SOFIA – Two days before the end of the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division III the winner was determined. In the first game of the fourth competition day Israel beat closest rival Iceland 6-2 and secured the first place in the tournament and promotion for the next’s year Division II Group B. In the previous games the Israeli hockey talents defeated China 3-2, host Bulgaria 4-3 and Australia 7-2.
After a rest day on Saturday the round robin tournament will finish on Sunday when Israel plays New Zealand, a team who is certain to finish in last place with no points so far and goals difference of 11-35.
It was a historic day for Israeli ice hockey as the U20 national team won its first IIHF U20 event in its fourth participation. The debut was in 1997 and the next two were in 2016 and 2017 with a 4th and 5th-place finish. Israel has played in 14 IIHF U18 Championships since 2001, but has just one first place in the Division III Group B in 2013. There are no players from this winning team on the current U20 roster, but 5 years ago there was one American, Derek Eisler, on the team’s officials list as “team staff”. Since 2015 he is the head coach of all Israeli teams (Men, U20, U18) in the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program with one exception – the U18 team last year. After the deciding victory against Australia, Eisler was happy to share his feelings with IIHF.com. Congratulations for the great tournament! You’re the champions, how does this sound to you? Your team surprised many here in the Winter Palace.
Yeah, when you look at the schedule, the last game is China-Australia. This was supposed to be the final for the gold and silver medals. For us though, this was a motivation to make a run at China. We got the late power play goal to beat them and the next day the momentum was with us to prevail over the tough Bulgarian team. So at that point we thought we are doing pretty good here and our confidence went even higher. Did you expect such results in Sofia or are you one of the surprised people here?
I expected that our team will be in the hunt for the medals – silver or bronze. As a head coach I had this scenario with two wins and one defeat after the first three games. I thought that we can play very well against Australia and Bulgaria, but maybe to concede to China. So my expectations were exceeded for sure. Where are the secrets for this success? In this division some small details can make big difference.
If you look at that team, the difference is that we have many pieces to solve the puzzle. We have great goaltending, solid defence and good forwards. We have more kids that are playing overseas in North America. They are coming older and playing there on a pretty good junior level hockey. There are players from teams in Sweden and Austria. So conditionally we have our best overall roster and we also were really concentrated to be a team and to make sure to explore this team intelligence that we have been talking about. We also found the right defencemen for the power play unit and players that are ready to block shots and be solid penalty killers. We have some guys from the Israeli league who are taking their roles as contributors on the other lines, so we brought a well-rounded team here for the championships. As a coach you want to induce the team work, but are there any players that you want to point out for their efforts in the tournament?
Our two goalies were really, really good. Without those two guys we wouldn’t be here. Raz [Werner] did a great job against China and today it was Yehonatan’s [Reisinger] turn to make big saves. So they both raised to the occasion and played that level they are supposed to. And without good quality goaltending you can’t win gold medals. I have the luxury to alternate good goalies every game. The last two years Raz was the best goalie in the U18 Division III Group A and U20 Division III Championships. Yehonatan won silver medal last year with the U18 team and was also voted as the best goaltender. It seems that if Israel wants to develop hockey, it can be done easily with all the connections that the country has in Russia and North America. Do you see this trend coming in the future?
I see big trend coming for Israel hockey. I think with the success this U20 team just had here, the kids back home are watching it, everybody in Israel is seeing this. There are more and more projects for ice rinks and there will be more people playing hockey. So I think just the sheer volume of interest will go up. The economics is there, the connections are there, everything is in place. Now it’s just a matter of people willing to put a time and effort in growing hockey in the country and to use these connections wisely and build it up. Saturday is a day off. You already did your job here, so how will you celebrate the promotion to the Division II Group B?
With a win in our last game on Sunday! Click here for scores, stats and a live stream from the tournament.