BY JOHN McCURDY / MANAGING EDITOR //

East Cobb resident Steve Zinsenheim is a living, breathing testament to a local hockey community that continues to thrive despite Atlanta’s warm weather and misfortune with National Hockey League franchises.

It's not the most common reason for visiting Israel, but Atlantan Steve Zinsenheim travels to the Jewish Homeland to referee hockey games. PHOTO / Courtesy Steve Zinsenheim

It’s not the most common reason for visiting Israel, but Atlantan Steve Zinsenheim travels to the Jewish Homeland to referee hockey games. PHOTO / Courtesy Steve Zinsenheim

He’s also a proud Jew and a frequent visitor to Israel. These two seemingly disparate interests – in a sport played on ice and a country known for a generally dry and hot climate – got him to thinking: Could they ever come together?

Seemingly against all odds, yes. Near the Lebanese border rests the city of Metula, where the Jewish State’s one and only hockey-size rink hosts weekly pickup games.

“The building is called the Canada Center,” Zinsenheim said. “All these people who have made aliyah, these ex-pats from Canada and the Northeastern U.S., make this three-hour drive up to Metula to play hockey.”

Indeed: The Israel Recreational Hockey Association (IRHA), under the guidance of oleh Dr. Danny Spodek, hosts weekly pick-up games for anyone with the proper gear and the willingness to schlep to the northern reaches of the country.

It’s the annual IRHA Tournament that’s the highlight of the year, though, as around 50 – some olim, some visitors and a few sabras – come together in friendly competition. The seventh iteration of the event, held in February, caught Zinsenheim’s attention.

While actually playing wasn’t an option, he still wanted to get on the ice.

“I thought, ‘Wait a minute – I’ve been reffing for two years. I wonder if they need a ref?’” Zinsenheim said. “I emailed Dr. Spodek, and he replied that they’d love to have me. So I volunteered my services, they covered my hotel stay, and I had a great time.”

He compares the action to that of top men’s rec leagues here in Atlanta. The Israelis understandably were a bit behind the folks originally from the Great White North, but everyone skated well and had a blast.

“I was really surprised at how high a level of hockey was being played there,” Zinsenheim said. “A lot of the Canadians and Americans had played hockey their whole lives, so it was a very fast-paced game. Some of the other players were a little slower, but they were still able to participate.”

He was also interested to find out that many of the players were fairly Orthodox in their observance. Two had peyot that peeked from the bottom of their helmets, and many walked out of the locker room after a game with yarmulke on.

“After the game, they’d shower and then put on their kippah and tzitzit,” Zinsenheim said. “It was great to get to know these guys and generally have a good time with them.”

When asked whether he’ll be going back next year, he’s pretty sure of the answer. He just hopes he can get a few more of Atlanta’s hockey fans to come with.

“If you love hockey, it doesn’t matter where you’re from,” Zinsenheim said. “You can know the sport, understand the sport and be passionate about the sport.”

For more info on the IRHA, visit israelhockeyassociation.com or facebook.com/IsraelRecreationalHockeyAssociation.