“I don’t have words to describe this feeling that I’m feeling right now,” Irad Chen said as he stood in CONSOL Energy Center. “I’m just so excited.”
Sixteen-year-old Chen just might be the Pittsburgh Penguins’ No. 1 fan, and he’s not even from North America.
“I’ve already (been to) two NHL games, but not Pittsburgh Penguins games, so this one I’m excited for 10 times more,” he said.
Chen is a part of the Canada-Israel Hockey School (CIHS), a program formed in 2010 originally designed to bridge the gap between Arab and Jewish children. CIHS is based in Metulla, Israel, a northern city that rests on the border of Lebanon. It’s also the only city in the country with a full-sized hockey rink.
Since 2012, the group has traveled to Canada, Finland and the United States, most recently Washington, D.C.
“When we wanted to come to Pittsburgh, all it was is finding someone who had a connection to someone who could share our story,” said Mitch Miller, the team’s North American liaison.
“As soon as our story was shared, the Penguins were on board and they were happy to help with kids who play hockey.”
With the Penguins, the group of 20 CIHS hockey players, age 14-17, had a tour of the locker room, the weight room and shooting room and an invite to “Skate with the Greats.” They also watched a morning skate Thursday and will attend the game against Florida Sunday, and had some ice time of their own at CONSOL Energy Center.
“There’s a lot of surprises,” Chen said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen, but we were told it’s going to be at CONSOL Energy Center so I was really excited about it.”
Each player is hosted by a family in Pittsburgh, two per host. One is an Arab and the other is Jewish.
Back in Israel, some kids travel minutes to play the sport they love, others hours. Players spend anywhere from one to five days on the ice for varying amounts of time. Seasons last around 15 games.
“The experience is very minimized and they can’t take it home, because if they want to watch a game at home, nobody understands what they’re doing two and a half hours in front of the TV,” Raanan Moscovich, a coach, said.
“That’s the challenge we face. They can’t experience it with others.”
“I was really excited just to be with people that know about the Penguins and you can talk with them about it,” Chen said. “My family doesn’t really know about hockey and they don’t care. It’s a good change.”
Another challenge was the initial obstacle of meshing two cultures together that don’t typically associate with each other in Israel.
“It’s very complicated,” Rosenberg said of the relationship between the two groups.
As the CIHS has grown, (it’s now up to 16 senior teams, 10 junior teams and a handful of others below that), it now includes not only Arabs and Jews, but also Muslims and Christians.
“Usually no other Israelis can get to know the Arabs like we do and become friends with them and get to know them, not to judge them,” Rosenberg said. “We’re friends, we’re awesome, we love each other. It’s all good.”
Some of the players speak English, others speak Arabic and a few speak Hebrew. There are some language barriers, needless to say.
“In the practices, we just scream. Say their name,” Brsan Maray, an Arabic goalie from Majalbshams said.
CIHS started a trend in its home country. There are roller hockey programs popping up everywhere, mainly in central Israel.
“The league is growing. There are more teams coming up all the time,” Moscovich said. “People are starting to love the game and get involved more and more.”
Not all of the Israeli visitors are Pens fans. Maray lists the Kings and Rosenberg the Rangers as her favorite team. The Penguins are gaining a few new fans hosting the players and the international fanbase for the sport of hockey is expanding as well.
“It’s a great experience for them to see what it means to belong to a hockey club or play the game,” Moscovich said.
“They see here now that hockey is all over the place and that’s what we want to try to give them.”