METULLA – He guided Israel to its finest hour on the international ice hockey stage, competing against Germany and France at the 2006 IIHF World Championship Division I. At the end of January this year, Jean Perron returned as head coach of Israel.
IIHF.com caught up with the 1986 Stanley Cup-winning coach of Montreal Canadiens, who believes that the Middle Eastern country with one international size ice rink has the potential to rise to unprecedented heights in the international ice hockey world.
Today the team begins its campaign in the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group B in Sofia, Bulgaria, with its first game against China.
You were head coach of both the Israel senior and under-18 team in 2005 and 2006. What was it that has brought you back to take over the reins of the Israeli senior national team?
I really enjoyed my previous involvement coaching Israel, but as there was a lot of turmoil at the Ice Hockey Federation of Israel, I decided to take a break. Now when everybody is on the same page again, I agreed to return when they wanted me to come back. I love coaching the players here and I love the country of Israel, so it is with pleasure I look forward to be the head coach of the national team in this year's IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group B in Sofia.
Your involvement with Israel dates back to 2004. How did it all begin?
It was all down to the Roger Neilson hockey camp which he ran in Israel each summer. Following Neilson’s death in 2003, the intended predecessor Ken Hitchcock was unable to take over and that's when Alan Maislin, the then chairman of the Ice Hockey Federation of Israel got in touch with me. I had wanted to see Israel since I had been at school, so I jumped on the next plane, ran the camp and also tried to help out promising Israeli junior players to go to Canada to attend high school and play hockey.
The Ice Hockey Federation of Israel then asked me whether I would be interested in coaching Israel’s under-18 team, which I agreed to, and soon after, when the head coach of the Israeli senior team was unable to travel to the World Championship, I stepped in as coach of the seniors in Belgrade, where we ended up winning gold.
Are there any particular memories that spring to mind from your first spell as head coach of Israel?
Winning that gold medal at the 2005 IIHF World Championships Division II in Belgrade. I remember the IIHF was writing at the time that our achievement was "one of the biggest feats that international ice hockey has ever seen". We didn't have one professional hockey player on the roster, but still managed to beat the hosts (Serbia and Montenegro), who had a handful of pro players and were strong pre-tournament favourites, with a 5-1 scoreline.
The following year we travelled to the World Championship Division I in the nice French city of Amiens where we all of sudden were up against guys like Marco Sturm of Germany. Although we didn't win a game, we worked very hard and it was a great experience. I even remember that a film company made a movie about what we had achieved with the team around that time. It was an outstanding memory for Israeli hockey.
Winning gold with Israel in 2005 without any professional players or pre-tournament preparations. How does that feat compare to your other achievements during an illustrious coaching career?
Getting promoted with the national team of Israel to play against Germany and France and the calibre of players they had available was of course a small miracle. But winning the 1986 Stanley Cup as a rookie coach with the Montreal Canadiens and then parading the cup on Ste-Catherine Street in front of one million people remains the highlight of my coaching career. Also, being part of the coaching staff with Team Canada at both the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo and the Canada Cup in 1987 as well as coaching Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier, Ray Bourque, Jari Kurri and all the other great players at the Rendez-vous '87 have also been great memories.
Your first assignment since returning as head coach of Israel at was a try-out for the domestic players at the Olympic-size rink in Northern Israeli town of Metulla at the beginning of February. What did those three days teach you?
With most of our players abroad, I wanted to find out which Israeli-based players could make the team for the upcoming World Championship in Sofia. The first practice was awful. I said that I could not believe that those guys had not improved at all during the last five years. The second practice was better and after two days, I could already see a big improvement.
The reason for that is a very simple; these guys only play games and never practise. During those few days in Metulla they’ve had more practice time out on the ice that they had in a whole year, so in the end I was impressed of how they did perform. We need to do that more often.
What does that tell you about the current state of the game in Israel?
The structure needs to be built from the ground up, from youth hockey programs to building more ice rinks. At the moment the players in Israel only play around 15 games a year, because there is no ice time. We only have one Olympic-size ice rink available right now in Metulla, in the far north bordering to Lebanon which is financed by Canadian Jews. My goalie, Evgeny Gussin, is involved in a project to try and build another Olympic-size rink in Tel Aviv, and I know that there soon will be a small practice rink built in Jerusalem. There are also not enough coaches in Israel, so we have to make sure we groom some for the future, because I am not going to be around coaching forever.
Following Israel’s 2005 promotion to Division I, the IIHF wrote at the time how the victory was just the first step in the Ice Hockey Federation of Israel’s complete overhaul of the nation's hockey program. What has happened since?
At that time, there were young players attending the hockey camp that was making progress each year. But for some reason or other, the federation decided to go another direction. Developing players was not seen as important for them anymore as the young players weren't considered good enough. So for the upcoming World Championship in Sofia, there will only be – at best – two players from the team that played for me at the 2005 World U18 Championship on the roster and that doesn't make any sense.
For me it is very important that the players that are playing in the juniors will have a chance to play at the senior level, and it seems that the new people at the head of the Ice Hockey Federation of Israel are willing to do whatever it takes to develop the young players.
And I have been given assurances that even those who are in the army for three years starting from the age of 18, will keep playing in the national league in order to improve and hopefully one day be playing for the senior team.
What do you think the future has in store for Israeli hockey?
There are more registered players in Israel now than it was when I first came here in 2004, so that's positive. My goal is to give the Israeli kids a culture about hockey. For me it is very important that they understand what it takes to be a good hockey player, how to practise properly and how to play the game properly.
It is one year at a time, but the potential for hockey is there. The players here are tough and not afraid of anybody. Those are good qualities if you want to be a hockey player. Also, there are 1.5 million people of Russian origin in Israel and it is in their blood to play hockey, so with more rinks we would easily be one of the top teams at the Division I level, no question in my mind.