Young hockey players from Canada and the Unites States had a unique experience this summer as they played together with young Israelis at the Canada Israel Hockey School (CIHS) located at the Canada Centre in Metula, Israel.
Metula, located very close to the border with Lebanon, is in the Upper Galilee, Ottawa’s partnership region in the Partnership 2Gether program.
“The trip was a huge success because it was the first year we’ve had a hockey camp in Israel for North Americans to attend,” said CIHS organizer Mitch Miller, who is also chair of Ottawa’s Soloway Jewish Community Centre.
“The fact that we’ve had five kids this year along with the probably 45 or so kids from Israel was great,” he said. “And I know we’ll get more kids in the future because of the experience these kids had: a mixture of touring, hockey and just hanging out with the Israelis.”
The majority of the North American delegation was not Jewish, a fact that only encouraged many of the players to get to know their teammates and enjoy exploring a new country.
“They shared the same passion as you,” said Zach Springer, one of the two teenaged Canadian goalies from Kingston who coached at the camp. “It didn’t seem to matter what their religion was. They were just there to play hockey.”
Springer said the appeal of coaching “was one of the main reasons I went.”
The Canadian delegation also included Laurie Boschman, a National Hockey League (NHL) veteran who played for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets and New Jersey Devils, and finished his NHL career in 1992-93 as captain of the Ottawa Senators; and Tessa Bonhomme, who played for the Canadian women’s gold medal-winning team at the 2010 Olympics.
The group spent several days exploring Israel. The old city of Acre, the Sea of Galilee and a kibbutz and Druse village, the home of some Israeli hockey camp participants, were just some of the stops on their tours.
The CIHS camps are a testament to the efforts of the late Roger Neilson, a longtime NHL coach who, with a key group of supporters and volunteers, began to introduce hockey to Israel almost 20 years ago. His passion is recognized for having stimulated Israel’s growing affinity for hockey.
The camps are organized for both boys and girls, and more than 450 players have participated since the first camp at the Canada Centre in Metula in 1997.
Boschman and Bonhomme led drills for players both on and off the ice. The off-ice conditioning sessions included running the rink’s steps as well as weight training.
Tom Newberry, a coach from Washington, trained more than 20 Israeli coaches wanting to earn certification from USA Hockey, the sport’s official representative to the United States Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation.
Newberry, USA Hockey’s Southeast director, taught new strategies and techniques to the Israeli coaches through a combination of 12 hours of in-class instruction and on-ice work to develop basics skills appropriate to athletes’ ages. He also helped them develop personal coaching philosophies and how to teach complex skills to struggling players.
The Ice Hockey Federation of Israel will recognize the certifications with the purpose of developing an Israeli coach certification program, he said.
The majority of coaches in the course came from in-line hockey programs as there are only three ice hockey rinks in Israel: in Metula, as well as Maalot and Holon.
“These are people who are quite passionate about hockey. That’s really fun to see in a non-traditional hockey market,” Boschman said.
Despite the lack of rinks, the enthusiasm for hockey has been intensifying. The mother of one Israeli player told the delegation that the family moved to Metula to be closer to the rink.
“It warms my heart to hear those kinds of stories,” Miller said.
The group of North Americans played hockey and toured Israel from July 3 to 13, just as hostilities with Hamas were escalating. Miller said the group was very safe in Metula, near Israel’s northern border, despite the two rockets fired from Lebanon that landed a few minutes away from where the group was staying.
“It was not a big deal for us,” Miller said.
One landed in a field and the other on a road in the middle of the night when there was no traffic. The group travelled that road the next day and saw that road crews had already repaired the minor damage, he said.
It is speculated the rocket fire must have come from rogue individuals as the Israel Defense Forces confirmed that Hezbollah or any other terrorist organization did not fire the rockets, Miller said.
The experience was transformative for kids and adults alike, he added.
“It was awesome, it was an unreal experience,” said Springer, despite needing to seek out a bomb shelter with the group in Tel Aviv while meeting with visiting Canadian senators and members of Parliament.
“[I was] a little nervous,” Springer said about seeking cover. “But seeing all the local people around me who were just very calm about it; they had trust in the Iron Dome. It was kind of calming to see that.”
Miller said the plan is to continue to offer the summer hockey experience in Israel to North Americans.
“Hopefully we’ll get more Ottawa participation,” he said, noting the challenge of solidifying the summer camp dates farther in advance so that families can plan accordingly for the 10-day trip.
“It was a great opportunity for people to get to experience Israel and play hockey,” he said.
For more information about how to get involved or participate in future hockey camps in Israel, contact Mitch Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
– Part of this article was based on files from JTA/Hillel Kuttler