When people think about Israel, winter in general (and ice hockey in particular) aren’t the first things that come to mind. But Israel does in fact have a national team, and they are currently ranked 39th by the IIHF. Israel’s national ice hockey team won gold medals at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group B, defeating China, Turkey, New Zealand and Bulgaria. And as a result, the team has been promoted to Division II Group A.
On Saturday night, the Israeli National Team will play an exhibition game against MIT in Cambridge, MA to help raise money for the program. One of the team-members, goaltender Marc Brunengraber, was kind enough to take the time for an interview about Saturday’s game, the evolution of Israel’s team, and the program’s goals for the future.
Inside Hockey: For how long has the Israeli National team been in existence? How did it get its start?
Marc Brunengraber: Israel has had a national ice hockey team since 1992. The roots of the team started a few years before that, when a group of Canadian Jews financed a sports center in Metula, in Israel’s far north on the border with Lebanon, as a gift. Among other things, the Canada Centre, as it is called, contains Israel’s only regulation size hockey rink, which hosts the Israeli A-league, B-league, junior leagues, & recreational hockey. It has also been the site of Maccabiah hockey in 1997 and 2013, and the two World Jewish Cups of hockey in 2007 and 2009.
Who are some of the more notable players and coaches who have been a part of the Israeli National team?
Israel’s head coach for the past decade or so is Jean Perron, who coached the 1986 Montreal Canadiens to the Stanley Cup championship. Dusan Kralik, a former Slovak pro who currently trains the likes of John Tavares, PK Subban and Steve Stamkos, is the assistant coach. Notable players include Max Birbraer (a 2000 third round pick, #67 overall, who now plays in the UK Elite League for the Cardiff Devils), Eliezer Sherbatov (who plays professionally in Kazakhstan & has played pro in France), Daniel Spivak (ECHL pro, former RIT captain in NCAA D.I), Oren Eizenman (AHL/ECHL/Asia League pro), Daniel Erlich (ex-London Knights in major junior, current Western Ontario CIS player), and Evgeni Gussin, now 45 years old but the longtime #1 goalie for Israel who is now President of the Israeli Ice Hockey Federation, and who played professionally in Russia’s equivalent of the AHL.
How did Saturday’s match-up between the Israeli National team and the MIT team come about?
Saturday’s matchup came about due to Israel’s captain, Avishai Geller. Geller is an MIT alum who played there from 1997-2001 and captained the team in his final two seasons. He recently moved back to Cambridge from Israel, as his wife is now attending MIT. The game is a chance to help promote and raise money and awareness among American Jews and other friends of Israel for the Israeli national team program, and grassroots hockey in Israel, as well as to help raise the profile of and money for MIT’s long established university club hockey team.
On Saturday night, you’re going to step between the pipes for Israel. What does it mean to you to get this opportunity?
It’s hard to express what this opportunity means for me personally. While I am a proud American citizen, I am also very connected to my faith and heritage, which Israel is at the core of. And of course hockey is a lifelong love affair. I am 42 years old. I played club high school hockey in West Islip, NY, club hockey at Binghamton University, and on various men’s travel teams. I nearly went to Israel to play in the Israeli League after law school and had offers from two Israeli teams. However, I went on to become an attorney and always regretted not taking a year or two to play. Better late than never! I have not played much in the past eight years, though, aside from the odd beer league game, and I am coming off of major finger surgery… a puck shattered my knuckle in September. I have seen pucks fired at me exactly one time since. Once. That’s it. The reality is that I’m not here on merit (laughing)… it’s basically a “thank you” from Israeli hockey, as I’ve done a lot of promotional work for them over the years, including at the International Hockey Forums. At IHF, the Israel forum is the world’s most active place to discuss Israeli hockey in English, and share stats, video and pictures. It has been my pleasure to try and help promote Israeli hockey. It’s nice to be able to portray Israel and the Jewish people in a positive light, away from the ever-constant Middle East conflict, through the game that I love. It combines two things that are very dear to me. I just hope that I don’t embarrass myself or the program out there on Saturday night as the old man in goal. I will, however, play my heart out and do my best, and try and enjoy the ride for the time I am in there.
You suffered an injury to your hand a few months back, but you’ve recovered in time to play and you’ve been given a full bill of health. Does that make it even more special?
Absolutely. I figured that I had the chance to live a dream, only to see it taken away. I’m not getting any younger, so it’s wonderful to have the chance to be a guest player for the game. The reality is that none of the Israeli pros can take the time off from their careers to play in this game. Also, the guys in Israel can’t come for a one day exhibition game… it’s not economically feasible. Israel will, for Saturday’s game, essentially ice its second and third lines, consisting of amateur players who hold dual Canadian and Israeli passports, or dual American and Israeli passports, along with two lines of guest players to fill in the gaps. My goaltending partner, Ilan Kilimnik, is one of Israel’s “real” goaltenders. He’s 26, a Canadian-Israeli of Russian descent, and will play most of the game.
What are the short-term goals for the Israeli National team?
The immediate goal of the Israeli national team is to survive (i.e., not be relegated) in the upcoming IIHF Division 2A world championships in April, where they will face the likes of Estonia, Serbia, Iceland, Belgium, and Australia. If they don’t get at least one win, and likely two, they will get relegated back to IIHF Division 2B, where they won gold last year to achieve promotion to the 2A level. Israel’s ice hockey federation exists on a shoestring budget, and desperately needs monetary support to operate grassroots hockey schools, and run the Israeli leagues and national team program. There is a U18 team in addition to the mens’ team, which is currently ranked #39 by the IIHF, which is the world’s governing body for ice hockey. Long term, the goal is to have a regulation ice hockey rink built in Israel’s population center of Tel Aviv, to make the sport more accessible to average Israelis.
Where do you see the team 10-20 years from now?
10-20 years from now, I see the team relying less on dual passport holders, and more on native born and resident Israelis who learned the game in Israel, and developed there. Getting a regulation rink in Tel Aviv is the key for that to happen.
MIT Men’s Ice Hockey team captain Elliot Akama-Garren also shared his thoughts on Saturday’s game…
MIT Men’s Ice Hockey is excited to host Team Israel this Saturday March 1st 2014 at 7:30pm. This never-before-seen match-up will serve as a fundraising event for both MIT Hockey and Team Israel. The MIT roster will feature MIT Hockey alumni who have made significant donations to our program. MIT Hockey relies primarily on donations from our supporters each season, and greatly appreciates the tremendous support our alumni and other supporters show year after year.
The prospect of playing Team Israel was first established when Avishai Geller ’01, captain of Team Israel, approached MIT Hockey last Fall. Since then, we have been working together to put together an action-packed event featuring two highly competitive teams. Fans should expect an exciting evening with on and off ice entertainment. Both teams will be selling branded merchandise, whose proceeds will go towards supporting our respective programs.
In addition to our alumni on our roster, MIT Hockey is also excited to feature some of our current players in the game. For some of these players, Saturday’s game has a special meaning due to their Jewish ancestry. In particular, AJ Edelman ’14 will be our starting goalie for the evening. We look forward to welcoming the MIT community, the neighboring Jewish community in Boston, and any other hockey fans to our much anticipated game this Saturday.
Israeli National Team Roster
Here is the roster of players who will be representing Israel in Saturday night’s game:
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If you’d like to attend the game on Saturday night, tickets (and more information) are available here.