have to put up boards and nets. When more Russians arrived, more rinks opened - one in Ramat Gan, just a little corridor, not in good condition either. But then the Russians sort of took over the sport in Israel. They're very good players. But for us Canadians, it wasn't fun anymore. Russians have a very different style of play - not bad, just different - so most of us left," says Green, who maneuvered over to roller hockey, which is played on an asphalt surface on roller blades, not ice skates.
"I left the ice hockey league in 1995. In 1997 I bought roller blades. The transition wasn't hard. The difference is in stopping. There are a lot of roller hockey rinks around. We have a fine one in Ra'anana, where my nine-year-old son is in a hockey class. It's very popular. In our roller hockey group, about half of us are over 40, the rest are kids; but out best player is a guy who's 56 and plays all the time. Roller hockey is big internationally, with leagues and competition. But we just play for fun."
"In Canada, the national sport is hockey. Every house, whether religious or secular, has a hockey stick and pucks. It's something every kid grows up with. Here in Israel, hockey is a great way to ease absorption into the country. You have to do it in Hebrew, and you have to learn the system. For immigrants, sports are fun, but they're valuable tools, too," says Shindman.
Israel Canuck Hockey, an active Yahoo Internet group, welcomes newcomers: firstname.lastname@example.org
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