People from all around the world dream of playing in the National Hockey League. Even the hockey loving youth of Israel.
Now Israel hardly seems like a place you'd find hockey. But there has been rapid growth of the sport in the country.
Hockey in Israel?!
Israel first became a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation in 1991. At the time there was about 150 register players in the country, enough for four teams. Games were played in three tiny rinks.
Growth has been fueled by Canadian and former Soviet Bloc ex-pats now living in the area, as well as by summer hockey schools run by legendary NHL coaches Roger Nielson and Jean Perron.
Israeli national teams started to participate in the World Championships. From 1992 to 1996 the Israeli senior team played in pool D of the World Championships and was placed in either the 7th or 8th places (last place). Following a steady and gradual progress, Israel took the 5th place in 1997 and won the bronze medal of pool D in 1998 (in South Africa). In 1999 Israel won the silver medal and in 2000, in Iceland, Israel won the championship of pool D. In 2001 and 2002 (following a realignment of divisions within the IIHF) Israel won the silver and bronze medals, respectively, of Division II of the world championships.
Initially, the majority of the players on Israel’s junior national hockey teams were composed of Russian immigrants and Israeli Canadians (Israeli citizens who live in Canada). Today, however, Israel’s Junior team consists mostly of Israeli born youth.
There have been a couple of success stories on Israeli ice. Alon Eizenman left for America and led Penn State University to three national hockey championships and later played in the French premier league. Sergei Zak is coaching and playing in Iceland.
But the most famous hockey player from Israel to date is Max Birbraer. He is the the first Israeli ever to be drafted by an NHL team. The New Jersey Devils selected him 67th overall in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft.
Birbraer is a Russian Jew from Kazakhstan who lived and played in Israel after his family fled the Kazakhstan to avoid anti-Semitism. He grew up with the game in Kazakhstan, and when he moved to Israel he was sure to bring his hockey gear with him. Perhaps he never realized that there would be few hockey opportunities in Israel.
Birbraer was able to find a team, and played on a traveling under-20 team. With that team he was spotted by Canadian coach Paul Rosen
Comes To Canada
Rosen asked him to come to Canada to continue his hockey career. After watching the Israelis practice, Rosen observed, "I saw really bad players, but there was this tall, lanky guy and the first thing that blew me away was how he could skate. In the first game, I saw some of his moves and it blew me away. I knew he could play and be a North American player."
With his parents' permission, Max moved to Canada to play junior hockey, while his parents continued to live near Tel Aviv. He returned to Israel in 1999 to renew his passport, and was arrested and imprisoned for three weeks for avoiding the military draft in Israel. Birbraer then served in the army, and was discharged for undisclosed medical reasons.
Dreams Of The NHL
Birbraer attended the Devils training camp and was signed to a minor league contract. After spending three seasons in the New Jersey organization, Birbraer signed with the Florida Panthers as an unrestricted free agent on July 11, 2003. However injuries kept rearing their ugly head, preventing the youngster from ever establishing himself in the minor leagues.
In 2006 Birbraer finally put on a Devils jersey. But this jersey belonged to the Cardiff Devils over in the United Kingdom's pro hockey circuit. He left his unlikely NHL dreams behind and moved to Wales