Hockey night in Israel

[There will be a lot of hockey news here in the coming weeks as the 2011 NHL playoffs begin. For now, here’s something on the international game. I had the great joy to visit northern Israel late last year and met up with some expat Canadians running the hockey league over there. The story and video ran on February 10, 2011 in the Toronto Star. Thanks again, Gerald!]

METULA, ISRAEL—If you think getting ice time is hard in the GTA, you should consider what Gerald Segal goes through to lace ’em up in Israel. Segal, a former Torontonian, drives 2.5 hours every second Thursday to the Lebanon border, site of the only hockey arena in Israel. That’s five hours of round-trip commuting time, or, as his brother in Toronto reminds him, longer than it takes most recreational players in Ontario to go to a rink, play a game, shower and get home.

The drive has its rewards, though.

Segal and a contingent of expat Canadians, Americans and Russians regularly get together for casual games of shinny at the Canada Centre, a facility that features an Olympic-sized rink. Last year, the rink and the people who skate on it gained lots of attention when Darryl Sittler and Paul Henderson dropped in to serve as grand masters of an annual tournament. The NHL greats were feted by the Canadian-Israeli community and trailed around the Holy Land by CBC, which featured Sittler, Henderson and the Canada Centre during last year’s “Hockey Day in Canada” broadcast.

“It was incredible and somewhat surreal waiting to greet Darryl and Paul at Ben Gurion Airport,” says Segal, a lifelong Leafs fan. “They were both incredibly friendly, very forthcoming with hockey stories from their Leafs and Team Canada days, and clearly genuinely excited about their experiences in Israel.”

This year, there won’t be any celebrities on hand for the Israeli Recreation Hockey Association tournament, but there may still be visitors. Segal, who helps organize the twice-monthly games, says the facility has extra equipment for anyone who comes to visit and wants to step on the ice. Some of the players are former members of Israel’s national hockey team, which is in the second tier of the International Ice Hockey Federation. But the players who come out to the Canada Centre for the recreation games are from all skill levels — a 12-year-old from Cleveland upstaged many of the adults during my visit — and women also participate.

“These guys try to get fancy and put a deke on me, but I think I have them figured out,” says Esther Silver, a doctor — and goalie — who splits time between Toronto and Israel. “Canadians are addicted to hockey. I’m addicted to it. If you build a hockey rink, we’re going to come to it.”

Built by donations from Canadians, the arena is only a kilometre from the Lebanese border. The Canada Centre, one of only three skating rinks in the country, also is home to Israel’s national figure skating team. Since Segal and the majority of the other players live near Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the journey is a long one that goes along the Palestinian territory, and passes historic cities like Nazareth as well as the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights. Mount Hermon, the only ski area in the country, can sometimes be visible, its snowy peak looking like a northerner’s oasis in a region that has plenty of desert. Israel’s landscape is dry with yellowish dirt and sparse shrubbery, and stretches of it look rough and uncomfortably hot, but the climate is that rapturously fresh, Mediterranean feel that tickles your skin and relaxes your bones.

[Read the rest of “Hockey night in Israel” in the Toronto Star.]

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