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There's a big hockey world out there

July 19, 2007, 1:30 PM ET [ Comments]
Bill Meltzer
Philadelphia Flyers Blogger •NHL.com • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Over the next several weeks, NHL.com will be looking at the development of hockey in non-traditional countries, including such places as Mongolia (which made its international hockey debut this year at the Division III World Championships) and Thailand.

This week's article updates the progress of Israel's hockey program, which arguably the most advanced of the countries about which most people say, "I didn't even know they HAD hockey there."

Israel is coached by former Stanley Cup winning coach Jean Perron and, for a country with only Olympic-sized rink and a national league that plays fewer than 20 games per season, has made extraordinary progress.

Just a year ago, Israel played for the first time at the Division I World Championships, taking on the likes of Germany. The Israelis got trounced and were relegated back to Division II. They are still clearly in over their heads against Division I-caliber opponents, which sometimes feature NHLers and are comprised of pro or at least semi-pro players. Even so, the fact that Israel was able to even reach the Division I level was extraordinary. There has even been an Israeli citizen with Team Israel experience (Kazakhstan-born former New Jersey Devils 3rd round pick Max Birbraer) who has reached the AHL level.

Israeli hockey survives on donations from abroad and, because things like sticks, pucks and referee whistles have to be imported, even donations of basic items are glady accepted as well as monetary support.

The other day, I spent a fascinating half an hour on the phone with Israel Hockey Federation chairman Alan Maislin, learning things I never knew about the challenges of managing a small national hockey program and trying to build awareness.

Last year, I wrote a story on Israeli hockey at a time when its continued well-being was one Hezbollah rocket away from being endangered. Israeli hockey is centered in the city of Metulla, which lies directly on the Israel-Lebanon border. The two-rink Canada Center is the hub of all significant hockey activity in Israel, and the facility had to be closed down for the duration of the conflict with Hezbollah.

Fortunately, while the Canada Center suffered financially during the closure, no members of the Israeli hockey community were injured or killed and the facility itself remained intact.

Now, one year later, Israel is hosting a four nation tournament of Jewish hockey players from around the world, including the Israeli national team, a team from the USA, a Canadian squad and, most intriguingly, a team from France. According to Maislin, by next year, it's a virtual lock that a Swedish team can be assembled to compete as well as ones from several other countries.

The best teams in the field are the USA and Israeli teams. The Americans have a significant number of players with NCAA Division I hockey experience and/or minor league experience. Team Canada is primarily comprised of players from Junior A with a couple major junior or NCAA players involved. Team France is most notable for the participation of the three Rozenthal brothers, including four-time Ligue Magnus (top French league) most valuable player Maurice Rozenthal.

While top Jewish and partially Jewish NHL and AHL players -- Mathieu Schneider, Jeff Halpern, Mike Cammalleri, recent Colorado Avs draftee Colby Cohen, and ex-NHLers playing in Europe such as Dave Nemirovsky and (former Oilers first round pick) Michael Henrich -- are unavailable to play, the tournament has already accomplished its two main aims.

First, it has shown that there's more to Israel than just what you see on the news. It's not all conflict and bloodshed. The country actually makes for a good host for an international event. Maislin is considering a broader tournament-- one involving more than just Jewish players-- in the near future.

Secondly, it's a way of further developing Israel's ties to the hockey community around the world. Perron, for instance, is not Jewish, nor is Team USA coach John Anderson.

"I'll never forget what Jean told me the first time I met him in Israel," said Maislin. "He said, 'It's unbelievable to be here, walking in the footsteps of Jesus.'"

Perron, who volunteers his time and receives no pay for coaching the national team, has played a crucial role in the team's rise. With the heavy influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union to Israel -- which has had a significant effect on the shape of Israeli hockey -- he has had to bring together players from widely divergent backgrounds.

"He is a true pro as a coach," says Maislin. "Everything he does is designed to foster team unity. For example, the first time he traveled with the national team he set down a rule to the players. They can't do anything -- not even watch another team practice or go get something to eat -- unless every member of the team goes along. And on the ice, he's every bit as meticulous."

Israel's future in hockey figures to get brighter, with a major rink project underway in Tel Aviv (at a privately funded cost of $15 million). Currently, players who want to play or practice have to travel by car-- sometimes for up to three hours-- to Metulla.

The fact that there is now a generation of Israeli-born players starting to come through a domestic junior system is nothing short of remarkable. The junior team often tours North America to gain experience and will, in fact, be returning for a series of games around the U.S. and Canada this fall. The completion of the Tel Aviv rink will accelerate their progress as the program expands and becomes accessible to more kids.

Next week, we'll look at the equally remarkable -- and very different -- story of the Mongolian national team.
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