METULLA, Israel - An Arab-Jewish hockey team has become an unlikely icebreaker in this remote corner of northern Israel, overcoming barriers of language, culture and conflict.
A few years ago, a mixed team in these parts was unthinkable. In the arid Middle East, hockey is virtually unheard of, and relations between Arabs and Jews in this combustible area, next to the tense borders of Lebanon and Syria, are generally downright chilly. The Arab players on the Metulla junior ice hockey team, coming from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, technically aren't even Israeli.
But thanks to an accidental combination of generous philanthropy, a local hockey enthusiast and a sports-mad Arab mayor, the mixed team of teens and preteens is thriving.
"When you play together, you forget that you are Arabs and Jews," said Mayyas Sabag, a 12-year-old forward from the Druse village of Majdal Shams. He is one of five Arab athletes on the 14-member team, which is travelling to Canada this month.
The team is the product of Metulla's Canada Centre, a sprawling sports complex donated to this rural border town in the 1990s by Canadian Jews. The building houses Israel's only Olympic-size hockey rink.
And when the hockey players get skating, the only tension they feel is the thrill of competition.
"When I'm on the ice, I don't feel the ground underneath me," said Maya al-Yousef, a 13-year-old Druse Arab.
With her curly hair crushed into her helmet, al-Yousef was among two dozen youths speeding, skidding and weaving on the ice during a recent practice session. They were a blur of whacking hockey sticks, shouting coaches and flying pucks.
The two Arab girls and three boys on the team said they had never met Jews their age before playing ice hockey. Jews said the same about Arabs. The Arab youths have adopted a halting Hebrew from Jewish teammates.
Language aside, there are clear cultural gaps between the loud and mostly secular Jewish children and more conservative, polite Arab youths.
The coach, parents and sponsors all acknowledge the project is only a small step toward real peace in the region. And while many players said they were not necessarily close friends, they said the meetings have changed the way they view each other.
"In a short period of time we got to know each other," 14-year-old Niv Weinberg said. "We aren't the only ones in living here (in Israel). This country isn't ours alone."
Levav Weinberg, a 30-year-old Metulla apple farmer and hockey enthusiast, began the Canada-Israel Hockey School two years ago with funding from Jewish Canadian philanthropist Sydney Greenberg. He subsidized coaching, equipment, uniforms and rink time with the dream of bringing the popular winter sport to Israel.
To encourage enrolment, Weinberg talked up the project to a friend: Dolan Abu-Saleh, the mayor of Majdal Shams.
Majdal Shams village is nestled in the Golan Heights, a mountainous plateau Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war. Although Israel later annexed the territory, the move was never internationally recognized, and unlike Israel's own Druse community, who serve in the military and are generally well integrated, Golan residents still consider themselves Syrian, or refer to themselves simply as Arabs or Druse.
Such barriers made little difference when 34-year-old Abu-Saleh promised parents a free bus to Metulla, 12 miles away, if their children took up the sport. Within weeks, 100 Arab youths turned up. They even had a translator.
Weinberg faced a new challenge: getting Jewish youths involved. Their parents were reluctant to allow them to play with Arabs, he said.
Weinberg won parents over with $5 classes, overcoming concerns with an affordable way to keep children busy. More than 200 Jewish children have since signed up, in addition to about 120 Arabs.
The school keeps new Arab and Jewish students in different classes, seeking to build their confidence on ice before introducing them to each other. But when they are skilled enough to compete, the youths are placed on mixed Arab-Jewish teams.
"Then they understand: 'These are the team members I have — and (getting along) is the only way to win the game,'" Weinberg said.
For a while, Weinberg also managed to bring in a small number of Lebanese children, thanks to another accident of history. The border runs through the nearby Israeli-controlled village of Ghajar, where the residents, while citizens of Lebanon, are allowed to enter Israel.
But the project collapsed when some Ghajar parents withdrew their children. An Israeli army checkpoint at the village's entrance frequently delayed other players, holding up training.
Metulla, which sits right on the border with Lebanon, is no stranger to conflict. In 2006, Israel fought a brutal monthlong war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. The fighting left Israel in control of both sides of Ghajar. While the area has been largely quiet since then, Majdal Shams experienced two deadly incidents last year when Palestinian protesters from Syria tried to crash across the frontier.
Ice hockey in Israel, a country of nearly 8 million people, is modest: There are about 6,000 players in Israel in three different age leagues, coach Ben Chernie said. But thanks to its rink, and a large local population of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Metulla has emerged as Israel's hockey capital.
The Metulla junior ice hockey team has trained together for more than 1 1/2 years now. They are ranked No. 4 in Israel's Peewee league.
"Next year, if not first place, they'll be second place," Weinberg said. "A year ago they weren't in a level to play in the league."
Their patron, Greenberg, is hoping to improve their rank — and love of the sport — by flying them to Canada for a 10-day ice hockey tour.
They'll watch the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Ottawa Senators play, meet some players, receive coaching and play against other teams, said Shoshana Rabinowitz, Greenberg's assistant.
They'll be hosted by Jewish families in each city. The Druse and Jewish youths were partnered off together to help foster friendships, Weinberg said.
"This is how it starts: in small things," he said.
During training on the rink this week, Sabag and his Israeli teammate, 14-year-old Lidor Bez, buzzed around Weinberg on the ice, demanding to be partners during the Canada trip. They want to sit beside each other on the plane and stay with the same families, they said.
"He's a friend of mine — a good friend," Bez said. "When we play together. We aren't going to let each other fail. Even if he is from Syria, and I am from Israel."