Metal, Mettle…. Medal?

Metal (aka – ‘Iron Mike’ Keenan) – By definition ‘Iron objects of great age are much rarer than objects made of gold or silver’ (Keenan’s tough coaching style earned him the nickname ‘Iron Mike’).
Mettle (aka – Maccabi Canada athletes) – By definition ‘Exhibiting courage and fortitude; spirit’.
Medal – (aka – Gold – Aiming for the top) – By definition ‘Medals have historically been given as prizes in various types of competitive activities, especially athletics. (1) Gold, (2) Silver, (3) Bronze’.

The brain thrust of Maccabi Canada’s open men’s hockey team has struck gold….hmmm….how about another rare commodity, a highly successful former National Hockey League coach with ties to the Jewish community, coupled with a collection of hardware reflecting success at all levels of the game.

When ‘Iron Mike’ (Keenan), Canada’s newly minted head coach for the 2013 Maccabiah, marches alongside his new Maccabi Canada teammates, coaches and personnel into a jam-packed Teddy Kollek Stadium in Jerusalem on July 18, 2013, the emotion of the moment will be etched into a career filled with successes and memories.

Keenan, currently an analyst for the New York Rangers on MSG Network, was very reflective as he summarized his decision to coach a Jewish hockey team in what has been called the third largest gathering of athletes, behind the Olympic Games and the World Student Games.

Though not Jewish himself, the Bowmanville, Ontario native’s first wife is Jewish, as is his daughter and grandchild. And his exposure to Jewish culture through family ties has given Keenan more than just a cursory overview of Jewish life.

A visit with extended family to Poland in the early ‘70s was an eye-opener for Keenan as they explored the sites and history of the Warsaw Ghetto and Auschwitz.He was very close with his mother-in-law, a Holocaust survivor, and, while she usually didn’t say much about those unforgettable years in the war-ravaged country, she spoke at length with Keenan about it during their trip. “It really had an impact on me,” he intimated.

When Keenan touches down in Israel for the 19th Maccabiah, it will be his first trip to the Holy Land, a chance to see where many of the Jewish diaspora called home after statehood in 1948, and a chance to give back to a community he has been part of for many years.

Though Keenan had some knowledge of the Maccabi movement, it was Keenan’s long-time involvement with the hockey fraternity that led Alex Voihanski, general manager of the Maccabi Canada men’s hockey team, to put forward the proposal.

“I had no prior relationship with Mike,” said Voihanski, who also serves as Managing Director JCC Chai Sports and director of hockey operations for International Scouting Services (ISS). He said good contacts, through former Israel Ice Hockey Chairman Alan Maislin, ISS, and good timing were key to Keenan accepting the position.

With Keenan’s decision now history, the countdown to the Maccabiah and the formation of a team ready for the puck drop at the Canada Center in Metulla begins.Keenan will target approximately 60-80 elite college and university players, and current or former NHLers, including Trevor Smith of Tampa Bay and Mike Cammalleri of Calgary.

“We will be working hard to attract the best players for this team,” says Voihanski. He expects to have a good idea of the core group by the time selection camps are completed in Winnipeg (TBA), Toronto (May) and Montreal (June).

“I know many of these players, their agents and their clubs so I will send information through those sources,” said Voihanski . “We will also put out a press release, send an email blast and use social media to get the word out as well.”

“Alex is an important part of all of that,” said Keenan of Voihanski’s contacts and management duties with the team. “Alex is the point man when it comes to the camp.”

As for preparation and familiarity with the other competing teams and players from Europe, Israel, France and the United States, Keenan added, “We’ll do our homework. We’re not going into this blind.”

“It’s a short tournament. You have to concentrate on your own team.”

Voihanski has said there is also more good news on the coaching front for the hockey team with a confirmation that Mike Pelino has joined the staff.

Pelino is currently the coach of the Peterborough Petes in the OHL, and has coached in the NHL with the New York Rangers and Florida Panthers. Internationally, he has coached Canada on numerous occasions, winning Gold with the World Junior Team in 1997, World Championship Team in 2004, and the Salt Lake Olympics in 2002.

The first and last time hockey was included in the Maccabiah was in 1997 when Canada sent a team coached by Jacques Demers (Montreal Canadiens) and took the gold medal against the United States.

Keenan’s credentials speak volumes about the international experience he brings: As National Team Head Coach in 1987 and in his dual role as General Manager and Head Coach in 1991, Keenan led Team Canada to two Canada Cup victories. His international career also includes head coaching jobs with Team Canada at the 1980 World Junior Championships and the World Championships in 1993.

Voihanski expects there will be a short training camp before the team packs its bags for Israel.As for the pre-camp that will allow most other Canadian athletes and coaches to experience Israeli culture prior to the start of competition, just how much exposure remains up in the air for the hockey team.

With the Metulla Canada Centre situated in Northern Israel, boasting a breathtaking view of the Upper Galilee, and roughly three hours from Jerusalem, Keenan said he wasn’t sure about how much time there will actually be to take in the sights and sounds. “We will have an orientation camp and hopefully some time for travelling,” he said.

“I am looking forward to it,” added Keenan about the Maccabiah, which, for some participants, will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “It’s an exciting event. I am hoping that players get an exceptional cultural experience.”

He also follows a trail blazed by many big-name NHLers, such as Jacques Demers, Jean Beliveau, Jean Perron and the late Roger Neilson. All have visited Metulla to coach and promote the sport. Future involvement after the games is something that Keenan has thought about as well. “If I can help out I would be glad to,” he said. “Hockey has been good to me.”

Speaking from a New York City hotel just prior to the start of the Senators – Rangers playoff series, Keenan said the Maple Leaf is always close to his heart. “You’re always proud to represent your country,” he said.

When asked about the chances of Maccabi Canada winning, he responded in a soft, but telling tone, “Not to be bold, but it’s fair to say it’s not an unrealistic expectation (to win). “