Floor hockey has been, for many, the only hockey choice in the Metropolitan Yeshiva High School Athletic League (MYHSAL), but now its ice counterpart is expanding in the yeshiva high school world. Ice hockey, once a rare luxury, is now growing at unprecedented rates. In fact, all four of the Shabbat-observant teams in the 2018 Floyd Hall Arena Spring Ice Hockey League won their respective championships, after only a few seasons of existence. While some schools have ice hockey teams already, most schools in the area only have floor hockey, since ice hockey is much more time consuming, expensive and requires a more unique skill set. But the growth in this ice hockey league might foreshadow a new reality—that ice hockey is becoming a mainstream yeshiva sport.
The Floyd Hall League in Montclair already has over 100 yeshiva students playing within three age groups in its spring league. While the league has been around for 20 years, it has started to accommode Shabbat-observant kids for the past five seasons, and, as a result, more athletes wanted to participate after the success of the past few seasons.
According to Ralph Abecassis, coach of the Frisch ice hockey team, the biggest barrier initially was the time restrictions from Shabbat and holidays. There were already some Shabbat-observant players playing in recreational ice hockey leagues that made accommodations, but the players wanted to experience a more competitive travel league. Missing all of the Saturday games, especially when the season is only twenty games long, would make it difficult to participate. Also, with long school hours, it is difficult for students to commit to a very demanding sport. The sport requires a lot of protective gear and equipment, making it more expensive to play, and requiring more time as players need to arrive early to get dressed and stay after to change.
Two years ago, the North Jersey Avalanche, a prominent ice hockey travel team in Hackensack, created a Shabbat-observant team. After only a year with this Shabbat-observant team at the squirt (9-10 year olds) level, there were too many players who wanted to join the following season; a tryout was necessary and additional teams in other age groups were created.
The difference between the two leagues is that the North Jersey Avalanche is a winter ice hockey travel team that is a slightly more serious and competitive program, while the Floyd Hall League plays in the spring, and the spring hockey season, in general, is more relaxed than the winter season. Almost all of the players from the Avalanche play in the Floyd Hall League as well. This provides options for players at all levels and more diverse choices for the athletes. All of this growth took place in the span of three years.
Zvi Rudman, whose son plays for the Avalanche, attributes another challenge in forming teams, which is that these newly formed teams are “playing against kids that have played with each other for years.” These teams are going up against established travel programs and teams with very experienced players. However, despite this disadvantage, the competition is still very good and games are tight, said Rudman. The younger the kids join the teams, the more successful they will be when they get older. Rudman added that the growth has been remarkable from year to year, and now other rinks are also trying to field Shabbat-observant teams.
There is still one underlying question: Will the growth in ice hockey outpace floor hockey? It’s unlikely, but it’s not at all the goal, said Abecassis. The goal is to get as many kids to play the game one way or the other. He noted that ice hockey is more physical and requires the ability to skate, which takes time to develop. Floor hockey, however, uses more basic skills, so more people are able to participate and compete. But Rudman adds that many of the players who play ice hockey in the spring are also playing floor hockey in the winter, but enjoy playing ice hockey so much they might even choose a high school based on whether the school has an ice hockey team. Right now, six schools in the MYHSAL have an ice hockey team. This could also expand as more people choose to play ice hockey around the region. Those who play ice hockey can also play in college and thereafter in the many adult ice leagues throughout the area. They do not have to stop playing after high school. Abecassis explains that the most important development is that the youth now have the opportunity to play the game they see live at arenas and on television. “Ice hockey is one of the four major sports, and it is very exciting to see an entire market segment open up to something that was once thought of as closed,” he notes.
All of these ice hockey leagues that have Shabbat-observant teams are very happy to accommodate and help include more players that otherwise would not be able to participate in the sport. Abecassis and Rudman both praised the Floyd Hall and New Jersey Avalanche organizations for their helpfulness in expanding their programs and ensuring that everyone receives the opportunity to play.
By Zach Marcus
Zach Marcus is a rising senior at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School and a Jewish Link summer intern.