For the second straight year, a team of 12- and 13-year-old ice hockey players from Israel has captured the Class B trophy in the Bernières-Saint-Rédempteur (BSR) International Pee-Wee Tournament.
It’s hard to believe that a bunch of kids who rarely practice on ice could best Swiss, French and Canadian players – five Class B teams in all – but that is exactly what happened last year and again in February at the 36th edition of this major worldwide confab, which attracted a total of 92 teams to Quebec.
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“Hockey in Israel has grown up, and from year to year we are producing a better level of players,” says Sergei Matin, executive director of the Ice Hockey Federation of Israel. “We are paying a lot of attention to our younger players, and they are getting more and more serious.”
With coaching from Dimitry Gromkov, not only did these 21 youngsters — mostly from the Mediterranean coastal cities of Bat Yam and Rishon LeZion — ace that tournament, but a week before, 14 of them took first place in the first-ever Arnold (Schwarzenegger) Hockey Challenge in Columbus, Ohio, in a best-of-three series against the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets.
At this rate, the young skaters are doing a whole lot better than another warm-weather group playing a cold-weather sport: the Jamaican bobsled team, which famously competed in the 1988 and 1992 Winter Olympics but performed rather poorly before finally getting the gold in the 2000 World Push Championships in Monaco.
Far from the action
The IHFI Pee-Wees, who boarded with Columbus and Quebec host families during their trip, explained to local sports reporters that they catch National Hockey League games in the wee hours on satellite, or at more convenient times via YouTube.
Israel has only one regulation-sized rink, located not so conveniently at the very northern tip of the country in Metulla’s Canada Centre recreation complex. So this IHFI division practices two to three times a week on in-line skates at arenas closer to their homes, hitting the ice only about once a month.
“We are working hard to get an Olympic-sized rink in the center of the country, possibly in Netanya or near Rehovot,” Matin tells ISRAEL21c. “That is one of our main goals for the next two years.”
The need for a hockey rink in a Middle Eastern country consumed by soccer and basketball may seem marginal, but Matin says that in addition to many adult recreational and competitive players, IHFI also has about 500 children involved. And some of them are girls.
“We are thinking about organizing a girl’s team, because there is a lot of interest,” he says. “Until we have a central rink, it’s too difficult because of the distances; the girls are all in different cities.”
Pee-Wees on the road
The kids really do get around, however. With their parents paying air fare and sponsors in host countries covering ground expenses, Matin and his young hockey players have competed in European/Asian countries including Turkey and Bulgaria, as well as South Africa and Mexico. In June, they’ll fly to the United States for yet another international tournament.
“This is a new generation, and some of these children have already been playing for five or six years,” Matin says. “Those of us working to build hockey in Israel are starting to see the fruits of our efforts.”
The younger division teams sport names such as the Haifa Hawks, Metulla Maccabees, Rehovot Eagles, Herzliya Ice Time and Bat Yam Icebergs and Turtles. Bat Yam’s now defunct rink was the birthplace of the IHFI in 1988. It was founded as the Israel Ice Hockey and Figure Skating Association by Canadian émigré Paul Shindman, who apparently was not the only one to have brought along his ice skates when he moved to Israel.
“Ice hockey is a very exciting sport, one of the most beautiful winter sports in the world, and children like it,” says Matin, who moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union in 1990 and started as a player for IHFI’s national team in 1993. He won his first world championship in Slovenia, and became president of the federation in 1997.
“There are a lot of people from the former Soviet Union and North America in Israel, and ice hockey is part of their culture,” he explains. “They still love it after they come here, and they pass that love on to their children. They want to promote it in Israel, so they’re ready to do whatever they can to help it grow.”