Israel’s national hockey team competed in the International Ice Hockey Federation Division II, Group A World Championship in April 2008. The tournament was hosted by Romania and held in the city of Miercurea Ciuc. Israel competed against host Romania, Belgium, Serbia, Bulgaria and Ireland.
Israel has been coached for several years now by Jean Perron, who coached the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens to the 1985-86 Stanley Cup championship. The Israeli national team is currently ranked 35th in the IIHF world rankings. IIHF’s Division II is two levels below the elite hockey powers such as Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, the United States, and the Czech Republic. IIHF Division II consists of national teams featuring a mix of largely semi-pro and amateur players, with some pro players mixed in. However, the top Division II teams such as Romania feature a largely professional roster, whereas teams newly promoted to Division II, such as Ireland, are almost all amateur players.
Israel’s roster consists of a mix of dual Canadian-Israeli citizens and Israelis who originally came to Israel by way of the Soviet Union. Native born Israelis are starting to appear on the Israeli hockey scene as well. The Israeli men’s team has players who play in various leagues and almost never get a chance to play together on a consistent basis. The eligible players form a fluid roster; the team’s roster changes from tournament to tournament depending on who is available at the time. The top few players on the Israeli team are professionals. The bulk of the players are amateurs. Some play in the Israeli national league (an amateur league, which, on average, competes roughly at a U.S. Junior B level, although the players on the Israel national team from that league compete at a higher level). Others play Canadian Junior A or Canadian university hockey.
In Romania, Israel started out with only two and a half lines of offense and two lines of defense available. The team ultimately ended up with three lines. With such a short bench, Perron had some of the forwards drop back and play some shifts on defense. I spoke to Tal Avneri, a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen making his IIHF tournament debut for Israel, about the short bench situation. Avneri said that Perron used him on defense for about half of the games due to the shortage of players.
The tournament started horrifically for Israel, as they were crushed by the host Romanians by a score of 13-0. Of small consolation was the fact that the Romanians went on the beat all of the competition by similarly lopsided scores, and earned a promotion to the IIHF Division I tournament in 2009, which is the level right under the elite hockey powers. Israel was outshot in the game by a 59-17 margin. Israel next faced Belgium, a team Israel was 6-5-1 against all time heading into the match-up. Although Israel led 1-0, and the game was tied 2-2 at one point, Belgium won the game 6-3, outshooting the Israelis by a 40-32 margin. Israel then faced Serbia, a team Israel has had some success against in the past. The Serbians dominated the contest, winning 4-1 and outshooting Israel 53-17. Again, Israel couldn’t hold on to an early 1-0 lead.
With two games remaining, Israel needed to win both to keep its fate in its own hands (rather than watching the scoreboard and hoping for other teams to lose) and assure that the team stayed in Division II. Israel faced Bulgaria, a team it was 2-1-1 against all time coming into the contest. The Israelis won a tight 5-4 game in overtime. The Israelis outshot the Bulgarians by a 38-22 margin, but let a 4-2 third period lead slip away before winning early in overtime on a goal by Max Birbraer, the team’s star offensive player. Birbraer, a 2000 third round draft pick of the New Jersey Devils, currently plays professionally in the British Elite League, and was relied upon by Israel for offense. Birbraer led Israel in scoring during the tournament, with five goals and six assists for 11 points in five games. His breakout game was against Ireland, Israel’s final foe in the tournament. Birbraer spoke to Inside Hockey about the Israeli national team and his career; click here to read the interview.
Ireland was something of a surprise participant in the tournament. The reason is that the Irish national team is in its infancy – it participated for the very first time in an IIHF tournament last year in 2007, hosting an IIHF Division III tournament – which it surprisingly won to gain immediate promotion to Division II. The Irish program has commendably grown very quickly, and they were looking to upset the depleted Israeli squad. However, the Irish were overmatched in all of their games in their first trip to the Division II level, including the game against Israel, despite Israel’s short bench. Israel outshot Ireland 42-21 and crushed the Irish by a 7-1 score. Birbraer had a hat trick and added three assists for a six-point game.
Inside Hockey spoke to Israeli national team player Tal Avneri about the tournament. Avneri, 23, refused to place the blame for the losses on the short bench. “We didn’t fight hard enough when we fell behind. It wasn’t the short bench. We needed to play a full 60 minutes every game, and we didn’t always do that. I don’t know why, it was a weird year.” Avneri said that “even with the short bench, we had the talent to win silver, and it’s disappointing that we didn’t. We should have at least won a medal this year for Jean [Perron].” Avneri and the rest of the team are looking to do just that in next year’s IIHF Division II tournament.
Romania went undefeated to win the tournament and gain promotion to the 2009 IIHF Division I tournament, where it will face the likes of Italy, Slovenia, Kazakhstan, and Great Britain. Belgium won silver, Serbia won bronze. Israel finished mid-table in fourth place, with Bulgaria in fifth and Ireland in sixth. Ireland was relegated back to IIHF Division III.
Photo © 2008 Tal Avneri