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Traditional adversaries make peace with pucks

Their names are Samir and Shlomo, Adil and Albert, and they come from two faiths that make news for conflict, not co-operation. But in a Montreal arena last weekend, Muslims and Jews laced up for a common love: Canada's game.

"Go, go, go!" a player shouted from the bench as a teammate tore down the ice. "Pass!"

Forget the political arena. In this temple, two traditional adversaries have made peace at centre ice, forging a bond as teammates through the Moroccan national ice hockey team.

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A few years back, Montreal businessman Khalid Mrini got the idea of launching a hockey team representing his homeland of Morocco, a North African nation better known for heat, deserts and soccer. Then he set about recruiting the best Moroccan ex-pats the world over. Naturally, he found fertile ground in Montreal - and whether they were Muslim or part of the Sephardic community of Moroccan Jews didn't matter.

Today, he's put his vision into practice. He and captain Saad Tawfiq are Muslim. The coach and about a third of the 15 players are Jewish.

"We are succeeding where politics have failed," said the 48-year-old Mr. Mrini, who has lived in Montreal for 30 years. "We don't have weapons, we have sweat. And whether your name is Eli or Mohammed doesn't matter, you're going to embrace after you score a goal."

Sometimes, the notion takes some getting used to. Last fall, Mr. Mrini and Mr. Tawfiq were introduced to a potential recruit - Shlomo Levy, a Montrealer and member of the Israeli national hockey team.

As Mr. Levy stood in the foyer of a Montreal arena, his hockey bag thrown over his shoulder, he insisted on clearing the air. Yes, he was open to joining. But he wanted them to know: He was not only Jewish, but born in Israel.

Mr. Mrini and Mr. Tawfiq looked at him. Then they burst out laughing.

"Where's the problem?" Mr. Mrini said. "Are you Moroccan or not?" (He is, through his Moroccan-born father.)

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"We didn't see a problem - on the contrary, at least he knows about international hockey," said Mr. Tawfiq, 27. "It brings another level to our team."

The players say their camaraderie reflects the relatively harmonious coexistence of Muslims and Jews in Morocco; they're just extending it onto the ice in Montreal. For one, they respect one another's religious observances. Practices are suspended during Ramadan, as they were during the recent Passover holiday; instead of fending off pucks, Adil El Farj, a Muslim goaltender and financial adviser in Montreal, fired off Happy Passover wishes to his Jewish teammates.

"This team is a nice lesson for the rest of the world," said Patrick Harroch, who is Jewish and whose brother, Dave, just signed on as coach. "It shows the world that Arabs and Jews can get along through the beauty of sports. We have something in common that bonds us - the love of hockey."

The players in Montreal range from 19 to 40 years old, their abilities varying from garage league to major junior. Now the team is setting its sights on the African Nations Cup in Johannesburg this fall, where Morocco will face off against equally unlikely hockey-playing nations - Algeria, Tunisia, Namibia and South Africa.

To raise money for the trip, Mr. Mrini is holding a fundraising dinner at a Moroccan restaurant in Montreal in May, where he will offer a typical Moroccan menu featuring chicken tagine. Mindful of ticket buyers who eat kosher, however, "there will be salmon, too," he added.

Perhaps it had to happen in Canada - hockey serving as the vehicle for two would-be adversaries to join forces and wear the same uniform. But now, Mr. Mrini says, he wants to show they can score, too.

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"Everyone knows that if Muslims and Jews get together, they can do amazing things. With this team," he said, "we'll prove it."

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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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