Tefillin, for the Win?

the ice hockey team with their bronze medals
The ice hockey team (Photos courtesy of Lee Zimmerman)

By Matt Silver

It’s common for hockey players to wrap and get wrapped before games — stick blades and handles, skates and ankles and knees. But there’s one wrapping custom that’s new to the hockey world: the ancient Jewish ritual of laying tefillin.

One local hockey team started wrapping themselves in tefillin before games and, suddenly, a team that couldn’t win began to have a hard time losing.

In the four years since ice hockey replaced inline hockey as the puck and stick game of record at the Maccabi Games, Philadelphia’s delegations had never won — not a medal, not even a game.

Heading into this summer’s tournament in Detroit, supporters were cautiously optimistic, hoping for better but prepared for more of the same.

At least they were prepared. After going winless in round-robin play, the Philly-area team was seeded 14th out of 14 teams.

But second-year head coach Lee Zimmerman knew something about his team that others didn’t. His kids had lost four games in two days. But they weren’t defeated. And they weren’t tired.

“Conditioning was a huge thing for us,” Zimmerman said. “Last year, we were out of shape, but this year we skated the hell out of those kids in practice. I knew all our guys were 200-foot players.”

Yes, they lost their first game of the tournament to defending champ Toronto 11-1. But Zimmerman’s kids made Toronto work. In Toronto’s next game, they skated with heavy legs, barely holding on for a 2-1 win. Not only were the Philly boys the first team to score on Toronto, they’d tired Goliath.

Still, to quote former Eagle Herm Edwards, “You play to win the game,” something Zimmerman’s squad still hadn’t done. Something had to give ….

At a luncheon for the athletes at the Detroit-area JCC, players spied rabbis from the local Chabad wrapping folks in tefillin, preparing to pray. Light bulb: Praying for a win couldn’t hurt, right? Soon the entire team was wrapped — all of the coaches, too.

Shaun Epstein wraps tefillin
Shaun Epstein (left) prepares for a game.

The next game brought a Los Angeles-area team that had beaten them 9-0 the night before. Things were different this time. Late in the third period, Team Philly clung to a 2-1 lead, facing a precarious penalty-kill situation. They withstood LA’s two-man advantage for 40 seconds, thanks to grit and composure that belied their youth.

Meanwhile, the adults were losing it.

Kaiserman JCC CEO Amy Krulik recalled “…a thousand near-nervous breakdowns.” Coach Zimmerman swore a stroke was imminent. One Maccabi Games official crowed, “That was the most exciting live sporting event I’ve been involved in in 10 years.”

Still, there was more work to do if they planned on leaving Detroit with any hardware.

And more wrapping, too. Just one problem: an early game the next morning would necessitate a rabbi meeting them at the rink. For any silly team-bonding ritual, they wouldn’t have bothered, but this was different.

Said team captain Oren Serafin, 16, “We needed a rabbi to wrap us. That’s how superstitious we were.”

So Krulik put in a call to the rabbi at Chabad of Penn Wynne, who phoned a colleague in Detroit. That’s how a Chabad rabbi was delivered to an ice rink in Novi, Michigan. He remembered to bring enough tefillin for everyone.

But in the game, the boys came out wrapped too tight (nerves, not tefillin), falling to Chicago 4-0.

The team marched back into the locker room, undaunted. They knew they could still secure bronze with a win, later that afternoon, over a Cleveland team that had already beaten the eventual runner-up, Detroit.

Credit the tefillin, or credit the eye-black each player applied before the bronze-medal game —but something allowed those players to access reserves of spirit that, reasonably, had no business being there.

There shouldn’t have been enough oil to keep the ancient Maccabees’ menorah lit either.

Buoyed by their rallying-cry of “Philly, Philly, Rachmones,” the boys took the ice with purpose — to win the bronze, sure, but also to honor their captain and best player, Serafin, in his last game as a Maccabi.

Serafin responded in kind, scoring five goals, including the overtime game-winner.

When Serafin broke Cleveland’s heart, he did it quickly and mercifully, scoring just three minutes into the sudden death overtime.

LeBron James, circa 2010, could’ve learned lessons in decorum from this young man.

And from this year’s bronze medal winners in Maccabi Games hockey, we might all learn some things about resilience, faith and brotherly love.

Matt Silver is a freelance writer.

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Matt Silver is a writer and broadcaster who has been performing, in one way or another, since his grandparents told him as a toddler that singing "Sunrise, Sunset" in rooms full of strangers was the cool thing to do. He loves sports, jazz, comedy, and musical theatre. Matt can usually be found in Philadelphia or Ventnor; wherever he may be, it's likely he'll be whistling Gershwin or Bernstein with gusto. He holds a B.A. from the University of Michigan, a J.D. from Rutgers Law School, and an M.F.A from Temple University. His writing may also be found at WRTI.org.


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