February 12, 2006, Updated September 14, 2012

Team leader Esther Silver: I think we are on track for a competitive team.While the Winter Olympics are grasping the attention of sports fans around the world, an ambitious group of Israeli female hockey players is already focusing on the games of 2010. Despite the fact that most of the future members of Team Israel have had less than five practice sessions on ice, the women have one important advantage behind them: US and Canadian hockey moms, dads and coaches.

Lisa Horowitz, 20, the pint-sized superstar of the new Israeli women’s team, agrees that her Long Island-native father has been the driving force behind her game. Horowitz started playing hockey at 12, and practiced with her father on ice when they went away for weeks at a time from their home in the Judean Desert community of Kfar Adumim to New York.

By age 15, Horowitz had already decided to make ice hockey the focus of her life and moved from Kfar Adumim to the country’s only professional ice rink in Metulla in the north. Today, she’s setting the goals for the national team while Esther Silver, the team head from Toronto, and Page Salenger, a US-based player and coach, scramble to move to Israel.

Silver, a medical doctor from Canada who formed the team in 2005, also runs the Israel Women’s Hockey Association. It isn’t by chance that the tryouts in Israel have attracted girls and women who have parents from hockey countries such as the US, Russia and Canada, explains Silver.

“Their parents already have a good idea of the hard work and sacrifice that is required in playing the game,” she told ISRAEL21c.

So far, Silver estimates about 20 Israeli girls have started practicing seriously for the team. The next year’s turn of events, with recruits expected to hail from Boston, Albany and Toronto, will tell which ladies have the skill and determination for the long haul. Organizers are hoping to reach girls Jewish girls at US colleges; a tryout event in Toronto is planned for June.

Salenger, a hockey-playing physician from Albany, NY, says that the Israeli national team is in “the fetal stage.” The team’s success, she thinks, will be determined by how much the women are supported by their families. Playing hockey is a time-consuming and demanding sport.

“This will need to be the culture of the whole family,” she says. “If they come from families who have immigrated to Israel from hockey countries, the girls will get the support.”

The nephrologist, who is also a hockey mom, predicts that during the next four years, the team will be nailed down by older women who have been playing hockey for a number of years, in hockey countries.

“The first team will probably comprise ex-Americans and ex-Canadians. Instead of building from the bottom-up, the older players will train the younger players,” suspects Salenger who has helped coach some of the ice hockey neophytes.

Before she can give it her all, Salenger is arranging immigration documents to Israel and is looking to buy a home in Metulla. Both Salenger and her daughter want to be close to the rink. This summer, she plans on coaching the women’s training camp in Israel.

It is not only seasoned players who are supporting Israeli ice hockey. Nina Sabghir, a single, Orthodox mother of eight, has recently come to Israel toting as much gear as she could carry, and plans on sending more throughout the year.

The midwife from New York has interested her daughter, Malka, 17, to take up the sport. Sabghir, 52 started playing in 2004 because, “I was turning into a middle aged lump,” she says.

At first, she stumbled onto the ice not knowing how to skate. Now she plays with the Brooklyn Blades Women’s C team. Malka may join the Israeli women’s hockey next year when she comes to Israel to study.

Sabghir was also in Israel for the country’s first tournament last month, which brought out about 70 native Israelis and visitors from the US and Canada. During practice play, she noticed young girls playing with broken helmets, improper skates and shin-guards strapped on.

“The only way to get hockey gear in Israel is to have it brought over, but despite having the right stuff, the girls’ enthusiasm was not dampened,” she says.

Silver, who is working out schedules and team logistics, has donated hockey equipment and believes the Israeli gals have a really good chance at the Olympics in 2010. She overlooks the fact that Israel is a summer country and that at present has only one professional-sized rink. Rather, Silver points to the need of developing a sound hockey program – for women and men – as the key to Israeli hockey success.

“Our current focus is on promoting the game in Israel, and in reinforcing our women’s and girls’ hockey development programs with training, practices and games in a league format. Initially, as with every country where hockey is a relatively new sport, our skill levels will hopefully be competitive for the division we are in – Division IV,” says Silver.

“From my observations of the skill levels of the women right now, I think we are on track for a competitive team.”

Women’s hockey in Israel came about through the hard work of Canadian businessman Alan Maislin, who chairs the Israel Ice Hockey Federation. Maislin was responsible for organizing the country’s first hockey tournament last month. Alongside Maislin, works Federation head and coach Sergei Matin from Russia.

Matin contacted Silver in 2004 to set up a women’s program and a national team. “I took on this task with great determination and a lot of enthusiasm but not a heck of a lot of knowledge or experience,” recalls Silver, who since then has helped establish the Israel Women’s Hockey Association.

“Hockey is an amazing game, and today it is no longer a fantasy to have ice hockey in a tropical country,” says Silver, adding that it is the fastest growing sport in North America. From only several hundred players ten years ago, she sees several thousand playing today.

“I believe that ice hockey is going to become exceedingly popular in Israel. It suits the psyche of the average Israeli – it is a game of chess on ice – maneuvers, thinking, planning, and skill with an edge of competitiveness.”

It might be a long shot, but the International Ice Hockey Federation Division (IIHF) championship games in 2007, is on Silver’s radar. As young Israeli girls get ice-friendly and women hockey players plan the big move to Israel, Horowitz will continue to anchor the team in Metulla.

If the Israeli women have their way, it is just a matter of time until Saturday night hockey is broadcast from Israel, and sportscasters will roar, “She shoots, she scores!”

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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