There’s bad news and really bad news on the Israeli hockey front this spring, and nary a silver lining to be found.
First the really bad news. Israel’s under-18 junior team was thoroughly whacked, shellacked, shut out, bummed out and, as one sports cartoon reported tongue in cheek many years ago, discombobulated in five games in Talinn, Estonia, recently.
Playing in the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Division IIB, only one division above requalification, the Israelis were completely humbled by the opposition, none of which are known as hockey powers.
Israel started with a 19-1 loss to Hungary, and the best thing that can be said for the boys in blue is that things didn’t get worse from there. They followed the opening game with 12-4 and 12-0 thrashings at the hands of Spain and Britain and ended the tournament with 10-3 and 15-3 losses to Estonia and Romania. Gevalt. Without their best player, AAA skater Eli Sherbatov of Montreal, things would have been even worse.
As a result of its woeful performance, Israel was relegated to Division III next year.
Now for the bad news, which of course, could be worse.
At the senior men’s level, Israel won two games, lost three and – here’s the silver lining after all – won’t be relegated.
Playing in Miercurea Ciuc, Romania, Israel defeated Bulgaria and Ireland while losing to Romania, Serbia and Belgium. Israel finished fourth in the tourney, behind Romania, Serbia and Belgium, but ahead of Bulgaria and Ireland.
The Israelis were led by Max Birbraer, the onetime New Jersey Devil draft pick whose career has seen him play in various minor pro leagues around the world. This past season, Birbraer was available to the Israeli nationals once his team, the Cardiff Devils, was eliminated in Britain’s Elite Ice Hockey League.
Birbraer led all Israeli scorers with five goals and six assists in five games. His 11 points were 10th best among scorers, a statistic dominated by tournament champion Romania. Romanians claimed the top four tournament scoring positions and were seven of the top 10 scorers.
Alex Voihanski, a spokesman for the Israel Ice Hockey Federation, said head coach Jean Perron was hampered by the absence of Oren and Alon Eizenman, Israel’s top players from past tournaments. Oren’s Fresno Falcons are in the midst of the ECHL playoffs, and in two games so far, Oren has notched a pair of goals.
Alon, who played in the French professional league in past seasons, is practising law in Toronto.
The Eizenmans have, in the past, been responsible for nearly half the team’s offensive output, Voihanski said. “Playing without Oren was a real loss.”
The Eizenmans’ absence and the lack of quality players able to skate for the juniors points to a hockey program in transition, he continued. Changes will have to be made, especially considering senior team goalie Yevgeni Gussin is pushing 40, and cracks may be showing in his armour.
Gussin remains by far Israel’s best goalie, and when he retires, the team will face a huge hole in its lineup, Voihanski said. Last summer in the first-ever World Jewish Ice Hockey Tournament in Metulla, Gussin stoned Canadian shooters, blocking nearly 50 shots. Adding to his mystique is that he puts on the pads only about 10 times a year, including tournament games. “He’s an anomaly,” Voihanski said. “I have no explanation for how he can play that way.”
With Oren Eizenman pursuing a pro career, Israel hockey’s deep thinkers are wondering where the team’s next batch of top level talent will come from. There are, Voihanski said, some good Israeli players coming up, but whether they’ll be available to the program is another thing.
Daniel Erlich played this past season for London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. Only 16, he has a tremendous upside, Voihanski said. In 27 regular season games with the Knights, Erlich scored six goals and six assists. In three playoff games, he notched one goal and one assist.
Ethan Werek is another talented youngster who could play for Israel. Also 16, Werek was a ninth round draft pick of Kingston Frontenacs of the OHL, but played for Stouffville Spirit in the second-tier Ontario Provincial Junior A Hockey League this year.
“He’s the real deal,” Voihanski said, noting Werek played for the tournament-winning Ontario team in the 2008 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, which included top players from around the world.
Werek is committed to playing for Boston University, a NCAA team, instead of the OHL in 2009, Voihanski said.
Daniel Spivak is another good player – in the past, the Israel juniors’ top defenceman – and he too played for Stouffville this year.
Unfortunately, the best Israelis are the ones playing the game in Canada, Voihanski noted. Very few quality players are coming out of Israel itself, and that’s where the Israel Hockey Federation will place its emphasis in coming years.
First they must “coach the coaches,” train the hockey guys living in Israel, most of whom immigrated from the former Soviet Union, to teach youngsters the fundamentals of hockey. The next task will be to try to convince the many roller hockey players in the country to switch to the on-ice sport.
Only if the sport grows at the grassroots will Israel be able to supply more than third and fourth line players to the national teams, Voihanski said.
Until then, the Israel hockey program will continue to struggle through a transition period, and unless some of the top talent decides to lace up their skates at international tournaments, you can expect bad, worse and even worse news for years to come.