Israel ices U18 winner
by Derek O'Brien|19 MAR 2023
The Israeli men's U18 national team celebrates after clinching first place against host Iceland.
photo: Jon Heidar Runarsson
Following a 5-1 victory over host Iceland, Israel is the winner of the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Division III Group A. The Israeli men’s national team, which last player at Division II level in 2008, won gold on the last day of the tournament.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime feeling, it’s great!” said captain Yahel Sharon. 

Israel started out a bit shaky with a narrow 3-1 win over Türkiye – after trailing 1-0 with 12 minutes to play – and a 3-2 loss to Mexico, but then reeled off three straight wins, outscoring their opponents 33-1.

“At first it felt a bit shaky,” said Sharon. “Our first game was definitely the hardest one. It started off 1-0 for them but, luckily, one of our defencemen (Nick Kreimerman) got our first goal and we got it together.”

Heading into the final game of the tournament, Iceland had a perfect record while Israel had lost once. All the host team needed was a single point, but Israel built a 2-0 lead in the first period and played solid defence the rest of the way. The two teams finished with 12 points each, with Israel getting top spot by virtue of winning the head-to-head match-up.

“It’s very important for Israeli hockey and the team at this age,” said head coach Evgeni Kovechnikov. “We had a really short preparation time. We had to find our lines during the tournament but the guys did an excellent job and we raised our level day to day. Never mind that we had some injuries and some players who had less ice time but they still stuck together and supported each other. That’s what we did.”

Had the Israelis lost the final game, they would have finished in a three-way tie for second place with Türkiye and Mexico, and would have finished second following tiebreakers. Therefore, regardless of the outcome of the final game, it was known that Türkiye would be third and Mexico fourth. Bosnia & Herzegovina finished fifth with three points, all coming from an opening-day 6-0 win over Luxembourg, who finished sixth. 

Entering play on the final day, the Turkish team knew a regulation victory over Bosnia & Herzegovina would secure a medal and that was accomplished with a 2-0 win. The Turks outshot their opponents 50-21 but Bosnian goaltender Karim Ahmetovsky was brilliant, keeping his team within striking distance until a late goal by Efe Oztorun finally gave his team a bit of breathing room with the game’s second goal. As the final horn sounded, the Turkish players poured off the bench, celebrating their best finish at the U18 men’s level since the lower divisions were re-aligned in 2013. 

With that result, the second game of the final day between Mexico and Luxembourg was destined to have no impact on the final standings. Nonetheless, the Mexicans racked up a 15-2 victory, led offensively by four points from Luis Valencia, vaulting the forward into the tournament scoring lead with 15 points overall.

The decisive game

In the final game of the tournament between the best two teams, Israel struck early when an Icelandic defender coughed up the puck right in front of his own net and Yonatan Melnikov one-timed it in at 1:16. The Icelanders thought they had equalized on the game’s first power play with 7:42 to play in the opening period but it was called back due to a goal crease infringement, with several players crashing the net following David Verkhovsky’s initial save. Late in the period, Israel went up 2-0 when Sharon centred out front to Guy Aharonovich on the doorstep. 

The score remained 2-0 throughout the second period and the first seven minutes of the third, when time started to become an enemy of Iceland. However, the door was opened a crack when Nir Sigalov was assessed a major penalty and game misconduct for slew-footing with 12:15 to go. Iceland had come up empty on its first six power plays and took a while to get set up on this one, but finally got some zone pressure in the late going and scored a goal with three second left in the five-minute advantage – and 7:18 in the game – when Haukur Karvelsson passed from the corner for a Viktor Mojzyszek one-timer. 

That briefly gave the host squad a burst of energy but, almost just as quickly, that disappeared when Adi Rigler restored Israel’s two-goal lead with 4:22 to play. In the final minute, a Liran Kon empty-netter secured the victory. 

“We weren’t quite together at first but at the end we got our stuff together and we got gold,” said Sharon. “I think we just had players from a lot of different places, so at the start our chemistry was a bit shaky but we got it together.”

Israel won despite not winning any of the individual Directorate Awards or having any of the tournament’s top scorers – linemates Aharonovich and Sharon led the team in points with 11 each. Verkhovsky was in goal for three of Israel’s five games and conceded only two goals, leading the tournament with an 0.67 goals-against average and 97.62 save percentage. 

Bosnia & Herzegovina’s Ahmetovsky was named Top Goalkeeper and Mexico’s Valencia was Top Forward. The Top Defender was Iceland’s Arnar Helgi Kristjansson, who finished third in overall tournament scoring with 13 points – two back of Valencia and one back of teammate Blondal.
2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Division III Group A