One of the brand-new sports at the 21st edition of the Maccabiah Games in Israel is Women’s Ice Hockey.
For a number of Maccabiahs it was a game for men and boys, but finally, in the year 2022, women have joined the action on the ice as the United States, Canada and Israel have all fielded teams.
The process wasn’t an easy one, but with the dedication of a number of individuals on both the American and Canadian teams, what was once a dream is now a reality.
While Canadians may have come away with the gold medal in these inaugural games for the sport, the hope is that these will be the first fruits in helping it grow in Israel as well as looking to expand its reach for the next Games.
“I hope this inspires Jewish girls and women in Israel to play and that it encourages Jewish women from around the world to come to play in Israel."Jodi Berris
Women's hockey trailblazers
To understand how the Maccabiah opened the Zamboni doors for the women’s game, The Jerusalem Post spoke to those who blazed the path for future generations.
“A few of us worked very hard to get women’s hockey on the docket for the Maccabiah Games,” said Jodi Berris, the 43-year-old American who is one of the people who spearheaded the project. “It was important to add the women’s side of the tournament to the existing men’s side. There is high-level women’s hockey played and it needed to be showcased. Additionally, it’s important to give women avenues to play sports at various levels. The hope is that this inspires Jewish women, from all over the world and that there is a place to compete at a high international level.”
Mitch Miller, the Canadian team manager from Ottawa (who made sure to point out that he is still a Montreal Canadiens fan) is a veteran of hockey in the Holy Land and has been very involved with the Canada Israel Hockey School (CIHS), which ran out of the Mercaz Canada in Metula.
“One of the hockey players from Ottawa knew my passion for promoting hockey in Israel and promoting Israel through hockey," said Miller. "When she asked me why there isn’t women’s hockey at the Maccabiah and if there could be – I simply told her to find enough women who want to play and it will happen. Shelby Calof started calling people, she and Melissa Wronzberg found enough women and then I was asked to be the Team Manager.
“Women’s hockey is developing around the world and it was time for the women’s game to be represented at the Maccabiah,” Miller added.
Wronzberg, who hails from Thornhill, Ontario, and who serves as the captain of the Canadian team, knew that it was going to be a challenge to find enough players and sees that while being a pioneer at this Maccabiah, there is plenty of room to continue to grow the women’s game.
“Women’s hockey still has a lot of room to grow and if the challenges to finding Jewish female players was any indication, it has even more space to grow within the Jewish community," said Wronzberg. "Having women’s hockey at the Maccabiah helps us to continue to grow the game for young Jewish female players not only in Israel, but also across the world.”
The goal for these Games is to make a mark both on and off the ice while raising awareness of the women’s game so that at the next Maccabiah there will be even more surrounding the sport.
Wronzberg, who began skating at the age of two and started playing hockey at four, knows that not only can the game expand it will also benefit the local Israeli sport as well.
Could hockey become popular in Israel?
“Israel itself has a very young and pretty new national team so having hockey at the Maccabiah Games gives that team a chance to play North American competition, which will help them grow and learn so they can both continue to get better and get more females in Israel realizing they too can play,” Wronzberg said.
Berris, who played for four years at the University of Michigan, is originally from Detroit and now splits time between Portland, Oregon and Park City, Utah. She is gung-ho about trying to get more involved in the next Games.
“We have three years to work on it. By getting this off the ground this time, excitement is generated and hopefully the word will spread and more girls and women will get involved," said Berris.Miller added that "It would be great to have a team from Europe. Perhaps we can find the Jewish female hockey players who play in France, Britain, Norway, Sweden, Ukraine and other countries to form the fourth team.”
Karen Levin, who has been a proponent of women’s hockey for many years and is a co-founder of the United Women’s Ball Hockey Foundation, understands the importance of having this opportunity in Israel.
“Being in Israel, I get the sense that people have the feeling of being a part of something greater than themselves, whether it’s the closeness of their family, the history of being Jewish pushing on despite challenges to our existence, serving in the army, etc. Hockey provides another opportunity for that," said Levin.
She continued, saying that “for our entire team, this is their first time at the Maccabiah and we have a mix of players ages 17-43 that have been to Israel over 10 times to those that are here for the first time. That opportunity, whether it’s your first time here or your 14th time here, to play hockey in Israel is special. I think it has brought the team very close in a short amount of time. In addition, it has been life-changing to meet and connect with the Israeli players. We have had meals together and rode the bus together and played against each other for ten days now. We connect on something we love so much and that is a life-long bond that is really special. I know this experience will stick with each player forever.”
Wronzberg knows that the entire Canadian team feels that this is a chance to provide a life-altering opportunity to those who love the women’s game of hockey.
“I think everyone on our team understands what an amazing opportunity this is," said Wronzberg. "To not only be part of helping women’s hockey grow here in Israel but to be part of the inaugural tournament is a setting that is more special than I think any of us can realize in this moment.”
For the passionate Berris, she hopes that the impact will be two-fold: “I hope this inspires Jewish girls and women in Israel to play and that it encourages Jewish women from around the world to come to play in Israel. One can combine a passion for sports and Israel simultaneously.”
Miller, the Canadian team manager, is also aware that this Maccabiah Games will be able to forge the future of those who are in Israel and those who will one day have that chance to lace up their skates in the Middle East.
“There is nothing like a hockey road trip, and there is nothing like a hockey road trip in Israel," said Miller. "We went from saying a prayer at the Kotel one day to playing an intense game with our American friends the next. In a very short period of time, the ladies on our team are creating bonds that will last a lifetime and they will always be the first Canadian women’s hockey team to play in the Maccabiah and also win a gold medal. Now that will be something to tell their descendants for generations to come.”