It’s beginning to look as if Team Canada – the Jewish version, that is – will feature some major league talent behind the bench for next summer’s World Jewish Hockey Tournament in Israel.
Organizers are hoping to match that bench strength with on-ice talent, because even at this level, pride demands that Team Canada come home with a gold medal.
Sherry Bassin, left, director of hockey operations for the Canadian teams, is expecting Canada to win gold at the tournament, which features junior and senior divisions and takes place July 3 to 14, 2009, at Canada Centre in Metulla.
“We’re not going to participate. We’re going over to win it,” he said.
In the first such tournament in 2007, which was limited to senior players, Canada did not even play in the gold-medal game. The United States, stocked with a boatload of National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) players, defeated Israel to claim the championship.
This time around, Team Jewish Canada is recruiting some notable names to spearhead the quest for gold. Former Toronto Maple Leaf Steve Thomas, right, will coach the junior team, while onetime National Hockey League head coach and TSN broadcaster Pierre McGuire is being tabbed to coach a possible second Canadian junior team.
Bassin, who won the 1993 Memorial Cup with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL)and two gold medals with the Canadian World Junior Team (1982 and 1985), will coach the senior team. Sports columnist Steve Simmons will serve as his assistant, as well as director of communications for the tournament.
The Americans, who promise to be strong again in 2009, were led by former NHLer John Anderson to their gold-medal win in 2007. Anderson is currently head coach of the NHL Atlanta Thrashers. Whether he comes back next year remains to be seen, but the Americans have named former NHLer Mike Hartman as the head coach of their junior team.
Israel’s senior team will be led by Jean Perron, the head coach who led the Montreal Canadiens to a Stanley Cup victory in 1986, while Phil David, who coached in the English professional league last year and is working with AAA players in Toronto this winter, will coach the Israeli junior entry.
Four countries competed in the inaugural tournament in 2007: Canada, the United States, Israel and France. All are expected to return, along with perhaps a fifth European entry with players from a number of countries, including Hungary, Simmons said.
Israel, France, the United States and Russia are expected to send under-17 teams and Canada might ice two squads, said Simmons.
Bassin, however, said while that is the goal, logistical considerations – such as practice time – could limit the Canadians to one team. That might mean disappointing some young players, he acknowledged.
The open tryouts for the team proved popular, with players flocking to Toronto last June to bid for a spot, said Simmons.
“We had a large number of kids from around the country. It was hard to pick. There was a lot more talent than expected,” many of AAA calibre, said Simmons, who has coached minor hockey in Toronto for more than 20 years.
Thomas, who scored 421 goals in the NHL before retiring in 2004, was recruited to the tournament by Bassin. “It’s an unbelievable opportunity… to see a part of the world I’ve never been to,” he said.
“It’s an independent tournament that allows these kids to see that part of the world and to rub shoulders with kids from other parts of the world,” said Thomas, who’s coached the Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL)Toronto Marlboros minor midgets for the past three years.
A veteran of four International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championships, including a gold-medal win in Milan in 1994, Thomas said, “I’d be able to bring to the table the recognition of what it means to pull a jersey on with Canada on the front of it.”
Bassin said organizers hope not just to ice winning teams, but “to create a bond between the kids and Israel. That’s our homeland – that’s our identity,” he said.
Most of last year’s squad are excited to return, but Bassin also expects to recruit a number of pros from the American Hockey League, the East Coast Hockey League and in Europe, as well as younger skaters who play in the OHL and NCAA.
Two players likely to be invited include Cory Pecker, who was on Canada’s winning Spengler Cup team last year, and Eric Himelfarb, a sixth-round Montreal Canadiens draft pick who’s playing in Switzerland.
Much of the tournament is being subsidized, with businessman and philanthropist Sidney Greenberg raising the funds and putting the hockey organization into place. “Without Sid Greenberg, there’s no opportunity for these kids,” said Bassin. “It doesn’t happen.”