FROM THE CREASE with Bruce Berlet

Bruce HeadshotBy Bruce Berlet

HARTFORD, Conn. – On the one hand, Oren Eizenman was a typical pro hockey wannabee growing up in Toronto, skating on a rink in his backyard with older brothers Alon and Erez.

On the other hand, Eizenman has about as atypical a background in the game as you can find, having skated on the only full-size rink in Israel located in the shadow of the yellow flag of Hezbollah, the terrorist organization financed by Iran that has informally annexed the southern part of Lebanon and occasionally sends rockets over the town of Metulla, which sits on a mountaintop next to the border.“Sometime you realize when you are there that there is more to life than hockey,” said Eizenman, the newest member of the Connecticut Whale. “I have had the privilege to play with guys who go off into elite army units, a little different than the AHL or ECHL.”

It’s a strange juxtaposition, as diverse as what Eizenman sees as the real Israel of beauty and tranquility compared to the media-portrayed Israel of bombed-out homes and death.

It’s epitomized by the $40-million Canada Center in Metulla, located less than a five-minute walk from the heavily guarded Lebanese border.

“It has been a place for young people to come and play together and helps give people something else to think about (besides military threats),” Eizenman said.

It’s also thousands of miles – literally and figuratively – from the outdoor rink where Eizenman and his brothers learned to skate to the indoor Metulla ice surface, which is Olympic size but sometimes softened by 90-degree temperatures.

Still, it’s vastly better than most of the other rinks in Israel.

“They used to have a couple of skating rinks that were half-size,” the 6-foot, 190-pound center said. “I remember when I was young they didn’t have Zambonis, so they had people come and shovel snow every half-hour to 45 minutes. You’d wound up with huge piles of snow on the sides of the boards that would make the rink even smaller. It was a hilarious thing, but it is what it is.”

Just as hilarious was when Eizenman’s oldest brother, Alon, started to play, and their parents didn’t realize they had to sharpen his skates. Alon went months without his skates being sharpened, so as the season wound down, he was falling all the time.

“One of the parents said (Alon) was such a good skater at the start of the season but couldn’t understand what was going on,” Eizenman recalled with a smile. “My dad said, ‘Yeah, I know. He seems to be tripping all over the place.’ When my dad was asked if he had sharpened Alon’s skates, he looked at the person said, ‘What do you mean? I don’t know what that means.’ He thought it was like running shoes. You don’t have to get running shoes checked. So my dad learned the hard way that you had to sharpen skates.”

But at least Eizenman had somewhere to skate, even if it was in “those terrible blue skates.”

“I remember coming back to Israel in the summer and taking my cousins skating and saying, ‘Guys, you’ve got to try this out,’ ” Eizenman said, laughing. “It was funny to see, but it was a good time.”

Much like Israel itself as far as Eizenman is concerned.

“I encourage everyone to go to Israel,” Eizenman said. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful place, and you don’t feel insecure. Tel Aviv is a very Westernized city where they’re trying to copy Miami. They have a really long boardwalk/beach area with kind of a South Beach-ish feeling and outdoor couches and fires on the beach.

“All my friends who go over there say, ‘Wow, this is not what we thought at all.’ But of course the media will report on the one suicide bombing that happens in a blue moon, as opposed to someone went to the grocery and they got back safe. That’s not really making news, so it’s one of those things where I tell people it’s a great place. And Jerusalem is a magical city. There’s no place like it in the world. I encourage everyone I talk to to go over and experience it once because of just the history there. If you take a guided tour through Jerusalem, the stories are wild stuff. It’s really nice.”

So was Eizenman’s time in Toronto, where his father learned to love hockey because his three sons played a lot growing up.

“In Toronto, you can’t grow up and not play hockey,” Eizenman said. “It’s like a religion up there. All my friends started playing, so I started playing with them. But it was weird because I was playing Triple-A hockey in Toronto, then I’d go to Israel every summer and not play while all my friends had a whole summer season.

“I’d kind of take time off and then come back and feel refreshed to play while they’d be coming off another season. I never understood it, but it was always interesting stuff. In one way, I was just a normal Canadian guy, but then I’d go over to Israel and things would be so different.”

Eizenman and his brothers made history five years ago when they led the lightly regarded Israeli national team to the title in the Division I-II World Championships. And they played in uniforms that included a logo their mother helped design. It included the Star of David with a hockey stick coming from the right portion of the star along with a metallic blue coloring the jersey.

“They called it the biggest upset since the 1980 Miracle on Ice,” Eizenman said, referring to the United States beating supposedly unbeaten Soviet Union in the Winter Olympics semifinals and then earning the gold medal with a victory over Finland. “We were supposed to finish dead last and ended up winning the tournament. It was wild.”

The victory earned Israel Division I status in 2006, and Eizenman was named tournament MVP after getting 10 goals and five assists in five games playing for coach Jean Perron, who led the Montreal Canadiens to the Stanley Cup in 1986.

“The reason Perron went over there is because he fell in love with Israel,” Eizenman said. “He’s a great coach and a great guy, and I really learned a lot from him and enjoyed my time with him. He’s a great motivator, a great tactical guy and just as nice a guy as you can imagine.”

A year later, Oren, Alon, Erez and the rest of the upstart Israeli team found themselves face-to-face with the powerful German team that started five NHL players, including Marco Strum,  currently with the Boston Bruins.

“It was like, ‘Whoa,’ ” said a smiling Eizenman, who played on a line with his brothers. “We lined up against those guys, and you could just tell we were outmatched. They ended up beating us 11-2, but we could take away that my brother and I scored the only two goals against Germany the entire tournament. It was actually a huge upset that they got knocked down because they’re usually up in the division with Canada and the United States, but we had come up and they had come down. Needless to say, it was an interesting game and a very cool experience.”

So Eizenman & Co. were on their way to returning to Division II, but it hardly mattered.

“Being able to play for your country anytime is an awesome experience, but especially when your country is Israel,” Eizenman said. “You kind of want to project it in a light that doesn’t mean it’s going to be checked all the time. All that anyone ever hears about is the conflict over there, but if you delve a little deeper, you realize it’s just a democratic country that’s trying to survive out in very hostile territory.

“People just want to live life normally. You really don’t worry about (rockets being fired). It happens so seldom and is blown out of proportion. When you go over there, you feel like people are really, really friendly. Everyone always asks me if they speak English. Every sign is in English, and they love English. Israel is the biggest supporter of the United States (in the region). It’s actually one of the few countries that supports the United States, which is all that matters.

“Israel loves the United States, so you go over there and all the kids are listening to the music that kids listen to here, the movies are the same and the McDonald’s is the McDonald’s. Every kid from the age of 5 starts learning English and Hebrew. When people go over there, they totally know what I mean. It’s completely normal.”

Playing for his national team three times was just another chapter in a career that has seen Eizenman hop-scotch through the minor leagues, playing for six AHL teams, including the Milwaukee Admirals three times, and three ECHL teams, including the Fresno Falcons and Stockton Thunder in California twice each. Fittingly, Eizenman’s newest team has a new name, the Connecticut Whale, alias the Hartford Wolf Pack. Eizenman was acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets for future considerations on November 24, arriving two days before the Wolf Pack’s farewell and three days prior to the birth of the Whale.

“It’s kind of a wild road when you get traded,” said Eizenman, the only Israeli to play in the AHL besides Max Birbraer, a third-round pick of the New Jersey Devils in 2000 that never made it to the NHL. “Obviously my career has taken me to a lot of different spots, and hopefully I’ve found the right situation. I’ve got an opportunity and have to take advantage of it. It’s nice to have gotten off to a good start.”

Eizenman made a good first impression with a goal in his Whale debut, a 3-2 shootout victory over the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in his second game at the XL Center, and he assisted on Evgeny Grachev’s goal in a 3-0 victory over the Adirondack Phantoms on Sunday. Eizenman didn’t get a point in a 2-1 shootout loss to the Worcester Sharks on Wednesday.

Eizenman said it’s always a little difficult coming in and trying to learn a new system because you’re always afraid to make a mistake or wonder where you should be in certain situations. But after some admitted nerves on his first few shifts, Eizenman immediately fit in with veterans Jeremy Williams and Brodie Dupont.

“Playing with two awesome players made it a lot easier,” Eizenman said.

Eizenman also benefitted from being at the New York Rangers’ development camp with Dupont, Dale Weise and Justin Soryal four summers ago and having played in San Antonio with right wing Chad Kolarik and in Syracuse with defenseman Stu Bickel, his roommate before he was acquired by the Rangers from the Anaheim Ducks for disgruntled Nigel Williams on Nov. 23. A day later, the AHL-contracted Eizenman was acquired from the Syracuse Crunch for future considerations.

“I’ve played for a number of different AHL teams, and you kind of want to start off on the right foot when you go to a new place because it’s kind of the first time the guys see you,” Eizenman said. “But it makes the transition a lot easier when you see some familiar faces around the (locker) room. Shifting around kind of comes with the territory of being a pro hockey player. I’m not going to say that moving around all the time is the most pleasant thing to do, but I love doing what I do. If I absolutely have to (move around), then great, but hopefully I can find a little bit more of a permanent spot.”

Whale coach Ken Gernander has few complaints so far.

“He has been a pretty good fit,” said Gernander, who has used Eizenman on a regular shift and to kill penalties and take defensive-zone faceoffs, which are always critical. “If you give a guy a shift here and there, and if he shows you something, you try to give him a little more responsibility. He has been pretty good as far as meeting the challenge when the opportunity arises.

“He’s a pretty sound player. He’s capable offensively, but his all-around game is pretty sound from what we’ve seen so far.”

Eizenman, 25, has had to be of sound mind to be able to survive and get as far as he has. He was born in Toronto, but his parents immigrated from Israel so he holds dual citizenship. Eizenman shuttled between Toronto, where his parents and brothers lived, and Ramat Gan, Israel, a suburb of Tel Aviv where his relatives lived, from his birth until he was 6 because his father had business in both cities. His dad eventually became a professor at the University of Toronto, and Eizenman began skating at 4 and playing hockey at 6 with his older brothers.

“We were a hockey-playing family and all loved the game,” Eizenman said.

The Eizenmans lived in Toronto during the school year but spent the summers in Israel until Oren was 14. He played baseball, tennis, soccer and won a lot of golf tournaments.

“We were a really athletic family,” Eizenman said. “All I remember about my childhood is going from court to court and playing non-stop.”

Eizenman played one year for the Wexford Raiders of the Tier II Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey League and four years at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute before turning pro in 2007 and getting career highs for goals (27), assists (39) and points (66) with Fresno. He played for the Israeli national team in the 2004-06 Division II World Championships while at RPI and then began his nomadic pro career with the Falcons.

Eizenman scored two goals for the National Conference in the 2008 ECHL All-Star Game and then had 21 goals and 38 assists in 61 games with Stockton in 2009-10. Before joining the Whale, he was scoreless in three games with the Crunch and had five goals and 13 assists in 13 games with the ECHL’s Elmira Jackals.

Eizenman said hockey is “slowly rising” in Israel, where soccer and basketball are No. 1 and 1A. Connecticut fans have had an allegiance to Israeli basketball since Nadev Hanefeld and Doron Sheffer played for UConn in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Henefeld and Sheffer won national and European Cup titles with Maccabi Tel Aviv, which is what Eizenman calls “the Manchester United of Israeli basketball.”

“There are more and more grassroots (hockey) programs starting in Israel, where they take kids from cities and take them to Metulla to skate,” Eizenman said. “You just hope some kids fall in love with it because it’s a huge time commitment. Israel is a tiny country that’s very slim and where you can drive from the northern-most parts to the southern-most parts in six hours. It’s 21/2 hours from Tel Aviv to Metulla, which is nothing for me but a long drive for people in Israel.”

Eizenman said a second full-size rink is planned in central Israel, but the tightly knit Israeli Hockey Federation hasn’t been able to get any funds or land.

“Israelis love aggressive, physical sport,” Eizenman said, “so I think hockey would be a great sport for them if they can ever get it going because it kind of matches their personality very well. It’s kind of like American football fits the American personality.”

For a man who has already seen more than most see in a lifetime, Eizenman has a gregarious personality that has folks hoping he can somehow make NHL history.

ATTACKING THOSE MOUSTACHES

Several years ago, the Wolf Pack did a television commercial for Norelco, the highlight being feisty P.J. Stock playfully smacking mascot Sonar in the face.

Well, many of the current Whale players used their Norelcos and other shaving devices to shed the 1970s-style moustaches that they had grown during “Movember,” the month formally known as November when a moustache-giving charity event is held each year to raise funds and awareness for men’s health.

“It’s the first time we did it,” said Dupont, who was moustache-less as he promised at the request of his girlfriend. “It was to bring awareness to prostate and testicular cancer.”

The only players still sporting at least some sort of ’stash were Williams, Grachev, Kris Newbury, Mats Zuccarello, Kelsey Tessier and Cameron Talbot, who already had a moustache but grew it into a Fu Manchu look that earned him the media’s award for best moustache. But Talbot shaved all but his original moustache.

“The top part is a little lonely without the rest of it,” Talbot quipped.

Newbury and Williams had a moustache contest last season when they were with the Grand Rapids Griffins. But Newbury shaved his ’stash when he was called up by the Detroit Red Wings, though he admitted Williams’ moustache was better.

“I’m going to keep mine all year it looks so good,” Newbury said with a smile.

WEISE MIGHT RETURN FRIDAY NIGHT

Weise skated in practice again Thursday and hopes to return Friday night for a game at Providence. He skated in the warm-ups Wednesday night but decided not to play because of an injury sustained in a 3-0 victory over Adirondack on Sunday.

“I didn’t want to take a chance,” he said. “We’re only 25 games into the season. I’m day-to-day.”

Weise had two goals and two assists in six games after missing 15 games because of an injury that required surgery. He had one goal and one assist while playing hurt in the first three games of the season before surgery. … The shootout loss to the Sharks was the 11th one-goal loss for Whale (8-11-2-4), with a 12th by two goals including an empty-netter. The Whale has won four one-goal games, including one in overtime and one in a shootout. … Despite the loss, the Whale moved one point ahead of the Bruins and into a fifth-place tie with Bridgeport and within one point of fourth-place Springfield in the tightly bunched Atlantic Division. But the Bruins have five games in hand and the Sound Tigers and Falcons two each on the Whale. … The Whale is on a four-game points streak (2-0-0-2) and is 4-1-0-2 since a 1-9-2-1 slide that included a franchise-record-tying, nine-game losing streak (0-7-0-2). … The Bruins are 7-3-1-0 since a 2-5-1-1 start. Coach Rob Murray’s team is 7-1-1-0 on the road but 2-7-1-1 at the Dunkin Donut Center. The Whale won the teams’ previous meeting 3-0 in Providence on Oct. 17 despite being outshot 41-18. But Talbot became the first goalie in franchise history to record a shutout in his pro debut. … The Bruins’ leading point and goal scorer Jamie Arniel (nine goals and seven assists in 19 games) returned to the P-Bruins on Monday after making his NHL debut with the NHL Bruins on Sunday. He is on a six-game AHL points streak (three goals, four assists). … The Whale has a rematch with the Sharks on Saturday night at 7 at the XL Center. While the Whale has struggled in one-goal games, the Sharks are 7-1-1-3 and a perfect 9-0-0-0 when scoring first goal and leading after the second period. They’re also 5-3-0-2 on the road and 6-4-1-1 at home. They are 2-0-0-1 in their last three road games and have won each of their last three visits to the XL Center.

SOUND TIGERS, MONARCHS ON BEST RUNS OF THE SEASON

Despite a plethora of injuries and call-ups to the parent New York Islanders, the Sound Tigers have put together a season-high, five-game points streak (3-0-1-1). They’re 8-3-1-0 at home but 2-8-0-1 away from the Arena at Harbor Yard. Rookie goalie Kevin Poulin has two shutouts in his last three starts, lowering his goals-against average to 1.98. … The Manchester Monarchs have outscored the opposition 21-6 in a four-game winning streak, and an 8-1-0-0 run has vaulted them into the Atlantic Division lead. Second-year pro Andrei Loktionov has put up multiple points in three consecutive games (one goal, seven assists) to take over the team lead in scoring (three goals, 14 assists) in only 14 games since arriving from the parent club Los Angeles Kings. Oscar Moller has an eight-game scoring run (five goals, six assists), the longest active streak in the AHL. … Former Whale captain Dane Byers has two goals and five assists in 10 games since joining the Springfield Falcons in a trade for Kolarik on Nov. 11. Kolarik has five goals and three assists in nine games with the Whale, who are 4-2-0-3 since the deal. The Falcons are 4-6-0-0. … Abbotsford Heat goalie Leland Irving, who leads the AHL with 11 victories (11-6-1, 2.15 goals-against-average, .919 save percentage), has allowed two or fewer goals in 10 consecutive starts since surrendering three in a 4-3 overtime win over Rochester on Oct. 25. … Former Whale wing Nigel Dawes of the Chicago Wolves had a five-game scoring streak (four goals, three assists) end on Tuesday in a 2-1 shootout victory over Manitoba. That came two days after a 10-8 loss to the Griffins. … The hat trick that former New Canaan High and Taft School-Watertown standout Max Pacioretty scored on his 22nd birthday Nov. 20 started a stretch in which he has nine goals in six games. Pacioretty had never scored more than nine goals in a season before this year. The surge has moved Pacioretty into a tie for second in league scoring (13 goals, 14 assists). … Former Whale defenseman Bryce Lampman, who signed with the Houston on Nov. 16, played his first game for the Aeros on Saturday against the Milwaukee Admirals. Lampman tied his career high last season with seven goals in 54 AHL games for the Peoria Rivermen. … Former Whale wing Alexandre Giroux, who had 110 goals in the last two seasons with the Hershey Bears and was named AHL MVP in 2008-09, has gone 13 games without scoring for the Oklahoma City Barons. Meanwhile, Wethersfield native Colin McDonald, son of former Whalers defenseman Gerry McDonald, is on a four-game points streak (five goals, no assists). … The Rivermen have earned a point in six consecutive games (5-0-1-0), one shy of the team’s season high of seven straight, which were all victories from Oct. 10-23. In this latest streak, they have killed off 35 consecutive short-handed situations, rising from 12th in the league (84.9 percent) to No. 1 (89.1 percent).

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One response to “FROM THE CREASE with Bruce Berlet

  1. (Editors note: According to TSN.ca earlier Thursday, Sturm was supposedly traded from the Boston Bruins to the Los Angeles Kings.

    However, the Bruins denied the TSN report that Sturm went for a conditional draft pick. Sturm has yet to play this season because of a knee injury and the Bruins would have to make a move in order to fit him under the cap.

    “I am aware of the various media reports today regarding Marco Sturm,” Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli said in a statement. “I can confirm that I spoke to Marco about waiving his no-trade clause and have had discussions regarding Marco with other teams. I can also confirm that there is no trade in place with Marco. At this time, Marco is a member of the Boston Bruins and will continue to train with our team.”)