Fists pounded and sharp blades screeched as Arabs and Jews gave chase. They yelled, pointed fingers and took turns taking shot after shot. An hour into battle, the uniform-clad warriors ceased their battle and removed their helmets.
They took a photograph together.
“Great skate,” said Mitch Miller. “Great skate.”
As North American liaison for the Canada-Israel Hockey School (CIHS), Miller pointed to a recent trip to Pittsburgh as an opportunity for youth of all backgrounds to get to know each other through the spirit of friendly competition.
“It’s not a vacation,” Miller said of the Feb. 17 to 23 visit. “It’s a hockey road trip. They’re here to be inspired.”
CIHS formed through the unlikely partnership of Levav Weinberg, an Israeli apple farmer, and Sidney Greenberg, a Canadian media mogul. Decades ago, Weinberg attended a Roger Neilson hockey camp in Israel. Years later, Weinberg wished to share his hockey passion with Middle Eastern youths and approached Greenberg about creating a hockey school in Israel.
Five years have passed since the school got off the ground and CIHS now boasts 450 students. Boys and girls from Jewish, Christian, Druze and Muslim homes travel regularly to Metula in Israel’s north to participate, practicing at the Canada Centre, Israel’s only hockey rink.
In Pittsburgh, the visitors had skate time at RMU Island Sports Center, Consol Energy Center, Shady Side Academy and the Iceoplex at Southpointe. Miller had the students attend a Penguins game, watch the team practice, skate with several past players, tour Consol’s facilities and take pictures next to Sidney Crosby’s locker.
“We told them to go into a locker room and be inspired of what can be,” he said. “It’s amazing.”
Miller added that he also told the students, “Don’t step on the logo [on the locker room floor], or it’s a 1,000 shekel fine.”
While the students’ days were filled with hockey-related activities, their nights were much less programmed. Miller divided the 20 travelers into 10 groups of two.
“We paired them up, one Jew and one Arab,” he explained.
Each pair stayed with a pre-arranged host family in Squirrel Hill or the South Hills, spending Shabbat as a free day with their hosts.
“Seventy percent of the [CIHS] kids speak English,” said Miller.
On the day that CIHS traveled to Shady Side Academy, school had been canceled. Despite inclement weather, students from area schools arrived. Some came to scrimmage against CIHS, while others attended to watch their newfound friends.
As the players glided down ice, coaches shouted from their respective benches. Raanan Moscovich is an assistant coach at CIHS. He spent three years playing hockey for Israel’s national team and joined CIHS in 2011.
“I love the game,” he said while observing the players. “I love what it did for me and what it does for the kids: discipline, being fit.”
“I see these kids play. I see the love in their eyes,” shared Tessa Bonhomme. “I think they’re inspiring to me just for their willingness and eagerness to learn.”
Bonhomme is a Canadian hockey player and television sports reporter. She won an Olympic gold medal as part of the 2010 Canadian Women’s Hockey Team. Having previously volunteered with CIHS, Bonhomme traveled to Pittsburgh to spend a few more days mentoring the students.
“They’re a joy to be around,” she said. “They’re polite. They work hard, really appreciate everything. They don’t care what gear they have. They care if they have gear.”
After the scrimmage, Bonhomme and the players gathered for a photograph. She took out her gold medal and passed it along. Several of the young players took turns wearing it.
Following the scrimmage, the players returned to their locker rooms. Miller instructed the CIHS team to quickly change and deposit any belongings onto the bus waiting outside. Fadi Haj, an 11th-grader from Nazareth, and Gal Tamir, an eighth-grader from Metula, went out into the hallway to answer media inquiries.
“The game here was awesome,” said Haj. “We had a lot of fun.”
When asked about Pittsburgh, Tamir called it “great.” Haj called it “awesome.”
The boys explained that since arriving in Pittsburgh several days earlier, CIHS members had answered questions at nearly every stop. Often the queries were similar. Some reporters asked how the visitors liked Pittsburgh; most questioned what it was like for Arabs and Jews to play hockey together.
Tamir maintained that Americans had inflated the latter’s significance.
“They think an Israeli and Arab playing together, that’s weird,” he explained. “We don’t feel it. We feel like friends, brothers.”
“In sport, it doesn’t matter Jew or Arab,” added Haj. “The goal is to play hockey. Here we’re one family.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.