I just got back from my first ever trip to Metulla, and it was an incredible experience! We'll get my personal stuff aside first: 7 years after first being teased with it, I finally got to skate in Israel! I've been a little homesick for the past couple of months, but no one could stop the giant 25 year old in the Team Canada jersey skating around the small rink with the huge grin on his face. Definitely what I needed after 2 months away from home!
Bill Meltzer has been great with his reports on Israeli hockey for this site
and NHL.com (http://www.nhl.com/nhl/ap...amp;#038;articleid=334734
) but I feel it necessary to give a viewpoint from someone who was there. It was an amazing atmosphere.
The tournament itself was fantastic! I had an incredible time watching today, and I could tell just from talking to the players and coaches they had an incredible time too. First up was the bronze medal game between Canada and France. I don't think the Canada Centre was even ready for a hockey-crazed Canadian. I arrived at 8:15am for the 9am start time in hopes of watching the warmups like I do for Leaf games. I was turned away and told to come back at 8:45. And in true Israeli fashion, at 8:45 everyone waiting outside tried bursting through the locked gates. And in true Israeli fashion, the staff ignored them and waited... till 8:50.
The Canadian team included 2 of my friends from back home, and neither disappointed me, both taking penalties in the first period! It was bright and early in the morning, and I was still about as foggy as the glass around the rink. When Canada won 4-1 to take the bronze, they had a mild celebration on the ice that was mostly consisting of taking photos. To be honest, when the Americans won the gold later, the celebration was about as vibrant. You'll quickly see the theme wasn't so much competitiveness as it was comraderie, and making this brand new idea work.
I had 2 treats during the 2nd game actually: I was treated to a great matchup between Israel and the U.S., and I spent parts of the game chatting with my friends and their coach, Sherry Bassin. I usually picture professional hockey coaches as grumpy, inhuman people who only tell a joke if it makes them look good on TV. But Bassin is a great guy. His players were trying to convince him to ditch his wife a couple of nights and go out and party with them on Jerusalem's famous Ben Yehuda Street, or in Tel Aviv. Bassin meanwhile was trying to keep his theme of "identifying with Israel" going by trying to convince the team to have Kiddish (traditional Friday night prayer at the dinner table with wine) that night, when they just wanted to go to the bars and party it up.
On the ice, the game was even more entertaining! You had NCAA-calibre players from the U.S. up against many members of the Israeli national team, including local heroes the Eizenman brothers, one of whom I had as a teammate in my earliest years of hockey. The fans were out in full force. Sportsmanship and brotherhood was a big theme going for this tournament. At the end of the first period, Israeli crowdmembers above the gate to the rink were booing the American players. The announcer saw this and said something into the microphone in Hebrew. I didn't understand it, but the crowd suddenly changed to a loud ovation. There may not be alot connecting people at an event, but the general theme in this tournament is we're all Jewish. We're all connected. A powerful theme like that was enough to confuse most foreign fans in attendance who couldn't decide which team they wanted to cheer for.
The American team won 2-1, and the following scene was something I have never seen watching an international hockey tournament on television: After the medal ceremonies, handshakes weren't enough. Though the French team had already left, the Canadians, Americans and Israelis were all mingling and joshing it up on the ice, and revelling in the moment, posing for photos together and, of course, planning the evening's festivities. One team came out on top, but it was like watching 3 winners! The Israeli team posed for a team photo, as local media all gathered to take pictures. Then a few of them spontaneously started calling for the Canadians to come join them. The Canadians dragged the Americans along too, but didn't have to try so hard. My only regret was I never got a picture of the 3 teams all together, as the Canadian players all loaded me up with their cameras to take it for them!
I asked Bassin afterwards about how the teams got along. He confessed he actually had to extend Canada's curfew everynight because the guys were getting along so well with the other teams. I watched the Israelis after losing the gold medal game, and there were no tears and no disappointment. They were just living the high that this tournament worked, and they had the opportunity to finally be the host team. They soaked it all in that they could put on such a show for their own loyal fans. Face it, Metulla is not an easy trek for anyone. I couldn't get a bus home after the game, and it's at least a 2 hour drive from anywhere of note in the country. I had to pay extra for a car rental, I couldn't return the car anywhere except for the airport, and getting a cab to Jerusalem on a Friday night took almost 2 hours! But as I told my friends on the Canadian team, I'd do it again in a heartbeat!
I hope to see them again in 2 years, again in Metulla... or anywhere else anyone wants to build an arena like that! This was an event that so many people can be proud of: The Israelis who live and play the game, and their fans who support them; the Canadians who have supported the program since it was first created, and who had the largest foreign cheering contingent - and who took a huge role in organizing this tournament; the Americans who won it all and the French who defied the odds by arriving, where usual hockey powerhouses like the Russians, Swedes and Czechs couldn't make it.
And just a final note: Best wishes to Alan Maislin for a speedy recovery! Alan is the Montreal-based chairman of the Ice Hockey Federation of Israel, and an integral part of this tournament. Unfortunately, he needed emergency heart surgery just a couple of weeks before the tournament, and couldn't make it in. But the report is he's doing great back in Montreal.