I’m not a gambling woman. But the odds on a Jewish American healthcare insurance manager and an Israeli Christian Arab computer technician sharing both a love of ice hockey and art house cinema must be longer than the length of a sports stadium.
Yet this is what Karmiel resident Marc Milzman and Ramez Lahham from Nazareth discovered after Milzman emigrated to northern Israel in 2014.
In fact, at the heart of the pair’s unique union is not only a revolution in local school sports but a genuine meeting of minds brimming with exciting plans that are sure to foster great sport and excellent local inter-community relations.
Only this week, while members of the Nazareth Tigers team enjoyed ice practice at Metula’s Canadian Israel Hockey School, the two men debated several sizzling ideas that included the formation of a juniors’ programme like that in Canada where the kids could play where they attend school.
But let’s not get carried away.
This is a sports story, so as the virtual referee sounds the start whistle I’ll begin by asking Milzman how everything began.
N.I.W.: Where were you born and educated?
N.I.W.: When and how did you and your wife, Carolyn meet?
M.M.: We met in 1993 after being “set up” by my landlord to play a game of hearts.
N.I.W.: Do you have any family in Israel?
M.M.: We have no kids but our dogs, Angus and Sadie made aliya with us and we have distant cousins in Jerusalem and Mikhmoret, central Israel. I always wanted to live here and after a visit in 2008 I was sure this is what I wanted to do.
N.I.W.: Have you always been a sportsman?
M.M.: Yes, since I was a wee lad. Not a great one though.
N.I.W.: Only hockey or do you play other sports?
M.M.: I’ve played baseball, participated in curling as well as Canada’s national game, box lacrosse. I’ve also embarrassed myself attempting to play soccer and basketball occasionally!
N.I.W.: How, when and where did you start teaching?
M.M.: I hurt my Achilles tendon badly playing hockey in Vancouver, British Columbia when I was aged only 25. So ice hockey - along with most other sports that rely on having strong feet - ended forever. Then in order to stay close to my favourite sport, I learned how to coach kids in Canada, first helping with ‘pee-wee’ and bantam hockey at the Arbutus Club in Vancouver and then adult teams in the Washington DC area and Los Angeles. I’ve done this for the past 34 years. It has always been officially ‘part time’ but often took up more time than my regular full time jobs!
N.I.W.: As you’ve also been to film school have you ever worked in the industry or just lectured about personalities like Alfred Hitchcock?
M.M.: Cinema was my minor course in college and I learned much from Joseph Miller, a man who, despite not being a professor, still teaches film at the university and has an amazing knowledge of the art of film and cinematography.
He opened my eyes to a world that I had previously no real clue about. So, no. I’ve never worked in the industry but I am fairly well read in the history of cinema and film auteurs and enjoy sharing what I have learned over the years and presenting films made by my favourite directors.
N.I.W.: You’ve had an otherwise wide ranging career yet you have suggested that coaching the Nazareth Tigers ice hockey team is the most personally fulfilling (volunteer) work you’ve accomplished. How and why did it all begin?
M.M.: My current employer, Dudi Shabi of Sportskills, suggested that I contact Ramez Lahham who was working with a hockey programme in Nazareth. Eventually, we met at the Canada Israel Hockey Centre in Metula where his teams were ice training and he invited me to his inline rink at the Abu Salma Centre in Nazareth. I was blown away by the programme that he had put together. He asked if I would assist him in building the programme and I jumped at the opportunity. I absolutely love the kids and I see improvement week to week.
Ramez - who by a fascinating coincidence once managed a cinema art house in Nazareth - is an amazing person - a force of nature - who is currently one hundred per cent responsible for building and maintaining the Nazareth Tigers hockey school. Because of his passion for hockey - as well as wanting somewhere for his son Neil to play! - he put together this astounding hockey school smack in the middle of Nazareth.
He visited North America to gain coaching certification from the USA Hockey and Hockey Canada organisations and now works with the Canada-Israel Hockey School in Metula where there are presently more than 60 kids at various stages of development whom he has taught from the ground up.
Ramez works tirelessly with the municipality to improve the rink; acquires donations for equipment from North America but is reluctant to admit that he has even paid for some items himself, refusing to turn away children from less privileged homes. In fact, Ramez sees the school as a haven for local kids; a means of keeping them off the streets, away from bad influence and he tries to build a family atmosphere, both on and off the ice.
I’m not convinced that the Nazareth Municipality realises what an exceptional individual they have in Ramez. He is a person who believes in coexistence and the school has Christian, Muslim and Jewish players. I see no distinction between any of them. They are what hockey and sports in general should be about.
Ramez is a tireless promoter of hockey in Israel. He meets hockey luminaries both here in Israel and North America to gain whatever he may, both for Nazareth and the general advance of the game countrywide. He arranges monthly busses to take the kids to Metula for ice training and games (a round trip of about 140 kilometers) and counsels kids with problems, always involving their parents.
He is the first person to arrive at the rink for Wednesday and Friday practice sessions and then the last to leave. When rain floods the rink, he is there to sweep out the water and mud. If there is a maintenance problem, he is there with a hammer and saw. Now he’s working hard to get a roof built over the rink. All this because of his twin loves for hockey – and the kids. It is truly my honour to work with such a man.
The Nazareth Tigers currently boast three teams: one each for beginners, young children and older ‘veterans’ ranging from ages five – 17 and all are affiliated to the Canada-Israel Hockey School run by Levav Weinberg in Metula.
N.I.W.: I’m told that The Tigers moved from roller-blade hockey to ice hockey. Why? Aside from the obvious difference, what else changes? Is it because it’s a faster and so more popular form of the sport?
M.M.: The teams all learn rollerblading first. The main reason for the change is that there is no ice surface in Nazareth. Instead, the players hone their skills on inline skates and have a monthly trip to the Canada Centre for ice training. I’ve discovered that they ice skate amazingly well. So, yes. Ice is a faster game with different dynamics from those in a roller rink. But the concept is the same.
N.I.W.: How do you involve girls? Do you run separate girls’ teams or do they play alongside the boys?
M.M.: The gals play with the guys!
N.I.W.: Does the team just play against other local schools or take part in regional fixtures as part of a league?
M.M.: Finding competition is difficult. We are currently midway through a six-match roller hockey tournament against teams from Karmiel and Nahariya. Most of these towns’ players are Russian Israelis with life-long experience of the game but while they are very skilful, we have managed to hold our own. We also have some ice fixtures planned for later this winter.
None of our players is yet at national level but I believe that our job is to infuse the team with both Hebrew and Arabic-speaking Israelis. This task requires patience and commitment – not to mention money. But I see a day when a kid from Nazareth will play for the national team. Some have played in tournaments in North America and Europe with the Canada-Israel School and several are due to attend a training camp later this year in the Czech Republic.
So as the final whistle blows I conclude with a thought from Mitch Miller, another volunteer hockey coach who says helping kids to play ice hockey is about much more than sport. The programme, he says of the CIHS, wasn’t started to create peace in the Middle East, but creates opportunities for people to talk. I bet neither Milzman nor Lahham would argue with that!
© Natalie Wood (24 January 2017)