One of the brand new sports at the 21st edition of the Maccabiah Games in Israel is Women’s Ice Hockey. For a number of Maccabiah’s it was a game for men and boys, but finally in the year 2022, women have joined the action on the ice as the United States, Canada and Israel have all fielded teams.
The process wasn’t an easy one but with the dedication of a number of individuals on both the American and Canadian teams, what was once a dream is now a reality. The hope is that these will be the first fruits in helping grow the sport in Israel as well as looking to expand its reach for the next games with more squads along with more teams in different divisions such as the Under-18 and Masters.
To understand how the Maccabiah opened the Zamboni doors for the women’s game, The Sports Rabbi spoke to those who blazed the path for future generations.
“A few of us worked very hard to get women’s hockey on the docket for the Maccabiah games,” Jodi Berris, the 43-year old American who was one of the people who spearheaded the project. “It was important to add the women’s side of the tournament to the existing men’s side. There is high level women’s hockey played and it needed to be showcased. Additionally, it’s important to give women avenues to play sports at various levels. The hope is that this inspires Jewish women, from all over the world and that there is a place to compete at a high international level.”
Mitch Miller, the Canadian team manager from Ottawa but pointed out that he is still a Montreal Canadiens fan, is a veteran to hockey in the Holy Land and has been very involved with the Canada Israel Hockey School (CIHS) which ran out of the Mercaz Canada in Metula.
“One of the hockey players from Ottawa knew my passion for promoting hockey in Israel and promoting Israel through hockey. When she asked me why there isn’t women’s hockey at the Maccabiah and if there could be – I simply told her to find enough women who want to play and it will happen. Shelby Calof started calling people, she and Melissa Wronzberg found enough women and then I was asked to be the Team Manager.”
“Women’s hockey is developing around the world and it was time for the women’s game to be represented at the Maccabiah which does a great job of connecting athletes who are Jewish with their heritage and the State of Israel. In fact, almost half of our team has never visited Israel before these games – and all of our team wants to return.”
Wronzberg who hails from Thornhill, Ontario and who serves as the captain of the Canadian team knew that it was going to be a challenge to find enough players and sees that while being as pioneer at this Maccabiah, there is plenty of room to continue to grow the women’s game.
“Women’s hockey still has a lot of room to grow and if the challenges to finding Jewish female players was any indication, it has even more space to grow within the Jewish community. Having women’s hockey at the Maccabiah helps us to continue grow the game for young Jewish female players not only in Israel, but also across the world.”
Karen Levin played four years of NCAA hockey at Middlebury College in Vermont and is the second most senior member of the US team was very upbeat with the chance to showcase the women’s game in Israel at the Maccabiah.
“Women’s hockey is one of the fastest growing sports. It’s a sport that works your entire body, makes you think and pushes you to be a part of a team and these lessons translate to becoming a better person as athletes are more successful in business and life. There were young girls at the opening ceremony and that were at our games that will go home and ask their parents if they can play hockey. By having women’s ice hockey in the Maccabiah the sport will grow and continue to develop in Israel and beyond, providing women with another opportunity to be active and healthy long term, to play a fun sport, to meet interesting people and to be a part of something greater than themselves.”
The goal for these games is to make a mark both on and off of the ice while raising awareness of the women’s game so that at the next Maccabiah there will be even more surrounding the sport.
Wronzberg, who began skating at the age of two and started playing hockey at four knows that not only can the game expand it will also benefit the local Israeli sport as well.
“Israel itself has a very young and pretty new national team so having hockey at the Maccabiah Games gives that team a chance to play North American competition which will help them grow and learn so they can both continue to get better and get more females in Israel realizing they too can play.”
As for expanding the game, there are many ways explained Wronzberg, “From the overall skill level continuing to grow, to adding more divisions such as the Juniors for women or even more teams in the open would be great. The more we can expand the women’s side of it, the more we are going to accomplish our goals of growing the game within Israel and beyond.”
Levin sees the obvious answer is to have more teams at the next games due to the fact that there are 3 teams in the Open category, “More teams could mean more teams in the open, or expanding to U18’s or Masters. This is a special opportunity and I want more women to have the experience. In addition to this, and perhaps just as important, I would love to see a few cross-team practices or time together to talk hockey and to grow.”
“Hockey in the US and Canada has simply had more time to develop than in Israel. I believe Israel will be at the level of the US and Canada in the near future and I see part of my role as an inaugural player to help Israel continue to develop their talent and opportunities for girls and women to play hockey, ultimately to play at higher levels. Although we are technically rivals in a tournament like this, I believe we are a part of something bigger. This is a special opportunity for high level hockey minds from around the world to come together and grow and develop the game internationally.”
Berris, who played for four years at the University of Michigan is originally from Detroit and now splits time between Portland, Oregon and Park City, Utah is Gung-ho in trying to get more involved in the next Games, “We have 3 years to work on it! By getting this off the ground this time, excitement is generated and hopefully the word will spread and more girls and women will get involved. It would also be great to get some Canadian and USA “friendly” competitions going over the coming years to help build excitement and energy around the game.”
“It would be great to have a team Europe. Perhaps we can find the Jewish female hockey players who play in France, Britain, Norway, Sweden, Ukraine and other countries to form the fourth team,” Miller added.
Levin who has been a proponent of women’s hockey for many years and is a co-founder of the United Women’s Ball Hockey Foundation understands the importance of having this opportunity in Israel.
“Being in Israel, I get the sense that people have the feeling of being a part of something greater than themselves, whether it’s the closeness of their family, the history of being Jewish pushing on despite challenges to our existence, serving in the army, etc., and hockey provides another opportunity for that.”
“For our entire team this is their first time at the Maccabiah and we have a mix of players ages 17-43 that have been to Israel over ten times to those that are here for the first time. That opportunity, whether it’s your first time here or your 14th time here, to play hockey in Israel is special. I think it has brought the team very close in a short amount of time. In addition, it has been life changing to meet and connect with the Israeli players. We have had meals together and rode the bus together and played against each other for ten days now. We connect on something we love so much and that is a life-long bond that is really special. I know this experience will stick with each player forever.”
Wronzberg knows that the entire Canadian team feels that this is a chance to provide a life altering opportunity to those who love the women’s game of hockey.
“I think everyone on our team understands what an amazing opportunity this is. To not only be part of helping women’s hockey grow here in Israel but to be part of the inaugural tournament is a setting that is more special than I think any of us can realize in this moment. It will be how It hopefully grows in the future that’ll let us see what we were able to be part of getting started.”
For the passionate Berris, she hopes that the impact will be two-fold, “I hope this inspires Jewish girls and women in Israel to play and that it encourages Jewish women from around the world to come to play in Israel. One can combine a passion for sports and Israel simultaneously. The Maccabiah has allowed my team to come and explore the Holy Land through something that speaks to them. I hope this trip inspires them to come back on other programs to create a deeper connection.”
The Canadian team manager Miller also is aware that this Maccabiah Games will be able to forge the future of those who are in Israel and those who will one day have that chance to lace up their skates in the Middle East.
“There is nothing like a hockey road trip and there is nothing like a hockey road trip in Israel. We went from saying a prayer at the Kotel one day to playing a high intensity game with our American friends the next. In a very short period of time, the ladies on our team are creating bonds that will last a lifetime and they will always be the first Canadian women’s hockey team to play in the Maccabiah. Now that will be something to tell their descendants for generations to come.”