The puck stops here

Despite some setbacks, ice hockey in Israel is gaining ground

israel hockey 88 (photo credit: )
israel hockey 88
(photo credit: )
Once a month a group of fanatic rink rats from Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, Efrat and other locations across the country trek north to the Canada Center in Metulla to play pick-up ice hockey at Israel's only Olympic sized ice surface. But last time, to the disappointment of the 15 players who drove for three hours each way for the game, the arena's full-size rink was blacked out and flooded with water from the melting ice. Instead the players were forced to skate on the junior size rink, battling it out three on three instead of a full squad of five on five. The non contact pick-up game was the third since this summer's war in the North - when the rink, which is a slap shot away from the border, was closed for security reasons. It took several months to repair the damage to the Canada Center caused, not by Katyushas, but by the concussion from nearby IDF artillery batteries which pounded Hizbullah positions in the south of Lebanon. But now the self-supporting, non-profit sports complex, built by the United Israel Appeal of Canada in 1990 and expanded six years later to include the larger ice-skating surface, has announced that it can no longer afford to operate the Olympic rink. Besides the once-a-month weekend warriors, the announcement is of grave concern to the Ice Hockey Federation of Israel (IHFI), which has 150 registered amateur players who play for teams in Metulla, Haifa, Ma'alot and Rishon LeZion. In addition, the country's figure skating and speed skating Olympic contenders will have nowhere to practice. As far as Toronto native Paul Shindman of Efrat is concerned, the game must go on. A die-hard hockey aficionado living in Israel since 1987, he says, "Bah - they can melt the ice but they can't melt our resolve. I started the hockey league 17 years ago and we've faced worse challenges than this. We need to get the Canada Center some help while we wait for the new rink to go up in Hod Hasharon. There are too many kids here who want to play hockey. We can't let the Olympic rink gather dust." Shindman, who works as a journalist, is eagerly anticipating the planned construction of an ice center in the heart of Israel, 15 kilometers northeast of Tel Aviv. The 5,000-seat winter sports complex will include two rinks - one Olympic-size, the other of slightly smaller NHL dimensions - plus an inline skating facility. The $15-million project in Hod Hasharon, being financed by anonymous private investors from the United States and Canada in conjunction with the municipality, is slated to begin construction in March, says IHFI chairman Alan Maislin. The complex, originally scheduled to open at the end of 2007, should be completed within 18 months, adds Maislin, Israel's hockey czar - who operates a Montreal trucking company and runs the league from overseas. "The Thursday night program is an integral part of the development of hockey in Israel," says Maislin. "If we look at hockey around the world, the largest growing area is in adult hockey. We hope that these players will inspire their children and others to start playing and giving us greater hope to participate in the Olympics." Maislin is looking forward to the International Ice Hockey Federation's Division II World Championships being held in Seoul April 2-8. The Israeli men's team will be at a training camp in Tokyo from March 26 to April 1, which coincides with Pessah - they will attend a Seder hosted by Israel's ambassador to South Korea. In 2005 Israeli national men's team capped its best tournament ever, beating Iceland 4-2 to win the gold medal at the International Ice Hockey Federation Division II Group B World Championships in Belgrade. Meanwhile the Israeli women's team, organized by veteran goalie Dr. Esther Silver (also originally from Toronto and now living in Jerusalem) is hoping to participate in the 2007 IIHF World Championships, pending final clarification from the federation regarding qualification and procedure. Women's hockey is growing increasingly popular worldwide, and many nations have applied to have their national women's teams enter the World Competitions. The team, led by pint-sized superstar Lisa Horowitz (whose family comes from New York), is aiming for a slot in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia. Horowitz moved from her home in Kfar Adumim to Metulla to be able to skate more frequently. Danny Spodek, a hockey fanatic who helps arrange the games in Metulla, helps organize the informal, once-a-month hockey Thursday night games at Metulla. "It's too bad that they decided to close the Olympic ice [rink] at this point," he says. "I have seen our group grow from 15 players when I decided to start this up two years ago to over 80 players. I get e-mails every week from people interested in joining our group. There are plenty of people living in Israel who want to play ice hockey, a sport they grew up loving, and are even prepared to drive three hours each way." "For many it is really not worth the sacrifice in order to play on an ice surface a third the regulation size," he adds. "There are enough obstacles to overcome in organizing ice hockey in Israel. Now we have another one. But I won't give up. As long as people want to continue playing, I will continue to organize the games. Hopefully the ice issue will be resolved soon so that our group can continue to grow." About half the Metulla regulars hail from Canada, with the rest coming the USA, Ukraine and Russia, with a sprinkling of native Israelis. Robert Rouzaud, another dentist who now lives in the heavily Anglo community of Ramat Beit Shemesh, was born in balmy Los Angeles and sports a LA Kings blazer on the ice. But he grew up in Cleveland where the winters are, well, wintry. And there learned to love the world's fastest team sport. Rouzaud is the only one of the skaters who is haredi and sports a black fedora off the ice. Half the players are Shabbat observant and wear crocheted kippot when they're not donning hockey helmets. The games are scheduled on Thursday evenings to allow them to work a full day yet return in time early Friday morning to still sleep and prepare for Shabbat. As for your faithful correspondent, while I haven't been on the ice in a dozen years, I managed to score two goals and get an assist. And I'm still sore at the time of this writing. For more information contact Danny Spodak at [email protected]