METULA, ISRAEL – Just a few short years ago, the Israeli ice hockey program was one of the international hockey world’s most unlikely success stories. Led by former Stanley Cup-winning head coach Jean Perron, the senior men’s national team earned a promotion to the Division I level, playing in the 2006 IIHF World Championship Division I against the likes of Germany, France, Japan, the United Kingdom and Hungary. There had even been an Israeli citizen (Kazakhstan-born Max Birbraer) selected in the 2000 National Hockey League’s entry draft who went on to play at the American Hockey League level and Great Britain’s Elite Ice Hockey League.
Today, Team Israel faces the prospect of taking a step backwards in order to take slow steps forward in the future. The 35th-ranked nation barely avoided relegation to Division III at the 2009 World Championship Division II Group B in Novi Sad, Serbia. Only a 2-1 win over DPR Korea (North Korea) prevented the Israelis from falling to the bottom rung of the international hockey level in 2010. Along the way, Israel got pounded by Serbia, 12-1, and even lost 3-4 to an Icelandic team the Israelis have handled in the past.
Team Israel may have a difficult time avoiding relegation next year. Perron recently stepped down as Israel’s head coach after five years with the program. The soon-to-be 63-year-old hockey lifer cited fatigue and a desire to travel less from his home in Quebec, Canada. A fellow French-Canadian, Mario Richer, will succeed Perron. Richer previously coached the Gatineau Olympiques of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Further complicating matters for the Israelis is the process by which the national team recruits players. Under Israeli law, all Jews (regardless of their country of birth) have a right to Israeli citizenship. Until recently, this proved helpful to the Israeli hockey program with Canadian and American Jews as well as Jewish émigrés from the former Soviet Union comprising the nucleus of the national teams as well as the leadership of the Israel Ice Hockey Federation. To this day, the best Israeli-eligible players are the ones playing in Canada, with relatively few native-born Israelis taking up the game on ice (inline hockey is far more accessible and popular).
The core on-ice group that led Israel to on-ice success at the senior level is now being dismantled due to players’ advancing age or other commitments. The effects of the influx from Russia are waning. Goaltender Yevgeni Gussin, who played professionally in Russia and North America, often held the Israeli team close in games where it was severely outshot and outchanced by its opponents. Now 41, Gussin is unlikely to continue playing. Likewise, longtime captain Sergei Belo is 39 and has already announced that he’s going to hang up his skates.
Arguably most damaging of all is the likely departure (for both professional and personal reasons) of the Eizenman brothers, Oren and Alon. The siblings by far have been the most dangerous players on the Israeli national team and there are no clear-cut replacements. Birbraer is rarely available for Israeli national team duty because of other commitments.
There are potential future Israeli roster candidates in prominent Canadian-born Ethan Werek (Kingston Frontenacs, Ontario Hockey League) and Daniel Erlich (London Knights, Ontario Hockey League). But Israel, like all IIHF member nations, must adhere to international player eligibility rules. Werek, a second-round pick of the New York Rangers in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, has much more to gain by keeping his Team Canada eligibility open than by playing Division II hockey for Israel. Although Erlich currently has little shot at earning spot on the highly competitive Canadian junior national team, he, too, wants to keep that option available should the opportunity present itself.
The Israeli U18 team was relegated to Division III a year ago after a woeful World Championship performance in Tallinn, Estonia. Israel was humiliated, 19-1, by Hungary in the opener and then suffered lopsided defeats at the hands of Spain (12-4), Great Britain (12-0), Estonia (10-3) and Romania (15-3). The Israeli team did not play at the 2009 World Championship Division III Group B in Erzurum, Turkey.
On the bright side, in the years since Israel achieved its short-lived Division I promotion, the country has hosted a pair of successful World Jewish Hockey Championships at its home base in the northern town of Metula. The tournament features the Israeli national team playing against teams representing Canada, the United States, France and, this year, Russia.
In the years to come, the Israel Ice Hockey Federation hopes to place strong emphasis on developing more native-born players. Part of the process involves having Richer and prominent guest instructors work with some of the Russian-born coaches living in Israel to teach Israeli youngsters the fundamentals of the sport. The biggest piece of the puzzle will be to make ice hockey more accessible to athletes around the country.
While the Metula facility has modern amenities and an IIHF-regulation rink, its distance from Israel’s major population centers makes access inconvenient. As a result, the only people who play ice hockey in Israel are those who were already drawn in by the allure of the game. If Israeli hockey is to experience a future wave of success, there must be a wider pool of players who learn and fall in love with the sport in Israel.