Perron breaking new ground

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:44 AM ET

Jean Perron has mined the talents of Bob Gainey and Patrick Roy, Chris Chelios and now Oren Zamir and, he will tell you, the soul of the hockey player is forged through hardship.

Last night in North York, Perron took his place behind the bench of the Israeli under-18 team that played a minor midget team from Forest Hill at the Herb Carnegie Arena.

The Israeli club is on a 10-day North American tour as the guest of B'Nai Brith Canada before setting off for Bulgaria and and the world Division III championship.

Israel has just one rink, located in the northern city of Matula on the border between Israel and Lebanon.

Perron reckons the country can muster about 100 national team prospects. There are 2,500 rinks here and Canada has 489,000 junior players.

And yet, the best clues to the heart of the hockey player can be found in Matula as easily as Metro Toronto, Perron said.

"The Israeli kids are gutsy ... very, very gutsy," he said.

"They fight for their lives every day and they fight for the puck. There is a mental toughness that you wouldn't believe. Two or three times a night during scrimmages the would guys drop their gloves and go at it."

For Perron, the prospect of someday returning to the Olympics -- he was an assistant to Dave King in Sarajevo in 1984 -- represents an unimaginable career turn.

Perron coached the Montreal Canadiens to a surprising Stanley Cup win in 1986 over the Calgary Flames. He lasted three years in Montreal and most of another in Quebec for the Nordiques before moving to the broadcast side.

Locked out in 1994, he spent a year as a general manager/coach with an IHL team in San Francisco, six months with the Manitoba Moose and then coached in Switzerland for two seasons.

Perron came back to Montreal for good in 1999 and took a job as a sales agent for the Maislin transport firm. He had gone cold turkey on coaching by the time his boss, Alan Maislin, called.

Maislin has made it his goal to steer Israel past its first tentative steps into the game and, someday, into the Olympics.

"I think hockey is the perfect sport for any country but it's particularly well suited to the Israeli mentality," Maislin said.

"It's fast, it's intense ... it's the perfect stress reliever for a country that could use one."

Maislin had tabbed Philadelphia Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock to work with Israeli prospects last summer. But when Hitchcock had to answer the call to work the World Cup under Pat Quinn, Maislin turned to Perron.

"He came back absolutely bubbling," Maislin said. "He was so excited about the program and what was going on. He had even arranged for one of our players, Oren Zamir, to get a scholarship to Notre Dame College (in Saskatchewan)."

"More than 1.5 million Russians have emigrated to Israel, so there is tremendous interest in the game from them," Perron said. "They are very involved in coaching in Israel."

For several years, Roger Neilson operated a summer hockey school in Matula. Jean Beliveau had twice visited the country and even donated a jersey to the fledgling Israeli hockey federation.

"Those are the two icons of Israeli hockey," Perron said,

"Roger Neilson and Jean Beliveau. When I went to the rink in Matula, there was a Jean Beliveau jersey hanging from the rafters. He was my hero."

So here's what you have: a Francophone Quebecer helping to import a frozen sport to the Middle East.

And the game is being nurtured by transplanted Russians. Israeli hockey's biggest patrons are Roger Neilson and Jean Beliveau.

Oh yes, next stop Bulgaria.

Perron laughs at the unlikeliness of it all.

"Hey, at least I'm working," he said. "How many coaches can say that right now?"


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