When ice hockey debuted at the 1997 Maccabiah Games, few, if any, people anticipated that the sport would say hello and goodbye at the very same moment.
But it did. Hockey was relatively new on the Israeli sports scene, and all the games were played at Israel’s only regulation-size rink in Metula, a town of 2,000 people near the border with Lebanon.
At this summer’s Maccabiah games in Israel, the winter sport is set to emerge from its hibernation, with teams from the United States, Canada, Israel and France expected to compete. The hope is that the sport has grown enough in Israel over the last 15 years to make it a regular part of the games, which are held every four years.
“There’s too much work that goes into putting a sport in place, to have it only be a one-time thing,” said Bob Spivak, who was the president of Maccabi USA when hockey was introduced and is now chairman of the organization. “The hope is that the sport perpetuates itself. It was a disappointment.”
Maccabi USA opened tryouts for its three teams on Aug. 17 at an ice rink in Warminster. The organization expects to take 20 players each at the juniors, open and masters divisions. Competition was most fierce among the juniors (ages 15 to 17) where more than 60 players attended the tryouts.
Coaches said there were also players who couldn’t attend the tryouts but would get an audition. The organization expects to announce its rosters in October.
“Not that we don’t want to have the college guys and the masters, but our focus is really on the juniors. We like to bring as many kids who are pre-college as possible and expose them to Israel,” Spivak said.
The teens were the last to take the ice during the first day of tryouts. They sat in the bleachers trading stories of being the only Jewish kid in a hockey locker room, something many said they were accustomed to now. And they discussed the 1997 team, which even without any big names, seemed to have achieved a Dream Team-like mystique at the tryouts, perhaps if only for the sport’s eventual lengthy absence from the games.
Max Schwartz, 16, and his father had made the two-hour drive from Wayne, N.J. Others had flown all the way from California. Schwartz described himself as an offensive-minded defenseman. As he prepared for his first skate of the weekend, he said he felt comfortable.
“I like hockey for the friends you make, the pace of the game,” he said.
Billy Jaffe, captain of the 1997 U.S. team, stood on the ice directing traffic as players trying out for the open division (ages 18 to 39) carried pucks from center ice and sent passes to the front of the net where skaters jostled for position.
Jaffe, who played at University of Michigan and is now an NHL broadcaster, recalled big hits frequently knocking out the glass at the Canada Centre in Metula, stopping play until the damage was fixed. He isn’t sure whether the Israeli audience appreciated the sport’s rough nature back then.
And many of the other sports were played in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, hours away from the hockey arena.
“I remember the fierce rivalry between U.S. and Canada,” Jaffe said of the Maccabi games, though he could have been talking about virtually any hockey game between the frosty neighbors. Canada defeated the U.S. 5-3 in the finals in Israel. “I remember looking around and saying, ‘Wow, we’re all Jewish,’ but we were going to try and kick each other’s butts.”
Jeff Schulman, co-chairman of the hockey program, said he sees America’s competitive youth sports culture, often filled with overzealous parents and scouting of 10-year-olds, as being incompatible with the Jewish identity and values Maccabiah seeks to promote.
Some parents drove their children home after their skate in Warminster in time for the start of Shabbat, but for those who stayed at the tryouts, there was a kiddush and candle lighting Friday night and a Havdalah service on the ice Saturday evening.
“In Jewish history, it’s not something we really keep a record of, but I don’t think there have been many times where we’ve had 130 Jewish hockey players in one place,” said Schulman, who played on the 1997 team and is now associate athletic director at University of Vermont.
During the recent weekend tryouts, Robert Fried, a 52-year-old podiatrist from Long Island, was attempting to make the masters team as a goalie. At the 1983 Pan American Maccabi Games in Brazil, Fried won a silver medal in the 5,000-meter race in track. When he told his wife he planned to try out for the hockey team, she said, “You’re just trying to relive a dream.”
Fried’s left hand was taped to protect a broken finger, an injury suffered in a men’s league game the week before the tryouts. There were three goalies trying out for the master’s league division, and each team would take either two or three goalies.
“I got more heart than any of these other guys,” Fried said. “If it’s fair, I’ll make it.”