The Greatest Oxymoron in U.S. Sports? Jews and Professional Ice Hockey

Hockey may have no iconic Jewish athletes like other major sports, but the likely first-round draft pick Joshua Ho-Sang could one day spell a change.

WASHINGTON – The referee had no sooner dropped the puck on a first-period face-off than San Jose Sharks right wing Mike Brown and a Washington Capitals opponent, Aaron Volpatti, squared off. Heads met gloveless fists in a rock’em, sock ’em fight that boxing judges might have scored a draw, and both men were dispatched to the penalty box for five minutes.

With that, no Jewish players remained on the ice – not that it took much, since Brown is one of only four known Jewish players in the National Hockey League.

The most accomplished of them is Calgary Flames center Mike Cammalleri, who’s scored 223 goals for three teams since entering the league in 2002. Another, Nashville Predators left wing Eric Nystrom, is perhaps better known as the son of Bobby Nystrom, who won four Stanley Cup championships with the New York Islanders in the 1980s. The fourth is center Jeff Halpern, a 15-year veteran now with the Phoenix Coyotes.

None is destined for hockey’s Hall of Fame, and no known Jewish player has reached the Toronto shrine, anyway. Alone among the major North American sports, hockey’s never had an iconic Jewish player – no Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax (baseball), Sid Luckman (football) or Dolph Schayes (basketball) equivalent.

A new Jewish star might be rising, though: Joshua Ho-Sang, the 17-year-old son of a Jamaican father and Jewish mother. Ho-Sang, a right wing and likely 2014 first-round draft pick, “might be better than all” the previous Jewish players, according to Toronto Sun writer Steve Simmons, an expert on Jews in the sports.

Other Jews have made their marks over the years. The most prestigious individual award is the Hart Memorial Trophy, which goes to each season’s Most Valuable Player and is named for David Hart. Hart’s son, Cecil, won two Stanley Cups while coaching the Montreal Canadiens, the most accomplished franchise in NHL history.

Several team owners today are Jewish, including Larry Tanenbaum (Toronto Maple Leafs), Henry Samueli (Anaheim Ducks), Ed Snider (Philadelphia Flyers) and Jeffrey Vinik (Tampa Bay Lightning). Mathieu Schneider, who retired in 2010 after a long career as a defenseman, is a top executive with the NHL Players Association.

Gary Bettman, of course, has served since 1993 as the NHL’s commissioner.

“Has there been the Jewish Bobby Orr?” asked Michael Farber, Sports Illustrated magazine’s longtime hockey writer and a 35-year Montreal resident. “No, but there have been some good Jewish players over the years.”

Long ago, Jewish players in the NHL engendered ethnic pride, as did their co-religionists in other sports.

Stan Fischler recalled defenseman Hy Buller joining the New York Rangers in the 1951-52 season, with large banners featuring Stars of David decorating Madison Square Garden, the Rangers’ Manhattan home.

“He was a hero. We didn’t get too many [Jewish] players, but when someone came up and was an All Star his rookie year, it was a big deal,” said Fischler, a Brooklyn native who became one of hockey’s most prolific authors and commentators. “He was a really good player, and we loved him for that.”

Fischler said he “always followed Jewish players” in the league’s first few decades, rattling off such names as Moe Roberts, Manny Cotlow (“a really tough guy”), Max Labovitch and Larry Zeidel.

In today’s NHL, Brown wears Sharks uniform no. 18, just as he did while playing for Toronto. That was the favorite number of his late paternal grandfather, Abraham, Brown explained in an interview before the Capitals-Sharks game on January 14, which San Jose won, 2-1. Brown donned another Jewishly significant number, 13, with the Edmonton Oilers and the Anaheim Ducks. Brown was bar mitzvahed in his hometown of Northbrook, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, but said that’s not why he’s also worn 13.

A Sharks teammate, Jason Demers, learned a few years ago that he has Jewish roots, Brown said, and Nystrom and Brown played together at the University of Michigan, but he didn’t know of the other players’ being Jewish.

“I’m not religious, and our family’s really not religious at all. I don’t really do all the religious things. I think it really stopped with my grandpa, when he passed away. We’ve done the Hanukkah thing just for the presents. We never did the fasting [on Yom Kippur],” he said.

The first Jewish player he met was Steve Dubinsky, a center who lived in one of the Brown family’s homes after joining the Chicago Blackhawks in 1993.

“There was a pretty good friendship there,” Brown said of Dubinsky, who runs hockey camps at which Brown helps out some summers.

Contemporary executives for NHL franchises include Don Fishman, the Capitals’ assistant general manager. Fishman was drawn to the team when it entered the NHL in 1974 because his father, Alan, a pharmacist, loved the sport.

“I had no choice but to watch. I grew up in northwest [Washington], a big hockey fan,” Fishman said one mid-December afternoon as he and a visitor watched families skating at the team’s Virginia training complex. “You latch onto the sport your parents do.”

Fishman carried that passion to Harvard, whose hockey games he broadcast through the Crimson’s NCAA championship title following the 1988-89 season.

After graduating law school in California, Fishman worked for the Washington municipal government, and in 2005 was hired away by the man sitting across the negotiating table: Capitals general manager George McPhee, himself a lawyer.

Fishman is the Capitals’ expert on player contracts. His duties include negotiating with players’ agents and assuring that contract figures fit under the league-mandated salary cap, which this season is $64.3 million per team.

During last autumn’s exhibition season, Fishman couldn’t attend a Capitals game that conflicted with his family’s Yom Kippur break-the-fast gathering. In October 2011, he rushed from a Yom Kippur break-fast to the arena for the season’s opening-night game.

He remembers missing in-person and televised playoff games falling on Seder nights. The worst was the 1985 game when center Bobby Carpenter missed a penalty shot against the New York Islanders in a series the Capitals would lose.

“A lot of my hockey playoff memories are intertwined with Passover,” Fishman said.

And were Passover or Shavuot to conflict with important playoff games he’d otherwise attend?

“I try to keep perspective now, with kids,” Fishman said of his sons, Sam, 7, and Harry, 4, themselves aspiring hockey players. “I’ll take the Caps’ winning the Stanley Cup even if I’m not there.”

AFP