Full house at the Pais Arena in Jerusalem for ice hockey at the Maccabiah

By Martin Merk – IIHF.com

Not many people you meet on the street might think of ice hockey during the summer in Europe and North America right now. Even less in the south of the continents. But for the ice hockey family in Israel it was high season in July as the coolest game on earth was one of the hottest events of the Maccabiah.

Sometimes described as the “Jewish Olympics”, the Maccabiah labels itself as third-largest sporting event in the world with about 10,000 athletes from 80 countries who beside the love for their sports also share their faith and heritage. The delegations in various sports include one from Israel as well as delegations of the Jewish diaspora from other countries. In case of ice hockey the Israeli teams competed against teams of Jewish heritage players from Canada, the United States and a Team Europe with players from various countries from the continent.

Ice hockey wasn’t part of it from the beginning. The first ice rink in Israel opened in 1986 and the country became an IIHF member in 1991. Ice hockey was played three times at the Maccabiah. In 1997 and in 2013 in Metula in the north of the country while for the 2017 edition a big move was made to set up an ice rink at the Pais Arena in the southwest of Jerusalem that is normally home to the Hapoel Jerusalem basketball team. The event was a success with thousands of fans fleeing the heat for ice hockey setting a record for Israeli ice hockey so that it was repeated for the 21th Maccabiah this month at the same venue.

The move to a big facility in the holy city was also made with the help of the North American diaspora that dreamed of playing there rather than 240 kilometres away at the north end of the country.

“The Jewish community in Canada and the U.S. helped with having a temporary ice rink in an arena that is normally used for basketball, which is a big sport here. It is a unique opportunity for us and it’s very special. In the last 10 years ice hockey has grown a lot in Israel and ice rinks have opened,” said Levav Wienberg, the President of the Ice Hockey Federation of Israel.

Although ice hockey is a small sport in Israel, Amir Gissin, the CEO of the Maccabi World Union, recently called it one of the most popular events of the Maccabiah in an interview with the Jerusalem Post, even talking about the prospects of extending the organization’s sports facilities in Ramat Gan with the addition of an international-size ice rink.

Every day’s ice hockey in Israel looks a bit different than the Maccabiah experience in a state-of-the-art sports hall. For a long time of the country’s hockey history there were two ice rinks at opposite ends, in the very north in Metula as the only full-size ice rink, and in the very south in Eilat a smaller one not suitable for ice hockey. Many games in recent years, however, have been played in Holon since most teams are from Central Israel but the ice sheet built in 2013 is only 900 square metres big. Another rink earlier operated in Ma’alot shut down while a new rink opened in Tnuvot. A recent hockey program includes Yarka, a town in the north populated mostly by Druze, an Arabic-speaking ethnic minority.

There are plans to add a full-size ice rink in Holon to the existing one.

Premiere for women’s ice hockey

Last time three ice hockey tournaments were played in the category men’s senior, men’s U18 and men’s masters (40 and older). In 2022 a women’s tournament was staged for the first time.

Five years ago there was no women’s team in Israel but a growing number of female players participating with men’s teams.

The numbers have grown in the meantime and an Israeli women’s national team was formed for the first time for the 2021/2022 season while there was also desire from North America to form women’s teams for the Maccabiah. Players of Jewish heritage extensively searched for other players in Canada and the U.S. to be able to form teams for the Maccabiah and create a three-team tournament with the Israeli women’s national team.

The three women’s team pose for a joint photo together with IIHF President Luc Tardif after their historic Maccabiah participation.

This year several sports saw their first women’s tournament at the Maccabiah, beside ice hockey also football and futsal.

When the Israeli women’s national team was formed one year ago there were 40 female players in Israel to choose from. “Now we have 60 and it’s growing also thanks to the national team. We have more younger players and I believe in a few years from now we will have over 100 female players to be able to have more teams in the league,” said Wienberg. “It’s a new process and everybody involved is very excited. It’s exciting for them to see other female players. It’s very unique since ice hockey is not such a popular sport in Israel.”

Game practice for Israeli teams

Competing against players from North America is also welcome game practice for the Israeli teams of any category since they don’t play many international games beside the official IIHF events.

“We have Jewish players in North America that play at a very high level of hockey and they are hard to play for us but it’s a very high level of hockey to compete,” said Wienberg. Especially for the women’s national team that just started competing recently. “We didn’t have women’s tournaments in Israel before. Of course it’s not easy to play against these teams but our team doesn’t make life easy for the other teams.”

Players on the North American men’s teams included many collegiate players especially from Division III programs. In the men’s open category the United States won for the first time beating Canada 5-1 for gold while Europe took third place edging the Israeli men’s national team 8-7.

Canada beat the U.S. for gold in the other three tournaments and became the first-ever women’s ice hockey champion at the Maccabiah with a 6-2 final win against the Americans. The teams included current and former collegiate players as well as players with PWHPA and CWHL experience.

For Israeli ice hockey the Maccabiah is less about the results than about having a competition and bringing the sport to the people and media.

“I very enjoy that more and more people come to see the games and to gain knowledge about ice hockey. For some games including the opening game and the last game the arena was sold out,” said Wienberg. The capacity for ice hockey in the arena is 9,000.

“Also the scores went down, games were more competitive and the Israeli teams have become stronger to compete against these players.”

Presidential visit

Beside the teams from abroad, the Ice Hockey Federation of Israel also got a presidential visit as IIHF President Luc Tardif joined the event for a few days and was also on the ice for ceremonial puck drops and closing ceremonies of the men’s and women’s ice hockey tournaments.

Beside Jerusalem, Tardif also visited the facilities in Holon, Metula and Tnuvot.

“The purpose was to visit the facilities before hosting the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division III Group B and it was interesting to see the Maccabiah, to meet the authorities and talk with the Ice Hockey Federation of Israel in general and about the development of ice hockey in particular,” said Tardif.

“I saw at the Maccabiah that they have the tools and ability to host an event. It was important to be there and I was impressed about the Maccabiah, what a big organization it is and that ice hockey is the most popular sport, with many fans at the arena and broadcast on TV. I was impressed about the level of organization. It is important not only for Israel but also for the Jewish community around the world. The facility is great and more is to come. There is a new ice rink in Tnuvot and for 2024 they plan the new rink in Holon. Those ice rinks, just after the pandemic, are a success and will help ice hockey in Israel.”

IIHF President Luc Tardif (second from right) and Ofer Yanay (second from left) on the ice for the award ceremony following the USA-Canada gold medal game of the men’s open tournament.

For Israel, which is ranked 33rd in the 2022 IIHF Men’s World Ranking, it was a big deal for the local ice hockey community to welcome Tardif.

“Israel is a small country that is not on the front page of the hockey world and the fact that President Luc Tardif decided to come and to support what we are doing here is a big thing for us and it gives us understanding of how to do things in the right way,” said Wienberg.

“We haven’t had an IIHF President coming to Israel for a long time so having an official visit shows that the IIHF supports not only the big countries but also small and developing countries and shows the new vision.”

Hosting at home

Israel has less experience in hosting international ice hockey on home ice than other countries. Only once did the country have the chance to host an IIHF-sanctioned event and that was back in 1996. Israel lost a qualification game for the Nagano 1998 Olympics in Metula against Greece 10-2 but due to the use of ineligible players on the Greek side it became a 5-0 win for Israel, which advanced but lost in the next round.

Ten years later the 2006 the IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Division III was planned in Metula but was eventually moved to Romania due to tensions at the Israeli-Lebanese border that eventually led to a war the same year.

Things look better these days and Israel was awarded the hosting of the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division III Group B. The tournament that also includes Serbia and Bosnia & Herzegovina is planned from 27 to 30 March 2023 at Israel’s most traditional ice rink at the Canada Centre in Metula.

For the women’s team, which had its IIHF debut earlier this year, competing at the Maccabiah also gave valuable experiences for next year’s challenge on home ice.

“It’s very exciting because we haven’t hosted an IIHF event in Israel for almost 30 years. It will make waves in Israel and help us promote ice hockey in Israel and the Maccabi Games are helping us to prepare ourselves to host an IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. We will be much more ready for that,” said Wienberg.

“We really hope that the facility in Metula will be ready to host the event and we will need to make some adjustments to the venue. We have now a few facilities in Israel to host tournaments.”