WINNIPEG — Mike Mazeika fondly remembers the road trips that he took as a professional hockey player.
“As a hockey player, I made some of my best friends through bonding on road trips,” the former Torontonian said.
That’s what happened with his charges, as 17 young Israeli skaters on a road trip of a lifetime spent a week in Winnipeg March 12 to 19 at a special hockey camp funded by Toronto’s Sid Greenberg, president of Astral Media.
All of them are students at the Canada Israel Hockey School, which is housed in the Canada Centre in Metullah in the very north of Israel. The Canada Centre is the only ice rink in the Jewish state.
The group of 11- and 14-year-olds included 10 Jewish kids and seven more from the Arab or Druze communities.
“This has been great for the kids,” Mazeika said. “It’s similar to a hockey team being on a road trip. We are seeing these kids bonding and becoming friends, no matter whether they are Jewish or Arab. And their parents have also gotten to know each other through hockey.”
The young Israeli hockey players and three coaches were flown to Winnipeg for a week-long hockey camp at the MTS IcePlex. The visit was co-ordinated by the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg and the Winnipeg Chapter of Canadian Friends of Hebrew University.
“This is the first time that any of these kids has been in Winnipeg,” Mazeika said. “They thought the snow was the greatest thing ever and were amazed to see people skating on the river.”
Mazeika, who is originally from Toronto and has been coaching in Israel for the past year, said there are more than 400 Israeli kids involved in the Canada Israel Hockey School program.
While most live in northern Israel, some live as far away as the Tel Aviv area and Be’er Sheva. The skaters who came to Winnipeg were chosen based on their passion for the game and their exemplary behaviour.
“The kids were wonderful,” said Ara Morris, principal of Brock Corydon School. Several Brock Corydon Hebrew bilingual program families – including Morris’ – opened their homes to the visiting Israelis during their stay.
“We hosted two of them,” she said.
“The welcome we received from the Brock Corydon School parents was unbelievable,” Mazeika said. “They made us feel like Winnipeggers.”
While they were here, the visiting Israelis took part in daily morning hockey practices at the IcePlex. Off the ice, they and their host families spent time playing miniature golf and glow bowling, as well as shopping, curling, visiting the Manitoba Museum and hanging out at the Rady Jewish Community Centre.
The highlight of the Israeli hockey players’ time in Winnipeg was a March 17 exhibition game at the IcePlex against the Corydon Comets Minor Peewee A3 team.
DJ Schneeweiss, Israel’s consul general to Toronto and Western Canada, conducted the opening faceoff as part of his first visit to Winnipeg.
The visitors kept the game close for two periods, but the home team gained the upper hand in the third and skated away with a 5-2 victory.
Afterward, in the dressing room, coach Mazeika praised his players’ efforts, emphasizing that they had only been playing with each other for a few weeks and their opponents had been together for four years.
“Having their host families at the game to cheer them on made them feel like heroes,” Mazeika said.
The Israelis’ visit concluded with a farewell dinner March 18 at the Asper Jewish Community Campus.
“We would love to come back here next year,” Mazeika said.