Abigail Klein Leichman
September 14, 2010, Updated May 21, 2012

It may take a four-hour drive to the only ice rink in the country, but the die-hard hockey hounds of Israel’s Ice Hockey Federation are determined to enjoy their favorite pastime.

Israel Ice Hockey League game

A love of the ice – players get their skates on out on the rink.

During the hottest August in Israeli history, Canadian émigré Paul Shindman is lacing up his hockey skates. And he’s not alone. About 400 sportsmen compete in the

Israel Ice Hockey Federation’s senior and junior leagues, while some 140 people from ages five to 65 participate in a recreational league.

Ice doesn’t come naturally to the Mediterranean climate. There is just one regulation-size rink, located in the Canada Center recreation complex in Metulla, near the border with Lebanon.

Shindman and like-minded players see no reason to sacrifice their favorite pastime in their favorite country, however. And they don’t mind driving three or four hours to play.

“A lot of people had moved here in the 1960s and 1970s with their skates, hoping one day they’d have occasion to use them,” Shindman tells ISRAEL21c. Some 25 percent of immigrants hail from hockey-loving Canada and Russia.

“If you grew up playing hockey, you have a love of skating and a love of the game. There is something dynamic and fluid and exciting to be skating around with the wind whipping through your hair.”

Two sets of equipment started a league

Toronto-native Shindman, 53, still plays in Metulla every month – along with his four children under the age of 11 – and sits on the board of the seven-year-old Israel Recreational Hockey Association.

A mechanical engineer, technical writer, and sometime skating and hockey instructor, Shindman moved to Israel in 1987 and found a job with the company that had just built Israel’s first ice rink in Kiryat Motzkin. They constructed a second small rink in Bat Yam, near Tel Aviv. Neither rink still stands. But the Bat Yam venue was where Shindman created the Israel Ice Hockey Federation.

After collecting donated gear and placing an ad in the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI) bulletin in 1988, Shindman started hearing from people all over the country, including a few who were born in Israel. The Israel Ice Hockey and Figure Skating Association began with seven founders and a core membership of mostly former North Americans, Belgians and Russians.

“When we had gathered two sets of equipment, I started an official hockey league in 1989 with three teams. By the second week we had enough players for a fourth team,” Shindman recounts. “Word was getting around and more people were coming out of the woodwork.”

Then and today, it wasn’t only citizens who joined, but also people with temporary student or work visas. Not all are Jewish. “We get die-hard players from abroad who love Israel and hockey.

“To combine both is a dream,” says Shindman.

NHL All-Stars came to Israel

Israel Ice Hockey League tournament

Facing off at the last ice hockey tournament held in Metulla in February this year. Participants include Jon Allen, the Canadian ambassador to Israel, and Canadian hockey legends Darryl Sittler and Paul Henderson.

In a bid to gain entry for his organization into the International Ice Hockey Federation, Shindman staged an exhibition game against Canadian peacekeeping troops in 1990. Spectators included the mayor of Bat Yam and the Canadian ambassador and embassy staff, but most importantly, the head of the Israel Olympic Committee.

“To be accepted into the federation, we needed a letter from the Olympic Committee, and we had to show them we were organized,” says Shindman. The game ended in a crushing 20-2 defeat for the Israelis, but the committee was convinced. And in 1992 Israel participated in its first world championship tournament, in South Africa. “We did not finish last,” Shindman notes. “Turkey did.”

Next year, Israel is scheduled to face off with the United Arab Emirates in the world championships. “Sport conquers all, and politics stays out of it,” says Shindman. “Win, tie, or lose, you line up after the game and shake the other guys’ hands.”

In February, the non-contact recreational league will host its fifth annual international tournament that draws players from the United States, Canada, and Israel. “It’s a great excuse to come see the Holy Land,” says Shindman. “Last year we had former NHL all-stars Darryl Sittler and Paul Henderson as our guests of honor. They went back as ambassadors of good will.”

Taking notice

Ice hockey’s profile in Israel received a boost 13 years ago, when it made the roster of sports at the International Maccabiah Games. Talented Jewish players and managers in North America took notice. Montreal hockey enthusiast Alan Maislan became chairman of the Israel Ice Hockey Federation and recruited Stanley Cup-winning Canadians coach Jean Perron to coach Team Israel.

“Under Perron, we made it to Division IB in international hockey,” Shindman relates. “Our team was outclassed, but to make it that high was an amazing achievement for a small country. What’s holding us back now is really just a lack of rinks. People have to go up to Metulla – and they do, from as far away as [southern] Beersheba. There are even families who moved there so their kids could play hockey.”

One might wonder why hockey hounds like Shindman ever left Canada. “It was clear to me that life in Israel was worth whatever changes were involved in moving back to the Jewish homeland,” Shindman stresses. “As a Canadian, one gives up a lot of things when [moving to Israel], not just hockey, and those are replaced with the different adventures and assets that Israel is blessed with.”

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