Members of the Hockey Academy of Israel. (photo from Kyle Berger)
The Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, along with the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, played host earlier this month to 27 young hockey players from Israel’s Northern District who were in town for an eight-day visit.
The stops for the athletes, ages 10 to 14, on their March 5-13 Vancouver trip included a fundraising exhibition game against the JCC league (which had some former NHL players in attendance), the JCC Purim party March 9, which had a hockey workshop for kids in the gym, and a Canucks game on March 10, where Vancouver took on the New York Islanders. The Israeli junior players also had a practice skating session with Barb Aidelbaum, one of Canada’s top power-skating coaches, and ate meals at the Israeli-owned Chickpea and the Palestinian-run Aleph restaurants.
The co-ed group, comprised of youth from a variety of backgrounds – Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Druze – is part of the Hockey Academy of Israel (HIA). Situated in Metula, Israel’s northernmost town – along the border with Lebanon – the HIA (formerly the Canada-Israel Hockey School) was started in 2010 thanks to the drive and ambition of a local Israeli apple farmer and hockey aficionado, Levav Weinberg, and the initial financial support of Canadian media mogul Sidney Greenberg. Presently funded by donors from around the world, the HIA sees as its goal to make hockey fun and affordable for kids who otherwise would not get the opportunity to play.
Since its inception a decade ago, the HIA has witnessed a growing passion for the game in Israel and now boasts more than 400 young players in its academy, all of whom play at the Canada Centre in Metula, home to the only full-sized hockey rink in Israel. This is the second time a group from the HIA has visited Vancouver, a trip that was organized by the JCC and financially supported by the Jewish Federation. Members of the HIA also have visited other NHL towns, such as Ottawa, Pittsburgh and Winnipeg.
The existence of a camp in an area that has frequently made headlines for regional animosities has shown that much good can arise from sport. Many lasting friendships between players of different ethnicities have been formed at the academy.
“There are few things in the world that bring people together the way sports can,” said Kyle Berger, sports coordinator at the JCC and local delegation head for the Maccabi Games. “Sports bonds teammates together, it bonds countries together and, in some rare cases, sports can even bring peace and unity when such things seems almost impossible. This is the magic of the Hockey Academy of Israel, which brings both Jewish and Arab youth and their families together in the name of hockey.”
The HIA says it has found that, as passion for hockey grows in a region surrounded by political conflict, so too grow the bonds and respect these teammates from different cultural and political backgrounds have for one another.
Berger, along with other members of the Metro Vancouver Jewish community, has visited the hockey academy on several occasions, starting in 2012. He told the Independent that he “was blown away” by what he saw when he first arrived. “I had no idea as to the extent of the passion and the intensity the hockey academy has created for the game in Israel, and how much it has done to unite people of different cultures,” he said.
Hockey in Metula, which was featured in the 2013 TSN documentary Neutral Zone, has had a short, yet storied, history. Before the HIA was created, Canadian coaching legend Roger Neilson taught a camp in Metula in the late 1990s and played an integral role in establishing a fervour for the game in Israel.
The HIA is presently coached by Torontonian Mike Mazeika, who believes “the main goal of the academy is to integrate Jewish and Arab kids together, playing hockey, so that they can understand each other and make a difference for the future. Is that going to get us peace in the Middle East? No, probably not. But, if you don’t start small and take small steps, you’ll never be able to take a big step.”
The JCC and Jewish Federation were helped in various ways to support the HIA’s visit, including by host families, sponsors or venue/activity donors. For more information, contact Berger at [email protected] or 604-638-7286.
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.