DUNEDIN – Help from abroad brought ice hockey to Israel in the 1980s. Over three decades later, it is still propelling the sport forward.
In the 1980s there was a large influx of Russian immigrants to Israell. Some of them were professional ice hockey players back in the Soviet Union.
The most noted of these was Boris Mindel, a defender in the Red Army team who started a junior coaching programme at the Canada Centre rink, situated in the small northern Israeli town of Metula.
The region received an additional boost when Roger Neilson, the coach of National Hockey League teams the New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs, opened a branch of his summer ice hockey camp at Metula. Today it is the site of Israel’s only full size Olympic style ice hockey rink today.
The foreign influence on Israeli hockey will also be present at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division III championships at Dunedin, New Zealand this week, with the Israeli national team's head coach being Derek Eisler of the United States.
Eisler (50) played in the US junior hockey league until he injured his knee at the age of 19. He has coached the San Jose Sharks in the NHL and the China Sharks in the Asian League. He owns a rink and runs an ice hockey company in the United States.
The foreign influence has been reflected in the Israeli under-20 team that has been boosted by players with overseas experience.
Captain Mark Revniaga and Denis Kozev have played in North American leagues and four others are currently playing in foreign countries.
Defender Dan Hoffman is playing in Russia, Tom Ignatovich in Canada, Ariel Kapulkin in the United States and goalie Raz Werner in Austria.
Eisler is positive about the future of Israeli ice hockey.
“The sport is growing,’’ he said. “They opened up a mini-sheet rink in Holon, near Tel Aviv, and it has produced a lot of interest in ice sports. They have put ice in a big basketball arena in Jerusalem.’’
There is talk of building another ice rink for the Maccabiah Games, the Jewish Olympic Games, that is held in Israel every four years.
People holding Israeli passports are eligible to take part and they have teams from countries like the United States and Canada.
During the 15th Maccabiah Games in 1997 an attempt was made to include ice hockey. But it was unpopular at that time and never became an official sport.
But this changed 16 years later in 2013 when ice hockey joined the 19th Maccabiah Games. Funding was low and the sport was nearly removed from the Games, but the owners of six NHL clubs funded ice hockey and it will return for the next edition to be held this summer.
The Ice Hockey Federation of Israel is also making a strong effort to develop the game.
“They have former national players coaching and that has been in the system for a few years. They are teaching the kids to play the game from the north to the south of the country,’’ Eisler said.
At the moment Israeli ice hockey is hampered a lack of ice facilities. It only has one Olympic size ice rink at Metula and three other smaller rinks.
“We need more ice to develop the player’s skills,’’ Eisler said. “We need more community ice rink, at the moment we are only dealing with two ice rinks, the one at Metula and Holon where a club plays out of that ice rink. We will see a boom in all ice sports when they build more ice rinks.’’
Eisler has confidence in the future because Israelis are action people.
“They do not sit in their houses. They want to go out and do things and will gravitate to an athletic event.’’ he said. “If we can provide another avenue for that in ice sports the skies the limit.’’
In the last Division III tournament, Israel finished fourth at Mexico City last year but expects a higher finish at Dunedin with 15 players returning.
“We graduated some of our best players up to the senior ranks and are looking to some of our younger kids to come in and get points for us,’’ the coach explained. “I think our prospects are good. We always come into the competition with a gold medal in mind. Our mind set is that we should get a medal every time we come to these competitions.’’
This the third time that Israel has entered a team in the under-20 championships. The first time was in 1997.
“A lot of people were surprised when we finished fourth last year,’’ Eisler said. “But we expected to finish in the top three.’’
Eisler likes the format of this year’s championship with three hard games leading to the play-offs. Israel plays Iceland, Chinese Taipei and China.
“We have three solid games and it is a plus for us,’’ Eisler said. “We don’t want to get a false sense of who we are. We need to be playing steady throughout the tournament.’’
“When we reach the play-offs we are playing for gold, bronze or to avoid relegation. Every game has a meaning to it.’’
Eisler understands the pitfalls of maintaining strong junior national team and is encouraging the development of younger players aged 14, 16 and 18.
“It's a tough jump when you are promoted after winning a grade and don’t have promising younger players in the wings. By the time your older players get you into that gold medal place and promotion they are all aged out. The next division is another step and if we get up we must stay there.’’
Over the last two years the Israeli coaching staff has put a plan in motion on how to develop the players.
“It is not just based on winning now. We want our kids to produce for us as seniors,’’ Eisler said.
Israel is now producing more home grown players.
“We have relied too much on foreign based players in the past,’’ Eisler said. “Last year at the Olympic qualifying tournament in Estonia was the first time that a home based Israeli team beat another international team.’’
“The Israeli senior team are no longer easy beats. We are competitive and other teams know what we are all about.’’
Israel, a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation since 1991, has 901 players. There are 345 senior males, 513 juniors and 43 females. The country’s population is just over eight million.
The Israeli Hockey League was started in 1990 and now has nine top division teams and eight in the national division. The 2016 winner was HC Bat Yam and the most successful team is the Haifa Hawks with six wins.
The senior men’s team first competed internationally at the world championships at Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1992 when it finished fifth. It was beaten by Spain 23-4 in its first international that year. But its biggest loss came a year later when it was beaten 32-0 by Latvia. Its biggest win was at Cape Town in 2011 when it beat Greece 26-2.
Israel has won the gold medal three times at world championships : Group D in 2000, division 111 in 2011 and division 11, Group B, in 2013. Israel’s best world ranking was 28th in 2006 when it finished sixth in Division I, Group A.
It has attempted to qualify for the Olympic Games three times. In 1996 it was beaten by Yugoslavia before the main qualifying rounds for the 1998 Winter Olympics. It was beaten in the pre-qualifying rounds for the 2014 and 2018 Olympics.
Israel competes in three world championships this year: the men's U20 Division III at Dunedin, the senior men's Division II Group B at Auckland and the mens' U18 in Chinese Taipei.