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Friday, December 19, 2014

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Hockey heroes visit the Holy Land

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METULLA — When Paul Henderson and Darryl Sittler received invitations from the Israel Recreational Hockey Association (IRHA) to attend the 4th Annual Roger Neilson Memorial Hockey Tournament in Metulla, the Toronto Maple Leafs legends were eager to RSVP.

 Canada’s ambassador to Israel, Jon Allen, centre, is flanked by hockey legends Paul Henderson, second from left, and Darryl Sittler, second from right, as he drops the puck at the ceremonial faceoff for the Roger Nielson Recreational Hockey Tournament at the Canada Centre in Metulla, Israel. Also pictured are Bob Wener, left, captain of Team Ottawa, one of the teams participating in the tournament, and Joe Bazes, captain of one of three Israeli teams in the tourney. Team Ottawa won the championship game 6-3 over Team Israel. [Nim Gluckman worldview.co.il photo]

“Israel had been on our… list for years. [My wife and I] have always said this is one of the countries we want to go to, so when this opportunity came along, it was perfect,” said Henderson, 67, who scored what many considered to be the “goal of the century” against the then-U.S.S.R. in Game 8 of the 1972 Summit Series, clinching the victory for Team Canada. “Eighteen years of pro hockey and scored only one goal. At least only one goal that anyone ever talks about,” Henderson joked.

Sittler’s reasons for coming had more to do with honouring the memory of Roger Neilson, who in addition to running a hockey camp in Metulla for four years, was one of Sittler’s coaches when he wore number 27.

“I have a lot of respect for Roger Neilson, as a coach and a humanitarian. It was really meaningful for me to be part of a memorial tournament in his honour,” said Sittler, 60, who still holds the record for most points in a single game – 10 – scored against the Boston Bruins on Feb. 7, 1976.

The tournament at the Canada Centre in Metulla late last month brought together six amateur teams – three from Israel, one from Toronto, one from Ottawa and one American.

Ottawa’s lineup included former Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman Shawn Rivers; Jeff Hunt, owner of the Ottawa 67s OHL hockey club; and TSN and CTV sports announcer Rod Black.

The event was organized by Danny Spodek, a die-hard Leafs fan and immigrant to Israel from Toronto. Spodek is founder and president of the IRHA.

“I wanted it to be something special,” said Spodek, 38. “When you bring your boyhood idol [Sittler] over from a foreign country, you want to make sure he has a good time.”

It was no cakewalk. “Try putting together a hockey tournament in a country where nobody even knows what hockey is,” said Spodek, who started organizing pick-up games in Metulla for ex-pat Canadians and Americans in 2004 and now runs a weekly game schedule for some 300 players.

“I love living in Israel, but I couldn’t imagine having to give up playing hockey,” Spodek said. “When we get out there on the ice, we forget about the fact that we’re in Israel and we go back to our childhood.”

Sittler was astonished to discover such a dedicated group of hockey-lovers in Israel. “It makes me really proud to see people driving four to five hours to Metulla every week to play hockey,” the former Leafs captain said. “It’s so nice that people are so passionate about it and put so much effort into carrying it forward here.”

Sittler and Henderson flanked Canadian Ambassador to Israel Jon Allen when he dropped the puck to open the recreational tournament.

“I knew [hockey] was a very minute sport here in terms of fan interest,” Henderson said, adding that you never would have known it from the atmosphere at the opener. “When that puck was dropped, well, everybody wanted to win. Boys are boys. We’re fine until they drop the puck, then it’s competition.”

After the opener, the Canada-Israel Committee (CIC) hosted Henderson, Sittler and their wives for an intense week-long tour of the country.

“We wanted to introduce these Canadian icons to the whole of Israel, beyond the little snippets people see in the media,” said Judy Zelikowitz, national manager of community services at CIC, who accompanied the group’s guided tour across the country. “We wanted to show them our Israel from top to bottom, introduce them to Israelis and offer them briefings with political and military experts, to help them understand the country and the people and the precariousness of our existence.”

Henderson said the tour was first-class. “It went way above and beyond our expectations. Everything has been amazing. It has been a wonderful experience,” he said. “We have learned so much. In Canada, we are just so naïve about Israel and what’s going on over here.”

“This trip has really opened our eyes to the complexity of the issues here. It’s been a real education,” Sittler added. “I have also gained a real appreciation for the Jewish People and what they stand for.”

“To understand the resilience of the Jewish People and what they have come from 60 years ago… it’s mind-boggling,” Henderson said. “You’ve got a country today, a military, a progressive society, commerce, and you’re world leaders in a lot of fields. To me, there has to be a God, or you people wouldn’t be here.”

Henderson, a devout Christian who runs a men’s ministry called the Leader Impact Group for over 800 men, was particularly touched by the sites of religious significance.

“As a student of the Old Testament, I was just blown away,” he said. “You picture these places in your mind – Masada, the Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee, the four churches, the Garden of Gethsemane – but man, this stuff is real. It put a lot more bricks in the foundation of my faith to actually see it.”

For Henderson, the highlight of the tour was the trip to the Kotel (Western Wall). He went there to put a note in the Wall on behalf of his longtime Jewish friend in Toronto.

“I went down there, I put my note into one of the cracks, and then I put my hands on the Wall and started to pray, and man oh man, what’s going on here? I got very emotional, which is something that caught me by surprise. I was overwhelmed by a sense of the awesomeness of God.”

Among the highlights of his trip, Sittler lists the afternoon of volunteering they did for the non-profit leftover food rescue organization Leket. The group prepared some 1,200 sandwiches for delivery to needy schoolchildren in Israel’s north.

“I just had the feeling the whole trip that this is a society that wants to give back, that wants to help people,” he said. “[Israelis] are very giving people, and this was very evident in all the areas we travelled to.”

The tournament’s closing banquet on Jan. 28 was also Henderson’s birthday. Spodek prepared a birthday cake and a DVD with good wishes from Henderson’s family in Canada and from former Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak, who was the victim of the “goal of the century.” Sittler delivered a moving speech about Roger Neilson and his first wife, Wendy, who both died of cancer.

All in all, it was a fitting end to an incredible week, Sittler said. “It was pretty magical. If the opportunity presented itself, I would love to come back.”

Sittler admitted that as a kid, he used to be a Canadiens fan. “Jean Beliveau was my hero,” he said. “My first year in the league, I got to face-off with him. How did I do? Who cares? I got to face-off with Jean Beliveau!”

Asked about the Leafs today, Sittler, who serves as a community representative for the Leafs in the fields of marketing, community and alumni relations, said that since the departure of Mats Sundin, the Leafs haven’t picked a new captain. “They don’t feel they have one player that fits the bill,” he said.

Still, he’s a die-hard Leafs fan. “Like all Leafs fans, I’ve been waiting since ’67 for a [Stanley] Cup, but we need to make the playoffs first. I am waiting to see when we’re going to turn this thing around.”

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