Build it and they will come.
That’s the approach taken by Tal Averny, founder of the Israel Elite Hockey League.
It’s hard to argue with this. The league started two years ago with four teams. Two seasons later, it’s already doubled in size. This despite the inauspicious start of debuting an ice hockey league in Israel during Covid.
“We started with four teams playing at the Holon Ice Peaks. On the half sheet ice, it wasn’t traditional hockey but rather 4 on 4. Still, it was exciting,” Averny said.
The original four teams were the Jerusalem Capitals, Holon Vipers, HC Tel Aviv and Bat Yam Dolphins.
That first season started with 12 imports keen to keep playing hockey during the summer, when all organized hockey in Europe is on a break.
“We are just one of three leagues that play during the summer,” Averny said. “The other two are Australia and New Zealand, so we have the advantage of being much closer [to Europe].”
In the second season, the 12 imports tripled to 36. The league added two teams and moved to the Big Arena and One Ice rink.
For this third season, word of mouth helped expand the league to more than 60 imports and another two teams. The newer four teams are Herzliya Pioneers, U20 Academy Team, Haifa and Netanya.
Not only this, but Averny was able to get Sports 5 to broadcast the games.
“It’s remarkable what we’ve been able to build in a short amount of time but it comes from a love of hockey and love of Israel,” Averny said. “The players actually pay to come here and help grow the sport.”
For those on the outside looking in at the NHL or one of the top European professional leagues, the Israeli league provides the invaluable opportunity for those who need minutes after not playing a lot for their regular team and those who are looking to stay match fit.
All levels blended together
“The great thing about our league is that there are players from different levels — junior, college and pro — all on the ice at the same time,” Averny said.
Some of the players in the league currently play in England and Finland.
One such player is Michael Gennello, captain of HC Tel Aviv. Originally from East Windsor, N.J., Gennello has been playing in Finland.
“My experience on the ice here has been amazing. It’s amazing to see all the different hockey cultures all coming together in one league — in Israel, of all places. It’s fun to watch the different styles of the game all blended together.”
Gennello has been playing in the league since the start. “One thing that has really stood out is how far the local Israeli players have come over the years. The sport is most definitely growing here and the local players are taking tremendous strides.”
Jews on ice
It’s been a real thrill for Gennello to play in a league where he isn’t the only Jewish player.
“Growing up in the US I was always the only, or one of few, Jewish players on my teams. Coming here and being a part of an entire hockey league where the majority of players are Jewish is definitely something special,” he said. “It’s a unique hockey experience you can only get by participating in this league.”
It’s not just the hockey that’s memorable for Gennello, but also the time spent with other players away from the ice.
“The league sends the import players out on trips to explore Israel. It’s pretty cool to battle against guys in competition and then enjoy and explore Israel together. And there are league-wide Shabbat dinners every Friday night. It’s really amazing to be a part of a large Shabbat dinner on a rooftop in Tel Aviv with the entire league, even the non-Jewish players.”
Israeli Yuval Halpert, who plays for the Jerusalem Capitals, isn’t a tourist, but given he’s played hockey overseas since he was 17, he feels a bit like one.
“I love Israel — it’s such an amazing country, and seeing it through a tourist’s eyes, which is what I’m doing in the summer league, is just so fun.”
Phil Bushbacher of the Holon Vipers feels the same way.
“My best experiences off the ice this time around have been reconnecting with all the guys. We all play in different places during the year. Many of the guys work jobs, too. It’s good to catch up with familiar faces and share stories. It’s also cool to hear from the guys who play on the national team about their experiences this season. Israeli hockey is growing rapidly, and it’s good to hear about the triumphs they had at the various levels from senior on down to U18 this season.”
Bushbacher isn’t Jewish and is in Israel with his Jewish fiancée.
“As an interfaith couple, it has been great to visit places like Jerusalem, Nazareth, Bethlehem, the Sea of Galilee, Jaffa, and Tiberias to learn more about the history of this beautiful country. I think the coolest thing we saw this trip was when we went to the Jordan River. It’s amazing to see all the different types of terrain and landscapes that make up Israel. It really is a place unlike any other,” Bushbacher said.
Next season, Averny promises the league will be even bigger and better. He’s working with the city of Ashdod to build a rink for the league. “It will be great for us to have a home and it will also help us save costs,” he said.
If you want to stay cool during this heat, check out a game. Admission is free. Upcoming games are listed here.
The gold medal game is this Monday July 24th 8:00pm at One Ice Arena, Tnuvot.