Three hockey players from Canada have joined Israel’s U20 national team in the controversial IIHF tournament in Bulgaria

When the Israeli national men’s U20 hockey team steps onto the ice at Sofia’s Winter Sports Palace on Monday to take on New Zealand, three of the 20 players suiting up in Israel’s blue-and-white jerseys will be from Canada.

The trio are actually all Israeli-born forwards currently playing in Ontario, including Mike Levin, 18, a right-winger with the Niagara IceDogs of the OHL, in St. Catharines; Yann Raskin, 18, who plays junior B hockey in Brantford, and Nikita Zitserman, 15, who played AAA hockey in Mississauga.

They nearly couldn’t go.

Two weeks ago, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) suddenly removed Israel’s team from the U20 tournament in Bulgaria, because the host country’s organizers couldn’t guarantee security for the Israeli team, or other teams, or even fans coming to watch the action at the Division III Group A U20 championships.

While no mention was made of the Hamas attack on Israel Oct. 7 or Israel’s subsequent launch of a war that has sparked violent antisemitic protests around the world, the IIHF insisted its decision was purely for safety, and not politics. In a statement released Jan.12, the world’s governing body for hockey said it was worried that the arena is located in an area of the Bulgarian capital that is home to a “large student population from the affected areas in the Middle East.”

An international uproar ensued, including from the NHL, the National Hockey League Players’ Association, Germany and others, including Canadian players and team staff.

Israel’s ice hockey federation appealed the removal to the IIHF last week. It also launched a legal challenge to the Court of Arbitration for Sports in Switzerland. Israel’s hockey federation called the decision discrimination and said that it smacked of antisemitism.

Then just five days before the first puck dropped, the IIHF reversed the ban on Israel, saying on Jan. 17 it had received assurances from Bulgarian officials that security would be in place.

Win it for the country

But the bitterness over the IIHF’s original removal just fuels strong motivation now for the Israeli U20 team to prove everyone wrong, believes skater Mike Levin.

“Everyone is ready to go,” Levin told The CJN in an interview from St. Catharines on Jan. 18, just before preparing to leave for Bulgaria. “You know, like what’s going on back home and everyone wants to win it for the country.”

Levin was on Israel’s U20 team in 2023 when they captured the silver medal in the IIHF tournament for their group in Division III matches held in Turkey. Levin had 12 goals and 7 assists overall. Israel lost the final game to Australia by 4-1.

He recalls the security measures involved last year in Turkey, a country which had poor relations with Israel even before Oct. 7. The Israeli hockey team travelled in a convoy of three buses, with two buses serving as decoys, he said.

Police cars followed them everywhere they went, Levin recalled. When the women’s national team played their first international matches in Serbia in 2022, they also had police escorts.

Levin, who is playing his first full season with the St. Catharines’ team in the Canadian Hockey League, notched 28 points (16 goals with 12 assists) in 40 games. He’s in second place in goal scoring.

Mike Levin
Mike Levin is the second leading scorer this season on the Niagara IceDogs major junior hockey team in the OHL, based in St. Catharines. Ontario. (submitted photo)

The Israel right-winger moved to Canada when he was 13 to start his hockey career, but has not become a Canadian citizen, he said. He followed in the footsteps of his older brother David Levin, 24, who plays on Israel’s senior men’s national team. David played in the OHL in Sudbury, Ont., and now plays in Romania.

Although the IIHF ban was removed for the younger Levin’s upcoming U20 tournament, the IIHF has not yet moved to reinstate Israel in three more scheduled events: in March both the U18 men and the women’s national team were to play in tournaments in Spain and Estonia, respectively, while the men’s national team was set to compete in April in Belgrade, Serbia.

The uncertainty over the IIHF’s decision going forward penalizes the Israeli ice hockey teams, alleges Mikhael Horowitz, the federation’s CEO.

In a statement Sunday from Bulgaria, where the Israeli teens were holding a practice, Horowitz told The CJN they want a clear decision for the rest of the season.

“Putting Israel ‘on hold’ is discriminatory and puts the Ice Hockey Federation of Israel in a situation where we cannot prepare properly,” Horowitz said, referring to the IIHF’s promise to review the upcoming tournaments only during a meeting in February.

This is why Israel’s legal challenge is still going forward, Horowitz added.

The 2024 edition of the U20 men’s world championships in Sofia will see Israel play five games between Jan. 22 and 28, hoping for gold. A gold could bump them up to a higher ranking.

“We are the favourites,” said forward Mike Levin, who is missing four of his OHL club games back in St. Catharines in order to represent his native country again.

He expects tough games against Mexico and also against host Bulgaria, but when asked whether the past few weeks’ ordeal with the IIHF has given Israel something extra to compete for, Levin replied “Exactly.”