When the U.S. masters hockey team, headed for the Maccabiah Games in Israel this summer, gathered at an ice rink in Warminster for the team’s first practices in March, goalie Jon Hodes recalled it took less than 10 minutes before he felt like he knew everyone.
“I think you gotta clarify,” Joshua Petersohn said with a wad of tobacco wedged in the side of his mouth and a dip cup on a conference room table. “That was the best locker room I’ve ever been in.”
Petersohn, a real estate developer, and Hodes, a graphic designer and art director, had joined two other local players at an office in Conshohocken to talk about their experience leading up to the Maccabiah Games in Israel in July.
The quadrennial games, billed as the Jewish Olympics, are bringing hockey back after a 16-year hiatus.
The players all agreed that there was something special about that first team practice. It was the kinship felt among the men, mostly strangers, ages 40 and up, five from the Philadelphia area and the rest from California, Arizona, Florida and Michigan, among other states.
Such bonding among hockey players is not unusual. Hockey has always had a different aura compared to other American sports, partially because of the hassle, expense and physical toll involved. (Practices are almost always held when it’s dark outside, early in the morning or late at night.)
But what distinguished this team’s first gathering was the fact that they were surrounded by all Jews, including one rabbi, when most of them were accustomed to being the only Jew on other hockey teams they’d played for.
“Historically, typically, generally, you’re in a room with Catholics, the one Jew on a team, so it’s strangely comfortable,” Hodes, 40, a resident of West Conshohocken, said as the others nodded in agreement.
“At least around Philadelphia, you had Jewish basketball leagues. We never had that for hockey. You couldn’t get 10 guys together, you couldn’t get a minyan together, let alone a penalty kill,” said the 46-year-old Petersohn, who has played since he was 6 years old and was on a semi-pro team for parts of two seasons.
Peter Levitt, a defensemen who grew up playing in Canada, recalled that as the players were putting on their gloves and pads for their first practice that Friday evening, someone gave their rabbinic teammate, who’s from Arizona, a candle to light and asked him to lead them in Shabbat prayers.
“I’ve had priests give us talks before, I’ve had all sorts of religious direction, never have I had a rabbi in the locker room,” said Petersohn. “I would equate it to that feeling you get in Israel, when you get off the plane and you feel like, ‘I belong.’ ”
“When you say kibitz, people don’t say, ‘What’s that?’ ” said Levitt, 52, who now lives in Bala Cynwyd and works as an executive recruiter.
“Our coach at the time said, ‘Let’s stop the kibitzing, and let’s get back to practice,’ I was like, ‘Are we gonna have Nova sandwiches after this?’ I’m not used to this,” said Petersohn.
Matt Steinberg, a financial adviser and forward on the team, said the players had shared their experiences of facing anti-Semitism when they were growing up.
He attended Cheltenham High School, where there were actually a number of Jews on the team, and said that he and Jewish teammates decided not to put last names on their jerseys to avoid being targeted by opponents.
“I think, for us, connecting Judaism with our passion, ice hockey, is a match made in heaven, not to be sentimental about it,” said Steinberg, 42, a resident of Ft. Washington.
After the team held its first practice in March, they gathered again in April for a game against a corporate team at the Wells Fargo Center; later this month they will descend on South Bend, Ind., for practices at the University of Notre Dame’s ice rink. (Hodes said one of the team members had attended the Catholic university and was able to secure the rink.)
A modern Orthodox player from Detroit walked three miles from his hotel to the March practice because it was Shabbat.
“I had trouble stretching,” said Petersohn. “This guy’s walking three miles.”
Steinberg suggested that if Petersohn became Orthodox, it would encourage him to walk.
“Might, but I still don’t know if that’s going to help my groin,” quipped Petersohn, who was nursing an injury and will play defense.
The masters team, the oldest of three hockey divisions, will compete at the games against Canadian, French and Israeli teams this summer in Metula, a town of 2,000 people near the border with Lebanon.
Not surprisingly, the players said they considered their northern neighbors the favorites to win.
In the masters division, checking and rough play is technically not allowed, which the players said makes the game faster and harder defensively. For his part, Levitt said he follows the 11th commandment, “Though shall not get caught.”
Whatever happens on the ice, hockey players generally leave it there, shake hands and grab a beer afterwards, Petersohn said.
Hodes, the only one of the four who has never been to Israel, said he was curious to meet players from other countries.
He found out about the Maccabiah Games by chance, spotting a mention in an article a few days before the tryouts in September.
He added, “My wife said, ‘Of course, it’s going to be hockey that gets you to Israel for the first time.’ ”