Nat'l ice hockey team faces tough test [pg. 10]

Last year, the national team captured the International Ice Hockey Federation Division II Group B title to qualify for a spot at this year's Division I Group A World Championship, which begins on Tuesday at Amiens, France. While the other Division I teams are made up of fulltime professionals, Israel's squad is made up of players from the domestic league - which utilizes Israel's only Olympic-size rink at the Canada Center in Metulla, players who compete on college teams in North America, and minor leaguers. The IIHF World Championships are split into four divisions. The Premier Division consists of the top 16 teams in the world, including Russia, Canada and the US, while the three other divisions - I, II and III - consist of 12, 12 and five teams, respectively. Divisions I and II are each split into two groups. "Our target is to stay in Division I," said Sergei Matin, the president of the Israel Ice Hockey Federation. "We will be up against professional [players], including the possibility that some of [them] play in the National Hockey League." Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Matin surveyed the competition this week. "Germany, for example, has two NHLers listed on their roster, and will most likely be the strongest team at the tournament as well." The Germans, who dropped down from the Premier Division last year, are currently ranked 10th in the world. "France will be another formidable opponent, as they have a strong team, and it will be on their home ice." The French, who won the silver medal at last year's Division I Group B championship, are ranked 19th. Jean Perron, who won the 1986 Stanley Cup - the NHL championship - as head coach of the Montreal Canadiens, will also be leading the 35th-ranked squad against Japan, Hungary and Great Britain. "Realistically, our chances are not too good, but in a onegame round robin event, anything can happen, and we will try our best to finish this tournament with honor," he added. "To lose to teams like Germany, for example, is not a shame, but how we lose is what's important." Much of the team consists of the best players from the local league. Captain Sergei Belo, Eddy Ravniaga and Boris Amromin - the back-up goalie - are all from the Haifa team that just won the league championship; the two Bat Yam teams contribute outstanding goalkeeper Evgeny Gussin, Marek Lebedev and Avishai Geller; Artium Korotin and reserve goalie Ilan Kilimnik play for Ma'alot; and Metulla's representative is Yoni Knitor. Several of the national team players, many of whom came up through the junior ranks of Israeli hockey, are studying overseas while playing hockey in and around the universities they attend. Oren, Alon and Erez Eisenman are brothers and teammates. Oren attends Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on a hockey scholarship, while Alon, who was named the most outstanding player on last year's gold medal team, played minor league professional hockey in France last year and has returned to university for a second degree. Daniel Spivak is currently playing AAA junior hockey in Canada, while Sergei Frenkel, Ron Berman, Ron Soriano and Itzhak Levy round out most of the squad. "I'm proud to be able to take part in the world championships at my age and to have the honor of being the captain," said the 36-year-old Belo. "It has been my dream to play in Division I and to end my career at this high level. "It's a great honor for me to be able to represent Israel at this level, considering that we're a very small country [with only one regulation ice rink]." Geller is the newest member of the national team, playing in his first first year of eligibility, after making aliya in December 2003 from the San Francisco area. He has been a standout performer in the local league, helping lead his team - then Lod, now Bat Yam II - to consecutive league championships and second place this past season. Geller's early childhood was spent in Israel, and at age five moved with his mother to the US. His mother signed him up for skating lessons after seeing a youth hockey team in a pick-up game at a local rink. "[It] was before hockey became popular in that area," Geller noted, "and I never stopped playing hockey after that." Geller relates that in high school, he was one of the youngest players on a Junior B team, which was the first in the Bay area to join the Western States Hockey League. After paying fours years of varsity hockey at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned his degree in electrical engineering and computer science, he joined a professional team in Anchorage, Alaska, for two years. At one point, the computer startup company he was working for went bankrupt and he decided to consider making aliya. After visiting on a birthright trip and then a two-month program in the IDF, he made the move. Geller, who now works for SAP Laps Israel, lives in Tel Aviv and drives up to Metulla for league games. "I'm very surprised and pleased that there is hockey in Israel," he said. "However, I think it can be even more successful in the future. I think it is a sport that Israelis would fall in love with if given the opportunity, and I hope that they will get that opportunity. "It's unfortunate that there is currently only one rink in the entire country, and that it is so far away. "It's a good feeling to play hockey here, and I'm proud to have been selected to the national team. I feel very fortunate and feel it's a great honor. "[I] hope to play well, and I hope we can play well enough to stay in Division I."