The Israeli Ice Hockey federation, a member of the IIHF, hosted the first World Jewish Ice Hockey Tournament (popularly called the ‘World Jewish Cup’) in Metula, Israel, in July, 2007. Four teams of Jewish players competed, representing Israel, the United States, Canada and France.
Israel competed with its national team, which currently competes in the IIHF’s Division II (two levels below the elite hockey playing nations). Israel’s team is a mix of dual Israeli-Canadian citizens, Israelis who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union, and sabras (native born Israelis). Israel’s starting goaltender and easily its most valuable player, Evgeni Gusin, played professionally in Russia’s second highest league before coming to Israel. Close to 40 years of age, he still plays at a very high level and keeps Israel competitive in IIHF competition, and plays in the Israeli league.
Max Birbraer, the only Israeli ever drafted by an NHL team (New Jersey, 3rd round in 2000), was unavailable for the tournament. He currently plays professionally in the U.K. for the Cardiff Devils. Israel’s top forward ended up being Oren Eizenman, a dual Israeli-Canadian who plays professionally in the ECHL for the Fresno Falcons, is an ECHL All-Star this year (2007/2008) as a rookie, and played in NCAA Division I for RPI. He was the tournaments’ leading scorer with 6 goals and 4 assists in 4 games.
Other notable Israeli players include Eduard Revniaga, also in his late 30’s, who played professionally in Latvia and now plays in the Israeli league, and Avishai Geller, who played in the WCHL (which merged into the ECHL) and plays in the Israeli league. The remaining Israeli-Canadians mostly play (or played) Junior A, Junior B, and men’s amateur senior league hockey (albeit at a decent level) in Canada, and the sabras play in the Israeli league, which on the average is at a roughly Junior B level.
For North American fans, the Israeli national team can probably be roughly compared to a Junior A or NCAA Division III level; although its top seven or eight players play at a higher level; its bottom players play below that level. Israel has been coached for several years by Jean Perron, who coached the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens to the 1986 Stanley Cup, and coached Israel in 2004 to a win in the IIHF Division II tournament, in 2005 at the Spartak Cup (where Israel played against famous Russian pro team Spartak Moscow, Belarussian pro team Neman Grodno, and Austrian pro team Vienna Capitals), and in 2006 at the IIHF Division I tournament where Israel competed against nations with full time pro rosters (Germany, France, Britain, Hungary & Japan).
The United States team, on paper, was the strongest team coming into the tournament. Coached by the AHL Chicago Wolves’ John Anderson, the USA team featured four professional players and four current NCAA Division I players, who were mixed with some current and former NCAA Division III and some current ACHA (intercollegiate club team) players. AHL’er Matt Davis (Philadelphia Phantoms) competed, as did ECHL players Dov Grumet-Morris (the USA’s starting goaltender in this tournament, who plays for the Cincinnati Cyclones) and Michael Cohen (Reading Royals, Johnstown Chiefs, Pensacola Ice Pilots). Noah Ruden (USA backup goaltender to Grumet-Morris) plays professionally in the UHL (now IHL) for Port Huron. NCAA Division I players who competed for the USA were Nathan Davis (Miami of Ohio), Zach Cohen (Boston University), Matt Burto (UMass-Amherst) and Justin Milo (Cornell & University of Vermont).
Canada’s team was coached by Sherwood “Sherry” Bassin, who is a part owner of the OHL’s major junior Erie Otters, was an assistant GM of the Quebec Nordiques, was commissioner of the OHL, and GM of the 1993 memorial Cup winning Sault St. Marie Greyhounds. The Canadian team, much like the American team, featured a mix of players from varying skill levels. Most of the players, however, came from the Canadian Junior A ranks (the level right below major junior).
Again, much like the Americans, while there were a few players from lower levels, there were a handful of full time professional players who competed for Canada (including Oriel McHugh, who plays for the Central League’s Laredo Bucks, and has played in the ECHL for Bakersfield, and Sean Starke, who plays in Britain’s Elite League for the Manchester Phoenix). In addition, Benjamin Rubin, an Orthodox Jewish Canadian who has played for the Quebec Remparts and Gatineau Olympiques in Quebec’s major junior league (and who currently plays Junior A in Quebec), competed for the Canadians, as did Jason Bailey of the major junior Ottawa 67’s of the OHL. Canada featured two NCAA Division I players (starting goaltender Andrew Brathwaite plays for Merrimack, and forward Seth Klerer skates for RPI), and also included three CIS (Canadian university) and one NCAA Division III player.
There are Jewish professional ice hockey players from both the United States and Canada who are far more accomplished than those iced by the USA and Canada in this event, such as NHL stars Mathieu Schneider (USA), Jeff Halpern (USA), and Mike Cammalleri (Canada), as well as David Nemirovsky, a Canadian Jew and ex-NHL player who plays in the Russian Superleague. However, scheduling and lack of available injury insurance to cover their large professional contracts rendered them, and several other Jewish players who play professionally in Europe and the North American minor leagues, unavailable.
Perhaps the most interesting team of the tournament was France. The team was assembled by Maccabi France (France’s association of French Jewish athletes). The team had only four players from Ligue Magnus, France’s professional league, and only two (their goaltenders) from Division I (France’s next level down). The remaining players were all recreational level players in France. Two of the four Ligue Magnus players – the Rozenthal twins, Maurice and Francois, are legitimate stars in Ligue Magnus, and star on France’s national team. However, this was a team that was seemingly in for a rough ride given the level of the competition that it was going to face.
Scores from the preliminary round were as follows:
USA 9, FRANCE 4
ISRAEL 2, CANADA 1
USA 7, CANADA 5
ISRAEL 7, FRANCE 4
CANADA 10, FRANCE 4
USA 7, ISRAEL 4
The medal round scores were as follows:
BRONZE MEDAL GAME: CANADA 4, FRANCE 1
GOLD MEDAL GAME: USA 2, ISRAEL 1
The games took place at Israel’s only true ice skating facility, the Canada Centre, in Metula (the northernmost part of Israel practically on the border with Lebanon) on its Olympic-sized ice rink. Israel’s games were well attended, with its first game against Canada and the final game selling out the nearly 1,000 seat arena. The tournament was covered in Israel by, among others, The Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, and Israeli television.
By all accounts, Israel’s win over Canada was an upset, as the Canadians badly outplayed the Israelis. Israel played a tight defensive trap, relied on Evgeni Gussin’s amazing goaltending performance (which included 24 second period saves), and got opportunistic scoring to pull off the upset and shock the Canadians. The USA’s 7-5 win over Canada doomed the Canadians to the bronze medal game.
The USA won the tournament, defeating the surprising Israelis by a narrow 2-1 margin. Given the American roster, their win was not a surprise. American player and tournament MVP winner Nathan Davis, interviewed on Israeli television, was complimentary of the Israeli team’s effort throughout the tournament and said that Israeli hockey “has a bright future.”
The performance of the French team was very surprising. Despite having four professionals (including two stars) and decent goaltending, this was otherwise, in essence, a men’s non-elite amateur league-level team going up against competition far beyond it, and they did not at all embarrass themselves.
The players ranged from religious Jews to completely non-religious Jews. By all accounts, most left with a new appreciation of not only Israeli hockey, but of their ancestral homeland and faith. All of the teams’ players not only participated in the tournament, but also got to tour Israel, including Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and the Golan. Coach Bassin of Canada was very emotional in an interview, stating that he felt as if he had “come home.” USA goaltender Dov Grumet-Morris, interviewed on Israeli television, stated that the tournament was particularly meaningful for him, as it mixed “the two most important things in my life outside of my family, Judaism and hockey….. to mix the two of them….is a dream come true.”
The tournament helped to expose the sport to the Israeli public (most of whom still don’t know that hockey exists in Israel), showed that Israel could host a high quality hockey event, and gave valuable game experience to its national team (which does not get the chance to play more than a handful of games every year). The Israeli Ice Hockey Federation is planning another World Jewish Ice Hockey Tournament to be held hopefully within two years.
The author is the North American spokesperson for the Israeli Recreational Hockey Association (IRHA), a branch of the Israel Ice Hockey Federation. He is an attorney in private practice in Westbury, New York, and a former goaltender for SUNY-Binghamton. He is also an ongoing contributor to and a senior member of the International Hockey Forums.
The IRHA is the grassroots of hockey in Israel; situated below Israel’s IIHF sanctioned national men’s league and junior league, it provides men and women of all ages and skill levels, the opportunity to play hockey in the Holy Land. It is also a chance for beginners to be exposed to and first learn how to play the game, which is crucial to the sport’s survival in Israel. For more information on how you can help support the IRHA and the survival and growth of hockey in Israel, contact the author via email. Certain contributions are tax deductible.