The Israeli hockey team ban has been reversed five days ahead of men’s U20 championship games in Bulgaria

The Israeli U20 men's hockey team is back on the roster for the 2024 IIHF World Championships Division lll Group A in Bulgaria beginning Jan. 22, 2024.

Israel’s junior ice hockey team will be permitted to compete after all in next week’s World Championships in Bulgaria beginning on Monday, Jan. 22.

In a statement released Wednesday, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) in Switzerland announced it had reversed the original removal of the Israeli team, after receiving safety assurances from Bulgaria’s own hockey federation and from that country’s ministry of youth and sport to guarantee the security of everyone involved,

Without these, the IIHF statement said it would have been “irresponsible” to allow the Israeli U20 national team to hit the ice for the one-week tournament in Sofia.

“We are grateful to the Bulgarian authorities, the Ministry of Youth and Sport, Ministry of Interior, the local police and all our stakeholders for their support and assistance in this matter,” the IIHF statement said.

The decision comes four days after the world’s governing body of hockey outlined its security concerns over possible anti-Israel protests at the upcoming Division III matches, where Israel would have been in a group including teams from Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, New Zealand and the host Bulgaria.

Not only were the games to be played in an arena complex that is scheduled to remain open to the general public, with restaurants and shops, but the IIHF worried the complex is located in an area with a large student population from the “affected areas” in the Middle East, the IIHF said.

These U20 Division III Group A championships were actually initially supposed to be held in Israel.

However, after Oct. 7, it was agreed to move them to Bulgaria, due to the ongoing war with Hamas and the continued skirmishes with Hezbollah on the northern border with Israel.

Last week’s IIHF decision to remove Israel from play for what officials insisted were purely security reasons, infuriated the Israel Ice Hockey Federation, who felt the move was discriminatory and smacked of antisemitism. The IIHF decision impacted not only Israel’s U20 men’s team, but also meant a blanket ban on the men’s national squad, the women’s team, and the U18 boys. These three teams were scheduled to play in championships in March and April in Spain, Serbia and Estonia

While the fate of Israel at those future tournaments remains unchanged for now, the IIHF pledged to revisit each case at a council meeting next month.

It is unclear exactly what the Bulgarian authorities have agreed to do to ensure Israel can safely attend Monday’s tournament. The CJN’s questions for the Bulgarian hockey federation, and to the IIHF, were not answered by deadline.

Last week’s IIHF blanket removal of Israel sparked an outcry from many in the hockey world including the NHL and NHL Players Association, as well as a senior German government politician.

Canadian supporters of the Israel hockey program say they are pleased with the IIHF’s reversal for the U20 men’s team, since the original removal could have been seen as a political punishment for Israel’s current war with Hamas in Gaza, after terrorists massacred 1,200 Israelis on Oct. 7 and took 240 hostages.

“The recent decision by the IIHF to preclude Israel from participating in three World Championships is regrettable in that it excludes one country and rewards those who wish to sanction it,” said David Lisbona, of the Canadian Friends of Israel Hockey, in a news release. “If the IIHF can be faulted, it is for not working with Israeli security authorities sooner to ensure the safety and security of all participants at all sanctioned tournaments.”

The Montreal-based organization feels that rather than vilifying the IIHF president, Canadian-born Luc Tardif, for the controversy, it should be pointed out the head of the world hockey body has personally been a strong champion of Israel’s national hockey program.

“The IIHF was instrumental in propping up the Ice Hockey Federation of Israel for three years when Israel was experiencing governance and financial issues,” Lisbona said, adding that under Tardif’s administration, Israel hosted its first ever women’s championships at the OneIce arena in Tnuvot in March 2023. In 2022, the IIHF chief attended the men’s hockey finals between Canada and the U.S.A in Jerusalem at the 21st Maccabiah Games.

“The CFIH is pleased with the resolution of the Men’s U20’s and will continue to work with the IIHF and other stakeholders to ensure that the proper solutions can be found to ensure that the Israeli National team can participate in all IIHF hockey tournaments as soon as possible,” Lisbona said.

Reaction in Israel has also been positive. Paul Shindman, a Canadian who helped bring ice hockey to the Jewish state, suggested the IIHF changed its mind once Israeli sport authorities threatened to appeal to the Committee of Arbitration for Sport.

“Three cheers to Israel Olympic Committee head Yael Arad for backing the Israeli hockey federation and filing what proved to be a legitimate complaint with the Court of Arbitration for Sport [based in Switzerland]”, said Shindman.

“My own experience with the IIHF is that when confronted with the facts, they tend to err on the side of hockey. I’m glad they did so again to resolve this incident and hopefully put it behind us for good.”

However, it doesn’t appear the matter is now closed, at least not where Israel’s legal challenge is concerned.

“Israel will continue with legal procedures with the goal of non-discrimination and a declaration that Israel is an equal participant in all IIHF championships,” Mikhael Horowitz, the CEO of the Israel hockey federation, told The CJN.

According to Horowitz, the U20 national squad will have some Canadian flavour, as Mike Levin is set to join the action with the Israelis in Bulgaria. Levin, 18, currently plays for the Niagara IceDogs of the Ontario Hockey League, based in St. Catharines, Ont.

His older brother David, a member of the Israel senior men’s team, plays in Romania now, and also got his start in the OHL, playing for Sudbury.