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The Tortoises of Netanya

(Guest post by Stace)

NETANYA! The war cry of the Tortoises. You might not suspect tortoises are capable of such an act, but you would probably be imagining tortoises, small t, and not Tortoises, capital T. These specific Tortoises, the Tortoises of Netanya, are a passionate but inexperienced team of roller hockey players based in Netanya, and participating in the Bauer Roller Hockey Israeli Premier League, which to my continuing and immense surprise, exists.

“No,” you may say. “That is not a thing. You are making this crap up.” But I have so-called “links” to prove it, and if it’s on the Internet, it exists, right? Here is the league homepage. Better know your Hebrew.

I shouldn’t have been surprised at the existence of the Tortoises. Although ice hockey is still a very rare beast indeed in Israel, there are many aspects of Israeli life and culture that would foster the presence of roller hockey. The climate is generally favorable for outdoor activities, at least, if you don’t mind it being hot enough to melt your face during certain months of the year. The game of roller hockey is not entirely different from the game of soccer, which is the most popular sport in Israel. General aspects of roller hockey are very similar to soccer in fact: speed and grace, pinpoint skill and the occasional violent collision. And the clincher, there is a large population of immigrants from hockey-mad countries like Russia, Ukraine, and others.

I had never fully reasoned this out in the months leading up to our departure for Israel last September. So, in an effort to minimize the amount of gear shipped to our apartment, I begrudgingly omitted my roller hockey gear. My exercise activity of choice was to be running, plus some soccer if the Intel soccer-at-lunch guys could ever get their act together (they never did). Prior to our departure I had done some web research on roller hockey in Israel and was unable to find any, except for some small Hebrew-only websites that seemed to be based in Haifa. I didn’t want to schlep all that gear over to the Land of Milk and Cookies (Liam’s term)  if I couldn’t be sure that I would use it.

And so it was with some incredulity that, while I was on a run one night a couple weeks after our arrival, I found a fairly new and fully-formed outdoor roller hockey rink less than a mile from our apartment building. The dasherboards were reasonably high-quality, the high barrier around the ends of the rink were chain-link fence, and the whole thing looked somewhat dusty and misused. But it was new. And it was nice. There was nobody on it, but it was lit. And for several weeks, each time that I ran past and saw it, it continued to be nice, well-lit, and empty. So I pushed it to the back of my mind and focused on running. I had clearly made the right choice in leaving my gear.

In late November, I was on a run on a particularly beautiful and cool night and ran past the rink as was my usual. It was a Wednesday night, which was unusual for me to be running. Running past the rink I did a hard double-take. I could see heads moving around on the rink, or rather, helmets. Several mismatched helmets floating at just about dasherboard level, and even a taller body with jacket and no helmet, gliding around the rink and occasionally blowing a whistle! I had discovered a team of juniors playing roller hockey.

Kids playing roller hockey in Netanya

A beautiful sight!

They were using a shooter-tutor, playing with a street hockey ball, had badly-matched gear and were very obviously just learning to skate, but they were going at it with gusto. The wispy tall man who was coaching them obviously knew his way around a hockey rink. I was judging my chances of being able to speak English with the coach when I noticed a couple of adults sitting on the far side of the rink, watching the action. One man was occasionally yelling encouragement to the kids on the rink, and I made him my target.

I huffed and puffed over to him (coz I was running, see) and started my conversation with the gentleman the same way I started most conversations with Israelis, with my saying “Hello, do you speak English?”

“Of course,” he said (which is the way most conversations with Israelis proceed), and I began to chat with him about how I was from the States and played roller hockey there and how surprised I was to see someone actually playing. Guy was his name. We talked about the kids roller hockey team that was there, his son that was playing, and eventually I got around to asking him whether there was an adult league.

“Of course,” he said again, and he invited me to come out the following Sunday at 8 when the adults would be practicing with the coach that was currently schooling the kids. I forlornly admitted that I didn’t have enough gear. Any gear, really. I was pretty much a hockey hobo. He told me that the coach could probably scrape some up for me to borrow. After the practice broke up I approached the coach, found out to my relief that he also spoke English, and explained the situation. His name was Herman (pronounced by the Israelis as “German” with a hard G, or simply “Gera”), and he could arrange for me a borrowed pair of skates and a stick. And he had several suggestions on how to get more gear, all of them were very expensive.

I finished off my run home with my mind whirling: how would I get some roller hockey gear? More to the point, how would I get my hockey gear out here? Using my own gear would obviously be preferable. Whatever solution I could come up with would take several weeks, so in the meantime I took inventory. Present in Israel, I had a bike helmet. Judging by some of the kids that were out there, if I showed up with my bike helmet to play with the adults it probably wouldn’t be completely ridiculous. I had my running gloves. And that was it. There was only one piece of equipment that Gera wouldn’t be bringing that I absolutely had to have, and let’s just say it’s like the Stanley Cup but without the Stanley part. I did manage to find one in a sporting goods store at our local mall.

So I showed up that Sunday with no shin pads, no elbow pads, no hip pads, just borrowed (but surprisingly well-fitting) skates, my bike helmet, a Mylec stick with straight plastic blade and all, and packing don’t-call-me-Stanley.

Just like I remember from my childhood, the Mylec stick blade flexed way too much so I really couldn’t shoot it on the forehand without spraying it wide right, but somehow I managed a pretty wicked backhand. Perhaps better than my backhand with my normal stick. The rink was very slippery from all the accumulated desert dust so that was a challenge, but I had a great time. Even managed to score a goal on the shooter-tutor during our end-of-training scrimmage. Afterwards I kinda introduced myself to the guys that showed up. There was Guy, who had invited me out, and Gera the Russian coach who probably played hockey at a high level where he came from, probably high school or college varsity. And there was also another gearless recruit like me who I don’t think returned after that night. There was Oleg, Semyon, Alex, Edan, and Dan. They all spoke easily passable English, except for Edan who spent his childhood in the US and the UK, and consequently spoke flawless English. As I continued to come out twice a week and train with these guys I continued to have a great time. I got more than a few giant bruises on my kneecaps from slipping on the dust, but hey, bruises are temporary. And they eased up on the slashes when I had the ball because they were keenly aware that I had no shin pads and gloves that were designed to protect my hand from wayward breezes, not wayward two-handers. And anyways, from a defensive perspective, it didn’t matter if they put a stick on me, I would manage to slip and fall if I got past them anyway. The dusty conditions in the Poleg rink led to my cracking a joke about bringing a giant push-broom to the rink to clean it before we practiced. I dubbed the hypothetical broom “Broomboni.”

Eventually I bought a stick from Gera, which solved the whole shooting problem and increased my enjoyment even more.

The skill level on the team widely varied. Several guys had only picked up the game in their late 30s, and hadn’t quite mastered the art of skating or shooting. Several guys had obviously played when they were kids, and maybe some amount of the time as adults. I would say they were solid Bronze or maybe Silver players, to use terminology I’m familiar with. There was Gera, who might be the fastest skater I’ve ever played with in ice or roller, at any level, and could have dominated in any league I’ve played in. And there was me, somewhere closer to the Bronze guys.

They guys on the team started asking me if I would come out to their league matches to play for them. Clearly I didn’t have the gear for it, so they started pressuring me to get my act in gear and… get some gear! Around this time I found out that my Israeli host manager, Hilik, would be taking a business trip to Portland to meet with some of the folks on my Intel team back home. The beginnings of a plan began to formulate but I would have to get very lucky and also ask for a couple giant favors from Hilik and at least one other person. I asked Hilik if he would mind being my personal mule for a bag of hockey gear. I told him I would pay the extra luggage charges if there were any, and he agreed to do it if it wasn’t too big to handle. Apparently the prison time for being convicted of smuggling stinky sports gear is fairly low.

Then I contacted my buddy back home, Dave. I asked Dave to infiltrate our garage and assemble the bare minimum roller hockey gear into some form of throwaway bag and arrange to hand off the back to Hilik. He got hold of an old beater suitacse, and managed to pack and cram the gear into that.

And opening up that suitcase was just about the most beautiful sight I’ve seen. There was my stinky hockey gear. Just in time for Christmas!

I had already missed the first match of the season, and the next one wouldn’t be for several weeks. Apparently recreational sports leagues in Israel aren’t necessarily like their equivalent in the States. In the States, a rec hockey league would play just about every week, on the same day or maybe two days a week. Occasionally skipping one when the schedule presented a bye, but the beat invariably goes on. This league operated much more spastically. One match, then several weeks of no matches, then two in two weeks, then several weeks with no matches, then one, etc. To fill the schedule space, our coach Gera would schedule “friendlies” against neighboring towns. I played in more distinct roller hockey rinks in five months of playing with Netanya than I had in fifteen years of playing in Portland.

I played in Poleg, which is where I live. I played in northern Netanya. I played in a little dot of a town called Pardes-Hanna, and in another speck of a town called Tsoran. I played in Kfar Saba, and our official league matches were played in a kibbutz called Ramat Hakovesh. A real kibbutz, smelled like cow poo and everything.

I played in strange oval-shaped outdoor rinks with handrails around the outside instead of boards. I played indoors in converted elementary-school basketball gyms, with benches turned over to act as boards and a thick rubber floor that slowed you down to a snails pace and make every pivot a risk of throwing you onto your face. I played on dusty outdoor asphalt, on worn urethane-coated wood. Each rink posed unique challenges.

The Tortoises had some secret weapons: several younger guys who lived in Pardes-Hanna that played for Netanya although they couldn’t attend practices there. There was Ido, my linemate, and two defensemen both named Asaf. All three were very good, solid Silver players. I remember thinking that the less skilled guys on the team (including myself) could have benefitted from having them around during practice. But it wasn’t practical for them to drive that far to attend. So we looked forward to having them with us during matches and the occasional scrimmage in Pardes-Hanna. I didn’t meet these guys until the first match I attended.

And the matches were something else. The league rink was a converted basketball gym, built sometime in the 70s judging by the color scheme. It had boards but the corners were almost square. The walls behind the goals were super-solid concrete. Not fun to run into, but shooting up high became a complete toss-up because the ball might carom twenty feet in any direction, including right out in front of the goal.

The first match of the season I wasn’t able to play because I didn’t have the proper medical clearance. Apparently this is something you have to do in Israel to play competitive sports. You go into a dingy medical clinic, take off your shirt, have someone attach a million billion electrodes to you, and then you run on the treadmill for fifteen minutes or so at different speeds. I was at the peak of my running training at that time, and so to the technician’s surprise I was barely breathing hard at the end of it. After this, a doctor looked at the electrocardiogram, gave me a piece of paper with a bunch of Hebrew written on it, and for this I thanked him and gave him one hundred shekels.

That match I missed because I was short one piece of paper was a 6-0 shellacking, which was painful to watch. But we had three weeks to practice up before our next game, which was a 5-4 loss that probably wasn’t actually as close as the score. But we were clearly improving. Then a 7-2 loss to the best team in the league. Then 4-2. Playing better, but not getting results.

Then, finally, in my fifth game on the team, we broke the losing streak. And I had my first two goals as a member of the Netanya Tortoises. We should rightfully have won that game. Due to some errors in ruling by the referee, a nice fellow Anglo from Edmonton, the opposition were granted a shorter penalty than they should have had, and were granted an outright goal with seconds left in the game that shouldn’t have counted. And the final score was 7-7. But I sympathized with the ref; the game was getting out of hand and nobody was happy with him. And I think he finally panicked a bit. Still, a moral victory in we had progressed as a team of hockey players to the point where we were no longer easy pickings. I was very proud of the Tortoises.

After the game I discovered, to my crushing dismay, that I had played my last game as a Tortoise. The wild 7-7 tie that saw me hit the scoresheet was March 17th, and due to the spastic scheduling and the April holidays, we wouldn’t have another match until May 5th. This was after my planned departure date. There were a lot of jokes about stealing my passport, or flying me back from Oregon on match days, and truthfully I was sad. This was a group of guys all learning together how to play my favorite sport, had welcomed me with open arms, and now suddenly I couldn’t compete with them anymore. I continued to attend practices and scrimmages, until finally my shoulder problems (unrelated to hockey) proved too much to persist through.

I insisted to the guys that I wanted to take them out to celebrate our success and to give them a gift before I left. So we met at an Irish pub in Poleg. I provided them with many drinks, and also a boon, the one thing that I knew would improve their skating, their stickhandling, and their shooting all at one time.

Presenting the Broomboni

Presenting the Broomboni

The Broomboni.

We had a great time. The team admitted to me that they had never done the social thing as a team before, but it was something that they were sure to continue after I was gone.

And a couple weeks later they returned the favor and presented me with a gift as well.

Tortoise JerseySharks colors, with a great Tortoise logo, and my name in Hebrew and my usual jersey number. They actually snuck behind my back to ask Tracy what my usual jersey number was, since I wore 27 for the Tortoises.

They hadn’t seen it before they gave it to me, and so they were delighted to find out how great it turned out. I loved it so much that I suggested that they make it their official jersey instead of the boring white ones. We’ll see if they do.

We’ve finished packing to go home now and I’m donating several pieces of gear to the team. If I manage to come back over here for business trips in the future, I will plan on re-borrowing this gear and hitting the Poleg rink with them once again. And taking them out for some drinks again.

I’ll be watching the standings of the Bauer Premier League. Don’t let me down. Yalla, Netanya Tortoises. Yalla.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Roby Wayne
    April 23, 2012 at 18:28

    I love this guest blog post ;-)!!!

  2. Chris Schardein
    April 28, 2012 at 00:17

    I love these commentaries! You both could start writing books. Just got my new computer and will be able to skype after I get my new camera this weekend. Steven is getting it all for me and setting it up. Call home as ET said.

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