Team Canada readies for Maccabiah hockey tourney

Former Montreal Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau has replaced Mike Keenan behind the bench for Canada.

TORONTO — When Maccabi Canada announced that Mike Keenan would be coaching the Canadian hockey team at the Maccabiah Games this summer, it was expected his reputation would give the program instant credibility and attract top-notch players.

Well, that’s pretty much what happened, but in the last few weeks, Keenan, a 1994 Stanley Cup winner as coach of the New York Rangers, pulled out of the games, as did the rest of his coaching staff.

But the move, made for personal reasons and after Keenan signed to coach in the KHL, didn’t leave Maccabi Canada bereft.

Suspecting Keenan’s personal situation could be an issue – his daughter suffers from cancer – Maccabi Canada developed a back-up plan.

Enter Guy Carbonneau as head coach. A three-time Cup winner with the Montreal Canadiens (1986, 1993) and the Dallas Stars (1999) as a player, Carbonneau was also a coach with the storied Habs franchise from 2006 to 2009, including a stint as head coach.

Wayne Primeau has joined him as his assistant. Primeau played for a number of NHL teams from 1995 to 2010, including Buffalo, San Jose, Calgary, Boston and Pittsburgh. He ended his playing career in Toronto.

At a two-day mini-camp at York University’s Canlan Ice Sports facility earlier this week, Carbonneau got a chance to meet the players and prepare for the tournament. He admitted he’s at somewhat of a disadvantage, joining the team late and not being present at tryouts last year.

“We’ll try to keep things simple at the start, tweak it as we go on,” he said.

He’ll have to strategize for the Olympic-sized rink at the Canada Centre in Metulla, but he’s confident he has the personnel to do so.

“We have guys with good speed, good hands,” he said.

Carbonneau, who captained the Canadiens and was known as a defensive specialist, said, “I always want us to be sound defensively.”

Like the rest of the Maccabi hockey brain trust, Carbonneau is somewhat in the dark as to the level of competition they’ll face. The Americans have a lot of quality NCAA players to draw from, and they recently added Colby Cohen, a 215-pound defenceman who played a handful of games for the Colorado Avalanche and who was one of the Boston Bruins’ “Black Aces” the year they won the Cup.

The host Israelis recently won a gold medal in the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Division II B. Rounding out the tournament will be a team from Ukraine. Little is known about them, except that they replaced a team from France.

The Israeli team is coached by Jean Perron, the man behind the bench of the 1986 Stanley Cup-winning Habs. Carbonneau smiles at the prospect of going up against his old mentor.

“He’s a competitive guy. He always has been,” said Carbonneau. “But so am I.”

Montrealer Alan Maislin, who’s long been associated with hockey in Israel, recruited Carbonneau to Team Canada. He did the same with Perron 10 years ago, asking him to coach the Israeli national team – a task he’s assumed on several occasions.

Doing his due diligence, Carbonneau asked around and heard glowing reports about the Israel experience. One of the people he spoke to was Jacque Demers, who coached the Canadian team at the 1997 games – the only other time hockey was a Maccabiah sport. Demers was the Habs’ coach in 1993, when Carbonneau won his second Cup.

“Everyone had rave reviews about those Olympics,” he said, referring to the Maccabiah, which have been called the Jewish Olympics.

“I expect it to be a great experience for me and Wayne and all the players,” he said. “None of us has had the chance to win a gold medal, so we’re going to try.”

Alex Voihanski, the hockey guru who assembled the Canadian team, said it’s young, fast and skilled, with a sprinkling of veteran talent.

It features a number of professional players from the AHL, ECHL and European leagues, as well as NCAA Division I skaters, some Canadian college players and guys from the CHL.

“Our strength is at forward,” said Voihanski, who is general manager of ISS Hockey (International Scouting Services), in addition to running JCC Chai Sports.

“Our D is strong, but forward is where our strength is. We’re very, very deep and fast with a lot of skill. We’ll develop a lot of speed through the neutral zone.”

Among the forwards highlighted by Voihanski are Adam and Michael Henrich, a brother act who play professionally in Europe; Daniel Erlich, who played for Barrie and London in the OHL and who finished last season playing at the University of Western Ontario; Dylan Smoskowitz, who scored 33 goals for the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads; Benjamin Rubin, who played in the French pro league with Chamonix; Daniel Radke, third in scoring at Lake Superior State University, and Andrew Calof, Princeton University’s leading scorer and Second-Team All-ECAC all-star.

The defence will be anchored by Olivier Malka, who played with Hamilton in the AHL in 2011-12 and in the ECHL last season, as well as Zach Sternberg from Lake Superior State and Casey Fazekas, who played in the Dutch pro league last season.

Mark Segal of McGill University and the Vancouver Giants, along with Cody Rosen, who played at Clarkson College, are the team’s goaltenders.

Matt Herskovitz, a 23-year-old defenceman from Montreal, said the Maccabiah will mark his second trip to Israel.  Four years ago, he played in a hockey tournament in Metulla and loved it.

“It’s always a great opportunity to represent your country,” he said. “Ten years down the line, you may not get that opportunity. You have to appreciate it and not take it for granted.”

For Herskovitz, who played for Clarkson College in the NCAA before switching to Western, said “the guys have been welcoming. It’s a great group of guys.

Playing in the Maccabiah is “a no-brainer,” he added.

Even without Keenan as coach, motivation for the players remains high, Voihanski said.

“They want to represent their country, to play at a high level and be on Team Canada… and win a medal,” he said.

“A lot of these guys are very proud to be Jewish. None of them hide it. A lot of them embrace it.”

They also serve as terrific role models for kids in the Jewish community. A bunch of kids from the JCC Chai Sports hockey program came out on the weekend to watch the guys practice and then skate on the ice with them.

“To see the looks on their faces and the pride to be with these guys,” said Voihanski. “It is all about community.”

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Six NHL owners have provided financial support to the Maccabiah hockey tournament, which gets under way this week in the northern Israeli town of Metulla.

The owners refurbished the Olympic-sized rink, which is part of Canada Centre, with new boards and glass. The six owners who participated in the upgrade are Larry Tanenbaum (Toronto Maple Leafs), Daryl Katz (Edmonton Oilers) Henry Samueli (Anaheim Ducks), Ed Snider (Philadelphia Flyers), Cliff Viner (Florida Panthers), and Jeff Vinik (Tampa Bay Lightning).

In addition, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and former Los Angeles Kings owner Joe Cohen contributed to support the tournament.

“Thanks to the support of the NHL owner and commissioner Gary Bettman, ice hockey joins the Maccabiah Games for the first time as an official sport,” said Maccabiah CEO Eyal Tiberger.

“We very much look forward to the tournaments and are sure that the participation of both professional and college players will add a lot of interest. We are also grateful to the Israeli regulatory bodies for helping us upgrade the Metulla facility to meet international standards.”

The next print edition of The CJN is Aug. 1.