From skating on ponds to community-based teams, Minnesota kids learn to love the game at an early age. Hockey is a way of life.
Playing hockey in Israel is a bit of a different animal. It has to be something you truly want, and it’s something that requires a big commitment. Judging from my time spent with the small but passionate hockey community in Israel, I would say it’s all worth it.
Before I can tell you about hockey in Israel and how I got here, I should probably tell you where I’m from. I developed a passion for coaching during my playing days in Eden Prairie.
Starting out as a student coach and eventually working my way up to a Level 4 coach by the time I turned 18, I never knew how far I would go in the game. That was until I found myself here in Israel, the unlikeliest of hockey places.
During my freshman year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, my coaching career would lead me down a very different yet rewarding path.
My travels took me to Metulla, the northernmost point in Israel, on the Lebanese border. As beautiful as it was, it was a far cry from my hometown. The winters are cold and wet, but it rarely snows. Summers, as you would expect in the Middle East, are warm and dry.
The drive from Jerusalem to Metulla can take as long as four hours, or as little as two hours if you hitch a ride with the right Israeli driver.
Located within the Metulla city limits is the Canada Centre Sports Complex, a bustling recreational facility with a great view of the Galilee. It is Israel’s only Olympic-size ice rink, and is home to most Israeli figure skaters.
While not as popular as basketball and soccer, there is a thriving hockey community found there. I was actually somewhat surprised by the skill some of these players had. I think it will only be a matter of time before people begin to realize that hockey in Israel is not a joke and needs to be taken seriously.
As I settled into my studies in Jerusalem, I still found time to help out on the ice, mostly working with goalies but also taking time to run skating and passing drills with the kids. I worked with two different age groups, one of 6- to 13-year olds and an older group with ages ranging between 13 and 17. Their skill levels were all over the map – some were just learning to skate and some had been playing for years and were very good.
Unless they play on the National Team, the kids spend their entire hockey careers playing for the same coach. While they seem to love and respect their coach, it was good for them to have new blood come in and lead them through different drills.
It is very tough for these kids to get better at hockey due to the lack of ice in the country. Going to the rink, the practice itself, then getting back home can be a 5- or 6-hour process for some, and then they need to eat dinner, do homework, and get some sleep.
The older kids speak English, but a majority of the younger kids only speak Hebrew. My Hebrew wasn’t as good as I wish it was, and I was forced to work on it while coaching. When I explained a drill, I would ask the kids (in Hebrew) if they understood my English.
Hockey In Israel By the Numbers
6 - Number of teams at the senior level representing five cities. There are five teams plus a women’s team at the Junior level
28 - Number of female players in Israel
35 - World ranking of the Men’s national team
528 - Number of registered hockey players out of 7 million Israeli citizens
1991 - Year Israel joined the International Ice Hockey Federation
Kids seem to be much more mature than American kids their age. Some of them work, but most go to school, play hockey, and do homework. They’re also more informed on what’s happening within their country than kids in the U.S., and knowing they have to head off to the military as soon as they turn 18, they live life to the fullest and try to gain as much knowledge as they can before they have to leave. Boys have a three-year commitment, while girls have to spend two and a half years in the Israeli military.
Despite their differences, Israeli kids also have a lot in common with kids back home. They’re all text-a-holics on their cell phones, and they follow the NHL religiously. They listen to the same music in the locker room, wear the same gear as American kids, and have the same love of the game.
In addition to coaching, I was able to lace up the skates and play in a local league that consisted of eight teams with players from all across Israel and also found time to play in a bi-weekly pick-up game in the Israel Recreational Ice Hockey Association. There are no officials – just good old shinny hockey. Nobody keeps score, everyone has a good time.
The Israel Ice Hockey Federation also fields a National Junior (Tier III) and Senior (Tier II) team to compete in the IIHF World Championships. The Federation brings in coaches from around the world to work with their teams, including a number of American coaches. Many of the players on these teams were born in Israel but are currently residing and training in North America. They travel back to Israel for the yearly training camp.
It was amazing to me that even in these dangerous times, when Israel is defending itself from almost daily threats of terrorism, that hockey goes on. Many of my hockey brethren are also in the Israeli military. They could get called up at any time, and once Hamas began their attacks into Israel, these players did not know if and when they would be told they had to go to the Gaza Strip.
My Israeli friends in the military don’t talk about their day jobs because they look at their time in the rink as a chance to get away from the war. But when I need to know something or need reassurance they are there for me.
I had friends who received a call from their commander and within four hours needed to be at their base. Once rockets were fired from Lebanon into Israel, I was sure hockey would be cancelled, but it was not.
No matter where you are, or where you’re from, hockey will always find a way to live on.
Photos by Nimrod Gluckman