Hockey before history: Canada Israel Hockey School unites Israeli youth from diverse backgrounds

Gal Tamir sliced his way toward the net, deking a pair of much taller defenders before scoring a goal that pulled his team within six in a game at Rockville Ice Arena.

The 13-year-old absorbed a group hug from his teammates on the ice and then slowly skated past his bench to receive a congratulatory glove pound from each of his teammates.

One glove belonged to Noy Rosenberg, a Jewish girl from Galilee in Northern Israel whose best friend is a hockey-playing Arab girl from the Golan Heights. Another belonged to Peleg Amitay Shemi, a 14-year-old Jewish boy who names Alex Ovechkin as his favorite player; another to Fadi Haj, an Arab boy whose family is Druze, a religion based in Shia Islam which draws from several monotheistic faiths.

A hockey rink in Rockville is hardly the obvious place to look for reassurance that peace and unity are possible in a historically divided land a world away. But if you’d been there last Tuesday night and watched 45 minutes of spirited youth hockey, you just might’ve found it.

Tamir, a Jewish Israeli, is part of the Canada Israel Hockey School — a recreational program based in Metula, Israel, with around 450 enrollees from 9-year-olds to young adults. The team visited Washington last week to commingle with students from the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School and experience hockey on a level its participants could only dream of back home.


Students from the Jewish Day School break into groups to talk with members of the Canada Israel Hockey School team at the school on March 11. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

“A lot of our friends are different, it doesn’t matter,” Amity Shemi said. “We don’t see Arabs or Jews, we just come to play.”

With one Olympic-sized rink in the whole country and hockey a cultural afterthought, the school is the only real option for budding Israeli hockey enthusiasts like Rosenberg and Tamir.Players and places to play are so scarce in the region that populating teams safely segregated along historical fault lines is simply not possible.

The only lines that mattered to Tamir and his teammates as they faced off against a bigger, more experienced team from the Jewish Day School were the red and blue ones on the Rockville Ice Arena ice, and tension reigned only in the moments before a faceoff or in the anxious aftermath of a hard fall or collision along the boards.

The score didn’t matter much, either. Earlier that day, the two teams hung out and talked hockey in the Jewish Day School gym. Rosenberg asked the JDS players how long they’d been playing hockey.

The hockey school sent the group to D.C. for exposure unavailable in Israel, to learn the sport at Washington Capitals’ practices at Kettler Ice Complex, at skates with Capitals Braden Holtby and Connor Carrick, at training with former Olympic medalists Tessa Bonhomme (Canada, 2010) and Lisa Chesson (United States, 2010), and at Caps’ games at Verizon Center.

“Don’t take it easy on us. Try your best,” Canada Israel Hockey School Coach Mike Mazeika told the Jewish Day School players as his English-speaking players sprawled on the JDS bleachers nodded in agreement. “We’d rather you beat us by 100 trying your best than not play hard. We’re here to learn.”

In Israel, that learning happens at the Canada Center — the country’s only Olympic-sized hockey rink, which sits about a mile from the border with Lebanon in Metula, a town of about 1,500. Ancient tensions threaten to boil over that border on a daily basis, but they dissipate on the ice, where young players are too occupied with shooting, skating, and budding friendships to worry about historical rifts.”

The Canada Israeli Hockey School was founded five years ago by farmer Levav Weinberg with funding help from Sidney Greenberg, a Canadian media mogul and hockey fan. Its enrollees range in age from nine or 10 through their early 20s, but it’s the school’s range of religious, ethnic, and national identities that makes it special, even more than the novelty of a foreign game played on ice in a land where temperatures and tensions rarely chill.

“We don’t care, it doesn’t matter” Haj said. “We just want to play hockey.”

Some players travel two or three hours from places as far as Tel Aviv and beyond to practice a few times a week or play games against each other. Inside Mercaz Canada, parents have no choice but to quiet any biases at the door. They share bleachers, if not conversation: Muslims with Jews, Palestinians with Israelis, all cheering for each other’s children.

“To be honest, this wasn’t the main goal,” said Weinberg, who attended a Roger Nielson hockey camp at Canada Center in the late 1990s and was hooked on the game. “The goal was to grow the game of hockey in Israel. I never imagined this.”

Jewish families in the Bethesda area hosted this year’s players, and the group’s leaders placed one Jewish player and one non-Jewish player in each household, a practice they’d seen foster relationships in past trips.

Gayle Kaplan of Bethesda hosted two of the group’s oldest players, 14-year-olds Ariel Silver from near Tel Aviv and Lait Abu Saleh from near Metula. Silver, who is Jewish and speaks English, and Abu Saleh, who is Arab and Druze and does not, had never met each other before the trip. Kaplan said she watched as Silver jumped in to translate for Abu Saleh when he needed help, and saw a close friendship develop before her eyes in days as her guests also built bonds with her two teenage sons.

One day, during some downtime, the boys headed out into the street to play street hockey with neighborhood children.

“I look outside and it was just a great thing,” Kaplan said. “Our neighbor, he’s Indian, and he’s playing hockey, then there’s the Arab boy, then there’s the Jewish boy . . . it was just a really cool sight and nothing mattered, just that they were playing hockey and they were kids.”

For three years now, Weinberg has watched relationships like Silver’s and Abu Saleh’s emerge from his school and its trips across the hockey world, friendships that have shown him the power of the school, trips, and experiences he initially thought were just about hockey.

“When they came back to Metula, their relationships were stronger,” Weinberg said. “You have to go outside, where no one is bothering them, telling the kids where to go and where not to go, for them to have a good chance to really meet the other guys.”

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