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Paul Martin headshot for calling cards (Fred Lum)
Paul Martin headshot for calling cards (Fred Lum)

Patrick Martin

Hockey tournament a breakaway success in Israel Add to ...

At first glance it looked like any other international hockey tournament: players in their early 20s carrying in their hockey bags, on-ice officials arriving in suits and ties, former NHL players working as coaches for Team Canada and the Zamboni making one last sweep of the ice.

Outside the arena flew the participants' flags - Canada, Russia, the United States, France and ... Israel?

Look beyond the flags and you see the mountains of Syria, turn around and there are the hills of Lebanon.

This is no ordinary hockey tournament: It's the World Jewish Ice Hockey Championships, which started yesterday in this northernmost Israeli town pressed up against the border with Lebanon.

Three years ago this month, lines of Israeli tanks and armoured personnel carriers were making their way through town and into Lebanon, where they waged a month-long campaign against Hezbollah.

This day, it's lines of young hockey players making their way to the Canada Centre arena from their hotels and a nearby kibbutz.

"I never imagined it," said Sean Frank, a 20-year-old player with Canada's senior team. "Coming to the Middle East to play hockey in July!"

It all started as a twinkle in Sidney Greenberg's eye. The Canadian chairman of Astral Media had been impressed by the international Jewish summer sports competition known as the Maccabiah Games played in Israel every four years. Two years ago, he mounted the first hockey equivalent: a tournament with four teams. This year there are nine teams, with four of them in an under-16 division.

The senior teams have drawn talent from major junior hockey, elite European leagues, college teams and the American Hockey League. Canada's goalie, Josh Tordjman, played part of last year for the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes.

It's a surprisingly fast, exciting brand of hockey.

"I never knew we had so many good Jewish hockey players in Canada," said Sherry Bassin, himself a Jew and a former coach of Canadian Olympic and World Junior teams. Mr. Bassin, from Oshawa, Ont., coaches Canada's senior team, while former Toronto Maple Leaf Steve Thomas and former New York Ranger and Edmonton Oiler Jeff Beukeboom coach Canada's two under-18 entries.

"We had so much talent at the tryouts," explained Mr. Bassin, overall director of player personnel, "that we decided to send two teams."

It also helped fill the gap when France dropped out of the junior competition with little notice.

France plays its first senior game tomorrow while the other four national entries kicked off the event yesterday.

In a hard-hitting, high-spirited affair, Canada defeated Israel 4-0 before a crowd of about 300 spectators. Interestingly, the best skater in the tournament is on Israel's team.

Oren Eizenman, 24, whom coaches expect to land a spot on a European team if not in the NHL, resides in Toronto, but holds Israeli citizenship. And he's not alone. Altogether, 10 of the 23 Israeli players live in Canada.

But perhaps the second-best player in the Israeli lineup is goaltender Yevgeny Gussin, formerly of the Soviet Union, now among the many Russian Jewish athletes who have moved to Israel. Mr. Gussin, who played in the Soviet Union with Vladislav Tretiak, is 41, but he is not the oldest player in this event.

In fact, 10 of Russia's 16 players are over 40. Most played in Russia's elite leagues, but in a warm Israeli arena yesterday they looked every one of their years. They went down to a 16-0 defeat at the hands of a fast-skating American squad that was half the Russians' collective age.

The junior squads kick off their schedule today and a player to watch is 16-year-old Jaimie Leonoff, a native of Montreal, who resides in Florida and attends school in Connecticut. Ms. Leonoff is one of the U.S. junior team's goaltenders.

Until this year, she had only played with boys in Montreal and in the states.

"I'm just thrilled to be here," she said of the opportunity to play and to visit Israel for the first time.

Pulling off such a tournament is no easy feat and it took an entrepreneur like the loquacious Mr. Greenberg to do it. He raised, or personally contributed, most of the almost half a million dollars the event is costing.

Staff members such as Mr. Thomas and Mr. Beukeboom contribute their time.

In their off days the teams are offered sightseeing trips around the country. One outing takes them to Jerusalem, about three hours away, another gives them a tour of the nearby occupied Golan Heights.

For most participants, it's their first trip to Israel.

"We really hope we're helping build hockey in Israel," Mr. Greenberg said. Last year, he explained, he started a weekly hockey school at the Canada Centre, the only full-sized hockey rink in the country.

"We had 600 kids from all over the country. Everything was paid for," he said. "We provided transportation, equipment, coaches and the ice time."

"We even had a school from Nazareth send 35 Arab-Israeli children. Next year I hope to increase the total to 1,500 kids, with at least 300 coming from the Arab community," he said.

"Hockey's a great way to show kids how to live and work together."

Follow on Twitter: @globepmartin

 

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