Photo via Scott Olivenbaum

When you think about hockey powerhouses, Israel doesn’t usually come to mind. Currently ranked 39th in the IIHF world rankings, the country has never been ranked better than 28th at any point in their lifespan. Regardless, with the the help of many people from around the world, the game continue to grow and will only get better in the pursuit of hockey supremacy. Just recently, Israel won gold at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey Division II Group B World Championships in Hungary, earning promotion to Division IIA.

On March 1st, 2014, a team made of some of the best players from Israel will travel to North America to play against the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a Division II college team. Among those involved in bringing the event to fruition is goaltender Marc Brunengraber, one of the biggest promoters of the game in the country. Marc was kind enough to take the time for an interview about Saturday’s game, in which he hopes will benefit the team in a major way for the future.

THH) Introduce yourself for those who don’t know you, and maybe explain your role in hockey in Israel.

MB)  I’ve been involved with helping to promote Israeli hockey for about nine years.  I’m a native New Yorker, and a proud American, but Jewish by faith and background, and Israel is accordingly very important to me.  I am 42 years old, and am an attorney in private practice.  I played club high school hockey in West Islip, NY, club hockey at Binghamton University, and on various men’s travel teams.  I nearly went to Israel to play in the Israeli League after law school and had offers from two Israeli league teams (the top domestic league ranges from solid rec-level players up through Junior B level or so, with the occasional guy who has had better experience, and the age ranges from teenagers through guys into their fifties…..it’s a small pool of players and most teams have only three lines).  However, I went on to become an attorney and always regretted not taking a year or two to play in the league.  I have not played much in the past eight years, though, aside from the odd beer league game, and I am coming off of major finger surgery… a puck shattered my knuckle in September.  I have seen pucks fired at me exactly one time since.  Once.  That’s it.  The reality is that I’m not here on merit (laughing)… it’s basically a “thank you” from Israeli hockey, as I’ve done a lot of promotional work for them over the years, including at the International Hockey Forums.  At IHF, the Israel forum is the world’s most active place to discuss Israeli hockey in English, and share stats, video and pictures.  It has been my pleasure to try and help promote Israeli hockey.  It’s nice to be able to portray Israel and the Jewish people in a positive light, away from the ever-constant Middle East conflict, through the game that I love.  It combines two things that are very dear to me.  I just hope that I don’t embarrass myself or the program out there on Saturday night as the old man in goal.  I will, however, play my heart out and do my best, and try and enjoy the ride for the time I am in there.  I am always glad to promote Israeli hockey and help show a side of Israel – and Israelis – through sport that is criminally ignored by mainstream media in both North America and Europe.

THH) How popular is the sport in the country?

MB) Hockey is unknown to most Israelis.  It has some presence in the far north, due to Israel’s only full size rink being located in Metula.  The Canada Centre, as it is called, contains Israel’s only regulation size hockey rink, which hosts the current Israeli A-league, B-league, junior leagues, & recreational hockey.  It has also been the site of Maccabiah hockey in 1997 and 2013, and the two World Jewish Cups of hockey in 2007 and 2009.  It was financed and given by a group of Canadian Jews as a gift to the people of Israel, and contains other sports facilities besides the rink.  Hockey is also known among the Russian descended population of Israel, which numbers over a million people.  In addition, many Israelis are familiar with inline hockey.  And the national team program and domestic top league occasionally get some minor press and TV coverage.  So the possibility to grow the sport of ice hockey in Israel is definitely there.

THH) What has the growth been like in the past ten years in terms of players?

MB)  Israel’s zenith in terms of national league strength was back in 2005 and 2006, when the team made it to Division I of the IIHF, right below the level of countries like Canada, the USA and Russia.  However, the team relied heavily on dual passport holding Canadians and Russian Jewish who had immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union.  Those players are mostly gone now, or are in the twilights of their careers.  Israel’s head coach for the past decade or so is Jean Perron, who coached the 1986 Montreal Canadiens to the Stanley Cup championship.  Dusan Kralik, a former Slovak pro who currently trains the likes of John Tavares, PK Subban and Steve Stamkos, is the assistant coach.  Notable players include Max Birbraer (a 2000 NJ Devils third round pick, #67 overall, who now plays in the UK Elite League for the Cardiff Devils), Eliezer Sherbatov (who plays professionally in Kazakhstan & has played pro in France), Daniel Spivak (ECHL pro, former RIT captain in NCAA D.I), Oren Eizenman (AHL/ECHL/Asia League pro), Daniel Erlich (ex-London Knights in major junior, current Western Ontario CIS player), and Evgeni Gussin, now 45 years old but the longtime #1 goalie for Israel who is now President of the Israeli Ice Hockey Federation, and who played professionally in Russia’s equivalent of the AHL.

THH) How do players train for hockey over in Israel? I would imagine it’s a bit different than in Canada.

MB)  Israel has one full sized regulation rink in Metula, a half sized rink in Holon, and a rink that is roughly 1/3 regulation size in Maalot.  It is very hard for players to get ice time.  However, there are the Israeli leagues & teams, the grass roots programs and youth hockey schools in the country, and the men’s and U18 national teams and programs.  They make due with very little funding, and very little available ice time.  That’s why an event like this Saturday is so important in attempting to raise critically needed money and awareness among the North American Jewish community and other friends of Israel.  There is a link here where people can donate, and Friends of Israel hockey is able to provide 501(c)(3) receipts to those who want them.   many people have chosen to send checks and donate anonymously; that can be arranged by emailing the webmaster at the aforementioned link. 

THH) You spent a lot of time trying to organize the event between Israel and MIT. How did you go along with the process of doing that, and are you happy with the result?

MB)   Saturday’s match up came about due to Israel’s captain, Avishai Geller.  Geller is an MIT alum who played there from 1997-2001 and captained the team in his final two seasons.  He recently moved back to Cambridge from Israel, as his wife is now attending MIT.  The game is a chance to help promote and raise money and awareness among American Jews and other friends of Israel for the Israeli national team program, and grassroots hockey in Israel, as well as to help raise the profile of and money for MIT’s long established university club hockey team.  So far ticket sales are going well.  As for success, hopefully that comes on two fronts.  First, hopefully we raise a good amount of money for the program.  Secondly, hopefully the team wins, or is at least competitive, and people enjoy watching us, which will lead to more interest and support.

THH) Is there any talk of having any future matches with teams in North America?

MB)  We are working on future events for both New York and Toronto, to take place within a year, year and a half.  Opponents are yet to be determined.  I’ve had some talks about the New York event with ex-NHL/AHL player Chris Ferraro about putting together a game against ex-pros.  We’re still in the discussion stages.

THH) Last year, Israel came in as the second lowest ranked team in the Division IIB World Championships. By the end, they were victorious, earning advancement to Division IIA. What do you expect the team to do this year?

MB) The immediate goal of the Israeli national team is to survive (i.e., not be relegated) in the upcoming IIHF Division 2A world championships in April, where they will face the likes of Estonia, Serbia, Iceland, Belgium, and Australia.  If they don’t get at least one win, and likely two, they will get relegated back to IIHF Division 2B, where they won gold last year to achieve promotion to the 2A level.  

THH) Outside of any exhibition games, what is being done to improve hockey back home?

MB)  The rink in Metula was just recently completely renovated due to the generosity of several NHL team owners and Gary Bettman himself.  And the half size rink in Holon was just completed within the past year.  Israel’s ice hockey federation exists on a shoestring budget, though, and desperately needs monetary support to operate grassroots hockey schools, and run the Israeli leagues and national team program.

THH) Where do you expect hockey in Israel to be in five years?

11.  Hopefully, we wilI see the team relying less on dual passport holders, and more on native born and resident Israelis who learned the game in Israel, and developed there.  Getting a regulation rink in Tel Aviv is the key for that to happen.  This is more a long term goal.  As for the remaining dual passport guys age out, we may see a step back before we see a step ahead.  Player development in Israel is the key, but that takes time and funding.

For more info on hockey in Israel, check out the official website for the Ice Hockey Federation of Israel here.

Follow me on twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.

About The Author

Steven took a different route towards his hockey interests. Starting out as a big Habs fan, he started to gravitate towards the more obscure levels of hockey, such as the low level tournaments in Asia, strange club matches between teams most people in North America can’t pronounce, and even some 3am contests between Bulgaria and New Zealand. Aside from his love for strange hockey events, Steven occasionally acts as a mediocre ball hockey goalie following a failed attempt at making it to the NHL as a fourth line house league grinder. Beyond hockey, Steven is an avid racing fan and loves to chat about NASCAR, F1, Indycar, you name it. Oh, and don’t get him started on music. That is, unless you want the whole history of metal and a guitar lesson. Currently, Steven is a credentialed media member with the Mississauga Steelheads of the OHL, as well as with the Oakville Blades of the OJHL. Steven has also hosted the television show "The Hockey House" on TVCogeco in Ontario, as well as a segment under the same with on LeafsTV in Toronto. Home page: http://www.thehockeyhouse.net

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