Jewish Soul On Ice


Quebec City, Canada:

Number 45 charges into the corner of the hockey rink, beating the other players to the loose puck. Number 45 glides up the ice, a step ahead of his line mates. Number 45 takes a pass in front of the net, deflecting the puck past the goalie.

The Quebec Remparts are not wearing numbers or names on their jerseys this morning, but the small numerals at the rear of his helmet, and his grace on skates, mark Benjamin Rubin as a natural.

For an hour he sprints up and down the ice of Colisee Pepsi, in front of 15,000 empty seats, working up a sweat during a training session. Head Coach Patrick Roy, once an all-star goalie in the National Hockey League, puts the players, members of the defending champions of Canadian major junior hockey, the country’s highest pre-NHL development league, through their paces. Only his whistle and the sound of pucks banging off the sideboards break the silence.

The scrimmage over, the teenage players shower and change into street clothes and leave the arena, some for a few hours’ sleep before tonight’s game against the first-place Gatineau Olympiques, some, like Rubin, for college courses. Rubin, who plays left wing, won’t be in the Remparts’ lineup tonight.

He’ll be home, making kiddush.

Rubin, a 17-year-old native of Montreal, is a first-year player on the Remparts, winners of the 2006 Memorial Cup as the country’s best major junior team. A Modern Orthodox Jew who attended Jewish elementary and high schools, he made the team in training camp this fall with a verbal understanding that he would not play or practice on Shabbat or Jewish holidays: which means that he will miss about half of the Remparts’ games this season.

Rubin is Canada’s Tamir Goodman.

Goodman is the Orthodox basketball player from Baltimore who made headlines in the early years of this decade as a high-scoring, laser-passing guard in high school, then college, then Israel. At Towson University he became the first Sabbath-observant athlete to compete, on an athletic scholarship, at the highest level of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Rubin, like Goodman, is a clean-shaven teen with God-given athletic abilities who has become a role model for other Jewish athletes.

Playing in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League ("The Q" has served for decades as a conduit to the NHL for hundreds of aspiring young Canadian players) Rubin reached an agreement with the team that marks, as far as is known, the highest level reached by a Sabbath-observant professional or near-professional athlete in North America.

In other words, no one has risen as far in baseball, football, basketball or hockey by playing only six days a week.

Think Joe Lieberman with a slap shot.

Canadian Boy’s Dream

Rubin is living the life of which he dreamt when he first played hockey 12 years ago, a life of hours-long road trips through the night to Val d’Or and Shawinigan, a life of scrimmages in unheated rinks, a life on the cusp of the NHL.

"This is the first time this has happened anywhere, outside of Israel," says Jeffrey Gurock, professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University and a longtime assistant coach of the school’s basketball team. "It really is the first time that a professional team has actually accommodated the weekly needs of observant Jews. It says a lot about the acceptance that Judaism has found in North America."

Junior hockey is, strictly speaking, not a professional sport: the step before the pros, it is comparable to Division 1-A collegiate athletics in the United States. Teams give players a small salary and pay for a rented room in the community and for tuition. Players are required to maintain their education while on a junior roster; Rubin is enrolled in social studies courses at a local junior college.

"If he’s the real deal," Gurock says, Rubin is "the fulfillment of an [Orthodox] kid’s fantasy: that a player can be so good that a team will make every accommodation for him to start."

Rubin’s story has brought international attention to the Remparts and made Rubin a celebrity among Canadian Jewry. And it has pointed out the increasing conflicts that face an unusually talented individual who must weigh professional success versus the temptations to compromise in a field traditionally not open to Orthodox Jews.

If Rubin keeps improving over the next few seasons (he’s off to a slow start this year because of all the early-season games he missed for the High Holy Days) "he’s going to have to make a tough decision." Follow his dream of a career in the NHL, or follow Jewish law, which would ban the traveling and playing and other activities on Shabbat that a pro’s life demands, Roy says. "Eventually it will become a problem."

That decision is still a few years off, and Rubin says he is concentrating on this season, working on his hockey skills and adjusting to his new fame.

"Every kid in day school knows Benjamin Rubin," says his father, Michael, a Montreal architect.

Michael Rubin, who played recreational hockey as a youth and remains an avid hockey fan, says he encouraged his son to keep alive his dream of the NHL, but with a caveat about Benjamin’s prospects: "Too talented to stop, too religious to continue."

"How good could he be?" Michael Rubin asks. "We don’t know. He understands that if he were not religious, he could go much further.

"For him to really succeed," to keep finding cooperative employers, he says, "he needs a brocha [blessing from God]."

In wider circles in Canada, where hockey is an obsession and where the major juniors are reached only by a chosen few, Rubin is a symbol.

"It’s a great story," says Jason Kay, editor of Hockey News. "It reflects well [on Roy]."

Rubin "put the spirit of accommodation to an extraordinary test," and Roy "is going against … a strain in Quebec’s hockey culture, and Canada’s as a whole, in which the game is elevated to the status of a religion or way of life," an editorial in the Toronto Globe and Mail stated. "It would have been easy to turn away Benjamin, whose hockey progress had stalled because of his religious observance." Unlike baseball players Sandy Koufax or Shawn Green, who chose to miss a single day’s game on Yom Kippur, the paper stated, "Benjamin’s request requires half a season."

"The whole point of the Sabbath is that it does not fit our schedules, but forces our schedules to fit God," Father Raymond J. de Souza wrote in Canada’s National Post newspaper after Rubin signed with the Remparts. "That’s why the Sabbath is so important; it guards us against saying that we have no time for God. Even on hockey nights. Benjamin Rubin’s witness reminds us of that."

Headed For NHL?

For Rubin, who at 6-feet-1 and 185 pounds is the perfect size for a hockey player, this season has been a lesson on and off the ice. He has learned to explain his religious practice to his teammates (tefillin, which he puts on every morning, is "a connection to God," he tells his roommates on the road), determine his own level of observance (he brings coolers of kosher food, often supplied by his parents, on road trips) and deal with the press ("Everyone asks me, ‘What about the NHL?’")

What about the NHL?

"I don’t know what is going to happen," he says. "So far, it’s worked." So far he hasn’t had to compromise his religious convictions. "I think I can go on playing and be shomer Shabbat." If faced with an NHL-or-Shabbat choice, he probably would choose Shabbat. Thank God, he says, he doesn’t have to make that choice now. "Hashem is always with me: I think He will open a door for me." If not the NHL, maybe a minor league in the States, maybe a pro team in Europe; they might be more willing than the NHL to sign a shomer Shabbat player, he says.

His goal, according to his profile in the Remparts media guide, is "To play in the NHL."

"I believe in the religion. I keep the mitzvot," Rubin says. Talking to The Jewish Week after a morning workout, with an athletic swagger and a "yes sir" disposition, he presents the picture of the All-American (in his case, the All-Canadian) boy.

A boy who is a one-man Jewish minority on a roster plucked from Catholic Quebec.

Rubin does a little Torah study each day, eats salads instead of steaks while traveling with the team through Quebec and New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, and favors a baseball cap instead of a kipa. "Being the only [Jewish] kid in Quebec" (up here they call the city simply "Quebec") "would be awkward," he says.

Rubin, who lives with a kosher-cooking Jewish family near the arena, is a fluent French speaker. A fast skater with a booming shot, he is one of the few Anglos on a team populated with natives of the French-leaning province. He jostles with his teammates during scrimmages, and joins them in bars in free times; "I’m not a big drinker," he says.

"He’s part of the family," says Brent Aubin, the Remparts’ captain.

Sometimes, Jewish fans show up at the Remparts’ road games, asking for Rubin’s autograph.

Sometimes, infrequently, he hears unfriendly voices. One spectator in a small arena kept yelling, "Rubin, do you play on Friday?"

Rubin says he did not answer the man. Besides that, Rubin says, he has encountered no signs of anti-Semitism from opponents or from their fans.

On sports talk shows in Quebec City, opinions are split about Rubin’s playing schedule, he says: some are supportive of his religious commitment, others think he should put his team’s needs first.

Like many Canadians, he started skating at age 3, when his parents took him to a nearby rink. "When I put on a pair of skates," his parents tell him" "I didn’t stumble or fall." His ability quickly became apparent. "I was always one of the best in my age group. I knew I could go far."

After playing his last year of midget hockey with an ankle injury last season, he was not drafted by a junior team. Rubin looked towards Quebec City. "It was the only solution," he says. "Quebec is the only place [in the league] with a shul." With the only sizable Jewish population (a few hundred Jews) among the league’s cities and towns, it is the only place where he could play junior hockey and continue leading a Jewish life.

The oldest city in Canada, on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, Quebec City is a community of 500,000; most residents make their livings in light industry or service industries.

Hall Of Fame Coach

In His Corner

Sam Eltes, a family friend with connections to the Remparts, helped arrange the training camp tryout. Rubin, he thought, "should not go through life being frustrated, never having the chance to show what he could do." A onetime draftee of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Eltes shelved a possible career in baseball 50 years ago because he wanted to keep Shabbat. He figured that Roy, a successful NHL goalie with a gadfly reputation, would give an unknown kid a chance.

"Patrick is the kind of person who flies in the face of conventional wisdom," says Eltes, a successful Mercedes dealer in Montreal.

Michael Rubin asked Rabbi Dovid Lewin, a French-born Lubavitcher chasid who has served as spiritual leader of Quebec City’s sole synagogue for six months, for advice. Should he send his son into the world of junior hockey? Rabbi Lewin said oui. "It is a big kiddush hashem [sanctification of God’s name]."

Rubin impressed the coach.

"Patrick said he was one of the best players in the training camp," says Nicole Bouchard, Remparts director of media relations. "He made the team based on ability."

The Remparts didn’t sign Rubin in a Shawn-Green-on-the-Mets-will-bring-Jewish-fans-to-Shea-Stadium move, Bouchard says. "It wasn’t a marketing decision. Not at all."

Rubin plays on the team’s fourth (and last) forward line, meaning less ice time during games, more work in workouts. He’s among the first players on the ice, the last to leave. "I knew I had to work hard," he says. "I’m a lot less lazy."

"He’s young. He’s 17," says captain Aubin. "In two years he’ll be one of the best players in the league."

"He’s a project," says Roy. That’s sports talk for a player whose performance hasn’t reached his potential. "He has improved his game.

"We don’t have a problem" with Rubin’s unusual schedule, the coach says. "I respect his decision. I like to give a chance to players, especially one who works so hard."

Roy, who was inducted this week into the Hockey Hall of Fame, says he uses Rubin as an example of a player who has priorities outside of sports. The NHL is a possibility for Rubin, but not a given, Roy says. "He does have a chance."

"I’m real happy here: I’m playing at this level," says Rubin, who scored his first goal of the season, on a rebound from the face-off circle, last week.

The team, he says, has kept its promise to let him skip games on Shabbat. Neither the coach nor players complain. "They never pressure me to play."

Rubin’s parents drive to many Remparts games, shlepping kosher food along for their son.

"I’m doubly nervous," says Michael Rubin. He has the usual worries of a father whose son is playing a violent game. And he questions himself. Should he have encouraged his son to think about a career in the NHL? What happens when Shabbat and a pro’s schedule conflict in the future?

"It’s hard to accept that religion is holding him back," Michael Rubin says. "He would have been a lot higher athletically if he had chucked it years ago."

Michael Rubin goes to Remparts games with a red cap, which bear the initials NHLPA, on his head.

Are the initials wishful thinking?

No, he says. The PA stands for Players Association. The hat is a gift from a friend.

"I have a range of comments" about Benjamin’s rise in hockey, Michael Rubin says" "from ‘Michael, you’re crazy,’ to ‘You’re building up his hope.’"

His son’s time in junior hockey is an experiment, Michael Rubin says. "It can open doors" to other young players with similar dreams.

Father prays for his son. To excel in his sport. To remain faithful to his religion. "Now he’s on his own," Michael Rubin says.

"It’s tough," Rubin says of the Shabbats he spends alone, when he does not go to Rabbi Lewin’s. "It can be boring." A newspaper or neighbor tells him how the team did on Friday night. "Of course I think about it."

Sometimes the team sends him ahead to the city where the Remparts will play after Shabbat, to an empty hotel room. "There’s nothing to do."

Rubin says he finds inspiration in the example of Tamir Goodman. "I heard the stories. His story definitely helped me."

I don’t think I’ll need to make a compromise," to consider playing on Shabbat, Rubin says.

On Sunday, the Remparts host the Saint John Sea Dogs.

And next Friday, while his teammates take the ice against the Chicoutimi Sagueneens, one left-winger will be home again, making Shabbat for himself.