Former Knight, Aaron Berisha headed to Maccabi Games in Israel

London Knights' Aaron Berisha, left, has his shot stopped by Brandon Wheat Kings goalie Jordan Papirny.
London Knights' Aaron Berisha, left, has his shot stopped by Brandon Wheat Kings goalie Jordan Papirny. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

The month of July and the sport of hockey usually go together like heat waves and parkas.

The NHL is focused on free agency and work is done in air-conditioned offices and players are preparing for their next training camp inside air-conditioned gyms or other fitness facilities.

Former London Knight, Aaron Berisha will be headed to Israel. Now, he doesn’t plan to pack anything resembling a parka, but he will be taking his skates and a whole lot of pride as a member of Team Canada to compete at the 20th Maccabi Games.

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The Maccabiah is the world’s third-largest sporting event, featuring over 9,000 Jewish athletes from 78 countries, set to take part in 34 sports.

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Since it takes place every four years, the Toronto native has had some time to plan.

“I actually got a call last summer after we had finished playing in the Memorial Cup.”

Playing for his country was an instant honour, but things became even better quite quickly. For the first time in his life, Berisha will get to play alongside his older brother, Beni, and they will do it representing their country and their family’s heritage.

“He’s two and a half years older than me,” Berisha points out, “So we have never played on the same team.”

They came very close to suiting up together this past year but wound up on opposite sides instead.

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After completing his OHL career as a Memorial Cup champion, Aaron decided to get a taste of pro hockey, but in the end decided that his education was a better route. He left the Missouri Mavericks and began to look at universities. His brother was already playing at UPEI, but Aaron chose St. Mary’s and enrolled in January.

“Halifax just felt a lot like an east coast London, so I got the right vibe and really liked it.”

A little over a month later, Aaron was lining up opposite Beni in the AUS playoffs as the Huskies met the Panthers in the first round.

“I couldn’t stop laughing on the ice any time he was coming down the wing.”

There is now a chance the two of them might find themselves on the same line.

“It is going to be a special time and it is going to be very cool to be able to share the experience with my brother,” says Berisha.

And they will head to Israel, trying to defend Canada’s gold medal win in 2013. That team featured another former London Knight in Daniel Erlich and Zach Hyman of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who recorded a hat trick in the final game against Team USA. Canada went undefeated in the tournament.

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Outside of that, Berisha plans to take advantage of the fact that the games are in Israel.

“It’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to go,” he admits. “There are so many special places there. It has kind of been on my bucket list and they do arrange some sightseeing while we are there.”

That is part of the spirit of the games. All athletes are encouraged to explore Israel and its history.

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The Maccabiah was actually the brainchild of a 15-year old from Russia named Yosef Yekutieli, who came up with the idea in 1912 after seeing the Olympic Games in Sweden. Yekutieli spent the next 10 years making it happen and the inaugural Maccabiah took place in March of 1932. In order to promote it, two groups of Jewish motorcycle riders toured through cities and towns throughout Europe.

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The idea was to have the games ever four years, but due to tensions in Europe, the second games was moved up a year and took place in 1935. The Second World War ultimately caused a 15-year hiatus before the games resumed in 1950.

They will open the hockey tournament on July 5 in a gold medal rematch against the United States.