Israelis are good at a lot of things, hockey is certainly not one of them, although they’re getting better. The Land of Israel, specifically Jerusalem will be my home for the next 10 months. I’m studying abroad here during my gap year between high school and college. As exciting as the year ahead of me is, it does mean I’ll miss the Islanders’ first season without John Tavares as well as back at the Nassau Coliseum. In order to catch a 7 PM EST game, I’ll have to go to sleep early, wake up at 2 AM, then go back to sleep after the game ends at around 4:30. Since I therefore won’t catch every game this year, I decided to take this opportunity to open Islanders fans to hockey abroad in the small but thriving country of Israel.
Israel has two major hockey rinks. The main rink is located in one of Israel’s northernmost cities, Kiryat Motzkin. The Canada Center is home to most of Israel’s hockey programs including the Canada Israel Hockey School. Founded in part by former NHL coach Roger Nielsen, this program allows Israeli and Arab children of many different age groups to come and learn how to play hockey. It’s one of the many bridges that exist between Israeli and Arab children in a region that is often full of hate between these two peoples. In 2014, 40 children from Lebanon, a terrorist state that is officially at war with Israel, were enrolled in the school and played alongside the Israelis. The program not only teaches hockey but preaches coexistence to its students. The students from the school sometimes travel to the US and Canada to receive additional instruction in these more hockey-learned countries. On one of these trips to Calgary, Mitch Miller, the North American liaison for the CIHS said to the Calgary Herald “You’ll see on the ice Jewish and Arab kids, Canadian kids, and I believe no ones gonna care who’s who.” It’s a testament to both the on ice and off ice impact the school has on the Israeli kids.
Another rink was recently built in Holon, a suburb of Israel’s busiest city, Tel Aviv. There is less instructional activity here but it houses many games of the Israeli Ice Hockey League as most teams in the league are based around this rink. A third, smaller rink is located in the northern city of Ma’alot, and a fourth rink exists within a mall in Israel’s southernmost city, Eilat, but is not equipped for hockey.
Despite lacking hockey infrastructure, Israel has helped produce a few NHL prospects. The first notable prospect was Max Birbraer. Born in Kazakhstan, he moved to Israel at age 14 to escape antisemitism. Still wanting to pursue his dream of playing pro hockey, he found and played ice hockey in an indoor rink in Tel Aviv. His perseverance paid off as he was drafted 67th overall in 2000 by the New Jersey Devils. Unfortunately however, he never made the NHL, playing mostly with the Albany River Rats of the AHL before signing in the UK where he currently plays. Birbraer does have a claim to fame though, as his Israeli national team jersey currently sits on display in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
Another notable prospect is David Levin of the Sudbury Wolves. Born in Tel Aviv in 1999, Levin played roller hockey exclusively until age 12 when he moved to Canada to switch to ice hockey and hopefully get drafted. He went 1st overall to the Wolves in the 2015 OHL Priority selection and scored 29 points in 46 games this past season. His hard work has earned him a spot on the Maple Leafs development camp roster this summer. However, since he grew up playing only roller hockey, skating is a weakness for the young forward, and despite his great offensive awareness, is yet to be signed or drafted by an NHL team. When asked about his journey, Levin explained “[I was playing inline hockey. My dad is a hockey coach. I was really close to him. I always told my dad I want to move to Canada. I had to work really hard so I played inline hockey a lot… I had three times a day hockey practice, but the ice rink was four hours away from my house so I went there a couple times a year to skate… but I went back to inline hockey and the fun of playing four on four with a ball… but I always wanted to move to Canada to make my dream come true].” The young man has worked hard thus far and has plenty of time to make a name for himself in the NHL.
The most prominent current Israeli born player is Eliezer Sherbatov. Sherbatov was born in Rehovot, a suburb of Tel Aviv. He moved to Laval, Quebec in his pursuit of of playing pro hockey. He most recently played for HC Slovan Bratislava of the KHL, registering only 4 points in 35 games, a year removed from scoring 43 in 46 games in Kazakhstan’s top league. He has many friends that are in the NHL and is only 26, leaving him with plenty of time to improve his game.
Israel doesn’t have the richest hockey community, but it’s on the rise as more and more kids, especially those residing in Northern Israel, become exposed to the game. Although it lacks players, The Maven, Stan Fischler will call Israel home this year as he plans to live with his son in a kibbutz in Northern Israel. Watching hockey here will be a challenge but luckily my roommate is also an Isles fan and many kids studying with me are hockey fans too. Enjoy the season back home, I’ll do my best to do the same here in Jerusalem.