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Israelis Take the Junior Flyers Down
The opposing player - a member of the highly competitive Philadelphia Little Flyers - appears poised to score the first goal in this tight defensive matchup. He carries the puck to the left, then almost immediately brings it back to the right and, for a second, the goalie looks like he's been beat.
But at the last moment, Nemenoff sticks out his left pad - almost in desperation - and as the puck bounces away, the crowd erupts in a round of applause.
"I try to help my team to win. I just try to be in the game," says a modest Nemenoff after the action.
This exhibition match between the Israelis and the junior Flyers on Oct. 20, held at the University of Pennsylvania Class of 1923 Arena, marks the Israeli team's second stop on a six-city tour of the United States and Canada. The players, ages 15 to 17, are staying with host families while spending two nights in Philadelphia, and plan to follow a similar arrangement in the other cities they visit.
Although the sweltering heat of Israel would seem to be an unlikely place for a budding ice hockey program, the Olympic-sized Canada Center in Metulla is consistently filled with players of all ages.
"[Israeli hockey was] started by a bunch of ex-Canadians," explains Alan Maislin, chairman of the Israeli Ice Hockey Federation. "Then there was a movement where a lot of Russian guys came in, and they started a six-team senior hockey league that plays every week."
Since 1990, the Israeli team has played in international competitions, and just last year, their adult team rose to Division I status after winning the gold medal in Division II competition.
Though the adults also play internationally, it's been tough for the program to develop younger players.
"We have many obstacles to overcome because our children don't have the opportunity to play hockey in Israel as much as children in North America or other parts of the world," says Maislin. "We only have one rink. Ice time is not readily available. It makes it more difficult for us."
Back at the game in Philly, the Israelis strike first blood by punching in a rebound in front of the net, and they hold their 1-0 lead into the third period. In the stands, a black-hatted, bearded man and three young boys wearing yarmulkes enjoy the game while a woman waves an Israeli flag.
During the third period, the game takes on a level of intensity not seen at the outset, when both teams may have considered it just an exhibition. The hits seem harder, the shots come a little faster, and every player is hustling.
A Flyers' player finally scores against Nemenoff's fierce defensive tactics, forcing the game into a shootout-style overtime, where each team gets five one-on-one chances to shoot the puck past the goalie.
In the end, it comes down to Flyers forward West Bauman, 16, who shoots to Nemenoff's right side and scores the game-winning goal.
'Players Are Progressing'
As the Flyers celebrated their close victory, the crowd cheered loudly for the Israelis, who know they played as hard as they could against some stiff competition.
"It is a great day for Israel, for Philadelphia and for the Israeli youths," declares Uriel Palti, Consul General of Israel, during the game. "We are in the very beginning of developing ice hockey in Israel, and it's great that they came here to play with the Little Flyers."
In March, Israel will host Division III games of the 2006 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships at their rink in Metulla.
The Israelis have also hired ex-NHL players and coaches to help take their teams up a notch. Jean Perron, who coached the Montreal Canadians to a Stanley Cup in 1986, leads the Israeli team in their Philadelphia exhibition. Although he has a young team, he's encouraged by their increasingly good play.
"We are training hard, and feel that the players are progressing," he says. "This is a good sign."