In an unlikely setting, international hockey makes its mark
By STEVE SIMMONS
METULLA, Israel -- On Hockey Night In Israel, Sherry Bassin walks out the back of the Canada Centre, turns left, turns right and then points up the hill past the barb-wired fence.
"See that," he says with emotion, his eyes searching up the hill. "That's Lebanon. That's the Hezbollah flag. That's how close we are.
"One year ago, on the 12th of July, the mayor here got a call. He was asked, 'Can you put up 600 soldiers in your homes?' Now think about it? Here is a town of 1,000 people. And you know what they did? They put most of them up right here in the arena.
"They sent the children and elderly to Tel Aviv (more than two hours away) with rockets flying over the city. That was just a year ago. And tonight, in the same place where these soldiers lived, we're going to have a hockey tournament."
Bassin is an oxymoron if ever there was one -- a Jewish Canadian hockey man from Saskatchewan, had never been to Israel before and kissed the ground when he arrived.
"I can't believe I waited all these years before coming. I can't believe how foolish I was. I can't believe what I'm feeling now."
The first World Jewish Ice Hockey Tournament began on a Tuesday afternoon in July in this tiny town in northern Israel, so picturesque it looks like the south of France, with Bassin's voice cracking, and emotion almost everywhere.
This isn't what Israel looks like on the nightly news, even a flick shot away from Lebanon. This isn't what hockey looks like on the nightly news, either, especially on the opening night of the world tournament featuring teams from Canada, Israel, France and the United States.
The real problem on opening night was exuberance and inexperience.
In the hour-long opening ceremony, someone made the determination to light fireworks inside the $40 million arena built with Canadian money. To clear the smoke, someone else decided to open the arena doors.
The combination of ice, smoke and hot air created an arena full of fog.
It also meant Canadian and Israeli players had to skate laps around the rink for almost an hour before the fog cleared enough to proceed with this monumental game.
Don Cherry may not like this but Israel, coached by Stanley Cup winner, Jean Perron, defeated Team Canada 2-1, coached by Bassin, the well-known junior hockey executive, on a night of wet ice, wet air and wet eyes in Metulla.
The tournament began with fireworks and ended with former Leaf John Anderson's American team, led by Chicago draft pick Nathan Davis, beating Israel for the gold medal. Canada defeated France for the bronze. And in a country where the national pastimes are politics, survival, religion and conflict, sport was somehow the victor.
"You know, I've been to a lot of tournaments, a lot of world juniors, but nothing like this," said Bassin. "On one of the last nights, we had a 1 o'clock curfew for our players (mostly junior and college aged). I go into this pub -- can you believe it, an Irish Pub --and I see all the players there, from all four teams, they're all intermingling, having a great time. So I decide to extend curfew.
"Then I decide to extend curfew some more. I see the kids are having a helluva time together but at 2 (a.m.) I finally say to the boys 'We're going to play tomorrow.' And we clear them all out.
"All the players from all four teams were leaving together, walking back to the hotel, when somebody starts singing Hatikva (Israeli national anthem).
Then everybody is singing. And then everybody starts dancing the horah. And before you know it, somebody grabs a chair from somewhere, and they put me in this chair and they lift me up and everybody's dancing. It was all Jewish hockey kids, singing and dancing in the streets of Israel.
"A couple of the residents complained about the noise the next day and the mayor paid no attention. He said we haven't had this kind of feeling around this town since before the war. It was hugely emotional."
Unlike Bassin, Jean Perron is not Jewish, but like Bassin, he is wonderfully passionate and expressive.
Four years ago, a Montreal businessman named Alan Maislin asked him if he would like to donate one day of his life for Israeli hockey.
"'Israel hockey,' I said," Perron said. "Is there hockey in Israel?"
One day turned into four years and who knows how many more.
"As someone who grew up learning classical studies in Quebec, the Holy Land for me was a dream."
The dream culminated with Perron being named national team coach (after Ted Nolan turned down the job) and taking an Israeli team of unknowns to the gold medal in the 'C' version of the world hockey championships.
FEELS LIKE HOME
"Now, when I come here I feel like I'm home," said Perron. "My wife feels like she's home. I know all the kids, the parents, the families, my wife knows all the restaurant owners. This is a great place for me."
This is not the country CNN shows us on a nightly basis: If there is danger, you don't see it or witness it. If there are safety concerns you don't feel it.
Even in Metulla, this close to unfriendly territory, with an army presence clear, life goes on. The climate is warm and so are the people. The cities, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Tiberias and even the towns like Metulla, are breathtaking in both charm and beauty.
The home of so many modern religions is, against all odds, in a country with one arena, and two sheets of ice, trying to become a home for the Canadian religion, hockey.
Professor Wayne Horowitz, who grew up an Islanders fan in New York, is part of the Thursday night pickup game at the Canada Centre. Only he lives near Jerusalem, some three and a half hours away by car.
"I leave at about 3:30 in the afternoon, I get to Metulla at about 7 or 8 and we play until 10," said Horowitz And you know what? I'm not the one driving the farthest to get here."
The game is played mostly by transplants here -- by Americans, Canadians and those from the former Soviet Union.
Israelis themselves, play far more roller hockey than ice hockey.
"But I saw some young kids on roller blades who had never been on skates who could really dazzle," said Bassin. "You start getting those kind of kids on ice, and you've got some real opportunities here to develop players."
The goaltender for Israel is already developed. Evgeny Gusin, who legend has it, was once a backup to Vladislav Tretiak, is either 36 years old, 38 or 40 -- the Israeli Johnny Bower.
"One game, in the recent world (B) championships, Jean Perron felt sorry for the goalie," said Canadian businessman Sid Greenberg, one of the tournament founders and patrons. "He pulled Gusin early in the third period, after the 97th shot against."
"I didn't take him out because he was playing badly," said Perron. "He was playing amazing. I just didn't want to get him killed.
Perhaps the largest name on the Canadian roster was Benjamin Rubin, best known as the Quebec junior player who is attempting to find balance between religion and a career in hockey.
Rubin, an orthodox Jew from Montreal who observes the Sabbath on Friday nights and Saturdays, played part-time for Patrick Roy's Quebec Ramparts last season.
This coming season, he will play as many as 44 games for Gatineau in the same league, having already counted the games he will miss due to his beliefs.
The level here wasn't exactly major junior -- only the experience for him was of a higher level.
"The whole thing was amazing," said Rubin, 18, even after he was injured in the tournament. "I had a lot of fun. I felt like this was home. I wish I could have stayed longer."
And outside the Canada Centre, not far from the fence dividing Israel and Lebanon, young soldiers patrol the divide, many of them kids from North America. One asks, on behalf of the group, if they could attend the hockey tournament.
"Sure," said Bassin, laughing and inviting. "You don't need tickets. Just show your gun at the door. Who's going to stop you?"
A few nights later, in an arena jammed with soldiers -- this time not living in the rink but watching a game so few of them know -- the public address announcer misplaced his tape of the Israeli national anthem at the end of a victory over France.
While the announcer fumbled about to find it, the soldiers stood together and burst into a raucous version of Hatikva, and soon everyone in the place was standing and belting out the song.
"I've never been affected by anything like this before," said Bassin. "Have you ever been to a tournament where maybe the hockey was secondary to the experience? I hadn't been before.
"I've always prided myself in my identity as a Jew and my identity with hockey. I have a special love for both. This was the best experience of my life."