How bizarre is this — I travelled 6,000 miles to see my first hockey game of the season. And, of all places, it was in The Holy Land.
Not that I was in Israel just to see a bunch of puck-chasers but — hard as it may be to imagine — I did see hockey played — although on a level considerably below the NHL.
While visiting my younger son, Simon, who lives in The Golan Heights with his family, he tipped me off that an ice arena was a mere 40-minute drive from his Kibbutz (village) El Rom, which is near the Syrian border.
Sure enough, I discovered the Olympic-sized rink which just happens to be a mere slapshot away from the Lebanese border in the town of Metula, famed for both its steakhouse and stickhandlers.
The arena is called the Canada Centre because were it not for big-time contributions from wealthy puck-nuts in Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal there wouldn’t be any ice hockey in Israel; just the roller variety.
As it happens, the late Rangers coach Roger Neilson is responsible for the Israeli hockey boom.
“Roger used to come here every Summer and hold a hockey camp,” one of the Israeli coaches told me. “He inspired us all both because of his love for the game and his great teaching abilities.”
The coach showed me the Centre’s wall full of photos with Neilson’s picture right plumb in the middle. An accompanying caption lauded him as the father of hockey in Israel as well as his total dedication under harsh, wartime conditions.
“There were times when we were bombarded with rockets from Lebanon,” the coach went on, “and Roger would take the players down to a bunker until the bombardment was over. When the bombs stopped falling, it was right back to the hockey practices.”
Canada Centre took an awful beating during the last Lebanon War but, like Metula and its well-bombarded sister-town, Kirya Shmona, it was completely rebuilt.
“We’ve got hockey at all levels,” explained Lionel Gaffen, an Israeli journalist originally from Montreal who grew up with Scotty Bowman‘s four-straight champion Canadiens. “Hockey in Metula is a lot like it is in Canada. We’ve got several levels, starting with little kids, up to Juniors; even an Olympic team and a touring squad that’s in America now. The only difference is that Canada has hundreds of rinks and we have only one.”
Neilson’s old pal, former Rangers Stanley Cup-winning coach Mike Keenan, and ex-Blueshirts defenseman Matt Schneider will be checking out Israeli hockey next year. They’ll be rival coaches in the Maccabiah (Israel Olympics) Games. Keenan will coach Team Canada while Manhattan-born Matty will be behind Uncle Sam’s bench.
Although Keenan is not Jewish, he moved closer to the religion through marriage and soon became more acquainted with its traditions and history.
“My mother-in-law escaped Auschwitz (death camp) and I went there in 1972 and had conversations with her after that,” Mike explained. “My involvement is deeper than hockey and that’s why I wanted to get involved in the Maccabiah Games.”
Keenan, who interviewed for the then-vacant Washington Capitals coaching job that eventually was won by Adam Oates, is hoping that his Maccabiah stint will be a stepping stone back to an NHL gig.
Schneider, now a high official in the NHL Players’ Association, was raised in suburban New Jersey by his Jewish father, Sam, who taught both Matt and kid brother, Jean-Alian, hockey’s rudiments.
“My father was my main hockey coach until I was 15,” Matty recalled, “and was the one person who helped me big-time hockey-wise. He had everything to do with the person I became and the pride I take in being a Jew.”
Both Keenan and Schneider will feel right at home in the 2,000-seat Canada Centre because it so closely resembles North American rinks right down to the Zamboni ice-cleaning machine. What Israel doesn’t have — at least at the moment — is another hockey rink. Which means that ice time in Metula is at a premium although two new rinks are in the works — one in Tel Aviv and the other in Eilat at the very Southern tip of Israel.
Nevertheless, the Canada Centre has enough room for The Maven’s two grandchildren, Ariel, 6, and Odel, 8, to get a couple of practice sessions in every week. I attended a few and was impressed with the dedication of both coaches and youngsters alike.
Granted, there may not be any future NHLers among the group of kids but I felt the same kind of pervasive hockey emotion as I would at the Rangers’ training base in Greenburgh, New York. Especially when my grandchild, Ariel, slid the puck into the twine and raised his little, wooden stick while yelling “GOAL!”
Hey, a goal is still a goal both in Hebrew and English!