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The Golden Age of Jewish Hockey

Zach Hyman of the Edmonton Oilers joins the NHL’s exclusive 50-goal club, joining the fabulous Hughes brothers—Jack, Luke, and Quinn—and N.Y. Rangers defenseman Adam Fox in the league’s ranks of elite, bar mitzvahed talent. Add in Bruins goalie Jeremy Swayman, and you’ve got hockey’s first all-Jewish All Star team

Armin Rosen
April 17, 2024

Beginning with Montreal Canadiens icon Maurice “the Rocket” Richard in 1945, 99 different players have scored 50 or more goals in a single National Hockey League season. Four of them are currently on the Edmonton Oilers, the northernmost big-league club in North American sports, representing the continent’s highest-latitude city of a million people. The local NHL team’s rink, set within the metallic glacial face of the 18,000-seat Rogers Place arena, is an idealized recreation of the thousands of incomprehensible miles of icy frontier that begin at the city’s outskirts and which are foreshadowed even within Edmonton itself, where the prairie abruptly drops into the steep valley of the North Saskatchewan River, which is stubbornly frozen into late March and beyond.

The latest survey of NHL players ranks the Rogers Place ice second-best out of the league’s 32 arenas, and it is maintained at a platonic state of solidity, evenness, and play-action through frigid indoor temperatures that fans to the south wouldn’t tolerate, American culture being incapable of treating anything with the reverence with which Canadians treat hockey. It is the home of a bona fide national treasure, 27-year-old, Ontario-born Connor McDavid, a 64-goal scorer last season who clinched an even rarer feat on Monday night: In the season’s third-to-last game, McDavid became the fourth player in history to notch 100 assists in a single campaign. The other three are Bobby Orr, Mario Lemieux, and Oilers legend Wayne Gretzky.

Leon Draisaitl, the Oilers’ 28-year-old second-line center, reached 50 goals or more in 2018, 2021, and 2023, a first for any German player. A line down from him is 38-year-old Canadian mainstay Corey Perry, who got 50 lamplighters for the Anaheim Ducks back in 2011.

On March 26, Oilers right-winger Zach Hyman, a graduate of the University of Michigan and the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, notched his 50th goal of the regular season, which ends tomorrow night. He came to Edmonton as a free agent in 2021, after his hometown Maple Leafs lowballed their popular alternate captain on a new contract. Hyman is the third-oldest, first-time 50-goal scorer in NHL history: His offensive production has sharply improved over his three seasons in Edmonton, from 27 goals in 2022 to 36 goals in 2023 to 54 and counting this year, good for third in the entire NHL. The last of these is objectively the greatest achievement by a Jewish athlete since Ryan Braun’s steroid-tainted 2011 National League Most Valuable Player award. Hyman entered the history books for the second time in three weeks on Monday, when he scored the goal that gave McDavid his 100th helper of the year.

There is no such thing as an accidental 50-goal scorer, but Hyman shows it’s possible to reach one of hockey’s great individual milestones without being too conspicuous about it. On the Oilers’ first line, the job of athletic genius-freak belongs to McDavid: In warmups before the March 30 game against Anaheim he crouched at the faceoff circle and looped the puck around his stick at speeds too fast for the eye and mind to process, so that it looked like “he’d whisked the biscuit into a pile of shredded rubber. The fearsomely blank-faced redhead repeated this hypnotizing exercise on the opposite circle, then skated away in a hypersonic blur.

During warmups, Draisaitl exhibited his luxurious waves of European hair as he loosened up next to the goal; up on the blue line, Perry towered with the world-weary authority of someone nearing the end of his 19th NHL campaign. Beside them the still-helmeted Hyman was a taller-than-average 31-year-old sporting a rugged bright stubble, tongue slightly out and mouth in a half smile behind his visor as a cannonball of a wrister exploded off the boards. “Hey Hyman! Trade Bubble Tape for puck?!” wondered one young girl’s handmade sign from a couple rows behind the net; “50 goals. Can I have your stick?!,” implored another child’s message pressed against the glass. “ZACH HYMAN killing it this year!” read a third sign, which also had an Oilers logo made out of twinkling multicolored jewel stickers.

The Oilers are 49-25-6, good for fifth in the Western Conference. They are somewhere within a once-a-generation championship window, but admiration for Hyman goes beyond his gaudy stat-line or any special hopes for this year’s team. McDavid represents one hockey ideal: The league’s best player is an artist in ice skates who moves with such fleetness and imagination that he can command the entire rest of reality to slow down for him.

Zach Hyman celebrates his second-period goal against the Vegas Golden Knights at the bench at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, on April 10, 2024
Zach Hyman celebrates his second-period goal against the Vegas Golden Knights at the bench at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, on April 10, 2024

Leila Devlin/Getty Images

Hyman epitomizes a less otherworldly and thus more human-proportioned vision of the game. He is a brilliant positional player who can anticipate McDavid’s madcap circuits of the ice as if telepathically linked to his time and space-bending line mate. Hyman will chase down errant pucks, win dicey possession battles, and check in both zones without committing many penalties or turnovers or letting himself get bullied or chased out of his own most lethal lines of attack. He is a full-spectrum, high-level role player who has also ripened into one of the league’s most efficient scoring machines. McDavid is splendidly isolated in his brilliance, so unique that no one can reasonably dream of becoming him, but a determined youngster can glimpse some possible future self in Hyman’s gameplay, which comprises all of the sport’s great virtues while repelling its darker impulses. He is both the Ontario Junior Hockey League’s Most Gentlemanly Player of 2011, and the University of Michigan Athlete of the Year for 2015. On the ice for Edmonton, he wears number 18—the traditional Jewish good luck symbol for chai, life.

Fifty goals in a season means you’ve now vaulted over the New Jersey Devils’ Jack Hughes as the greatest Jewish hockey player in history, I declared to Hyman after the game, a 6-1 thrashing of Anaheim in which he’d notched a late goal. Hyman let out an embarrassed laugh. “I don’t know about that,” he replied. “Jack’s a pretty good player.” When I suggested to Hyman that his own success, along with that of Hughes and Rangers defenseman Adam Fox meant the Jewish people were now in an unprecedented hockey golden age, his first reaction was to add another name to the list. “I also saw Jeremy Swayman said he had a bar mitzvah,” Hyman said, mentioning the Bruins netminder. “So you can throw that in there. He’s a pretty good goalie.”

Prior to the matinee against the Ducks, the sense among the hockey lifers in the Rogers Place press box was that Zach Hyman is one of the best, nicest, and easier people to deal with in the entire league, someone who married his high school sweetheart and organizes an annual charity golf tournament for sick children back in Toronto. Before this season, few would have pegged him as a 50-goal scorer, and his accomplishment hints at the vast potential contained within this year’s Oilers. If Edmonton wins its first Stanley Cup since 1990, which would also be the first for any of the NHL’s seven Canadian teams since 1993, it would be a victory for hockey menschlichkeit, and for menschlichkeit more generally. Still, the fans, the media, and perhaps the entire city share the same low-boiling fear that a remarkable season will culminate in disappointment.

The McDavid-Draisaitl Oilers have always been a confoundingly streaky bunch, charged with the exhilarations of victory and vulnerable to the psychic morass of defeat. After losing to the Vegas Golden Knights in the second round of the playoffs last year the Oilers began this latest season on a catastrophic slump, winning just three of their first 13 games. The slump did not devolve into total collapse: After coach Jay Woodcroft was replaced with Kris Knoblauch, a respected minor league bench boss who had never been an NHL head coach, these Oilers awoke to a burning dread that they’d be remembered only for their squandered potential and began terrorizing the rest of the league.

They rattled off a 16-game winning streak over the winter and are now 46-16-4 under Knoblauch. The Oilers are a contender, but the hockey gods vie with baseball’s for sheer cruelty, and in a league with such a merciless and unpredictable postseason it takes a disturbingly small number of bad giveaways or defensive breakdowns for a once-destined team to wash out in failure. The Oilers are set to face the inconsistent but ever-dangerous Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the playoffs, which begin this weekend.

Hyman will be critical to any deep Oilers playoff run. The first-line right-winger didn’t reach the NHL until he was 23, became a star only gradually, and plays hockey as if he is the major steadying presence within a churn of promise and chaos. On his first shift of the Anaheim game, Hyman bobbled the puck just beyond the defensive blue line, but switched directions in time to nudge a light but crucial body check on a crashing Ducks forward. It was the Oilers’ second line that opened the scoring, though, when Draisaitl dropped a no-look back-pass to an incoming Adam Henrique, who sniped the Oilers to a 1-0 lead. On his next shift, Hyman displayed his uncanny skill for shadowing the impossible-to-shadow McDavid, springing into action once the center crossed the offensive blue line, opening up a speedy attack without straying into an offsides, and shuttling into his shooting lane without doing something so crude or so obvious as calling for the puck.

The metrics-driven modern NHL stresses a possession-oriented game: Compared to earlier eras there is less dump-and-chase, less action in the corners, and greater effort to avoid unnecessary faceoffs. The pure goon is all but extinct, and even a hulking fourth-pair defenseman can skate backward with an ice dancer’s elegance. Because the game has gotten so fast, teams that cannot master possession hockey are often swiftly and spectacularly punished. For instance, in the middle of the first period, McDavid telekinetically robbed a hapless Duck at center ice and then rocketed into a self-made breakaway, splitting the forwards and then the defense before beating goalie John Gibson on a top-shelf scoop off of a light-speed fake to his backhand. Tally a Mattias Ekholm boomer from a mile out, a goal scored with the Oilers fourth-line grinders on the ice, and it was 3-0 at the first intermission.

McDavid got his second goal of the afternoon on a second period power play, calmly floating at point-blank until he found an angle he liked. Hyman wasn’t credited with an assist, but the goal would not have happened if the forward hadn’t entangled Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler in front of the net, forcing the leader of the Anaheim penalty-killing unit to turn his back to the play as McDavid fired.

When the game ended, I met Hyman in front of a row of five replica Stanley Cups outside the Oilers’ locker room, representing each of the team’s Wayne Gretzky- and Messier-era triumphs from over three decades ago. In person, Hyman is not an overwhelming physical presence—muscles didn’t bulge out of his long sleeve athletic shirt, and he is a comprehensible 6-foot-2 and 206 pounds. When we met, he leaned on his left elbow so that we were talking at eye level and spoke in an almost self-effacing near whisper. His cheeks are his body’s only islands of pudginess, and a sharp pair of almond eyes completes the picture of a bright former day school kid. Hockey often ages its devotees, but Hyman looks a couple years younger than he actually is. He appears to still have all his teeth.

“I think the entire season—obviously you’ve gotta make the playoffs—is built for you to understand and learn what kind of team you are and what kind of team you’re gonna be,” Hyman said. He was on the Leafs for a trilogy of gut-punching, first-round postseason exits in the late 2010s, a series loss to Washington in which five games went to overtime followed by back-to-back seven-game defeats to the hated Boston Bruins, twin traumas from which the Toronto franchise, and certainly its fanbase, have yet to fully recover. In the playoffs, “everything just gets tighter and closer,” Hyman said—players will indeed dive at pucks they might have ignored in the regular season, and risk their bodies on checks and hits they would have eschewed when the stakes were lower. “The level of hockey just increases. Scoring goals is harder,” Hyman continued. “It’s just a much harder game.” Flummoxing a defenseman in order to open up a pathway for your line mate, as Hyman did in the second period against Anaheim, doesn’t yield any individual statistical payoff, but the biggest games are won and lost off of exactly these battles. Hyman excels at them.

Of course hockey games are also won and lost through more obvious showdowns, which Hyman has also come to dominate. Toward the middle of the third period, McDavid blazed a swerving diagonal path through the neutral zone. Hyman sprinted into the right faceoff circle as his center lasered the puck ahead. While still in motion, Hyman fired a one-timer so fast and hard that the horn sounded long before his stick was down. He celebrated goal number 51 of the season by calmly readjusting his mouthguard. Hyman described his goals as the result of smart positioning combined with a mysterious element of fate: “They happen so quick,” he told me, before echoing with better English-language grammar the famous goal-scorers’ koan of Rocket Richard: “You just put yourself into spots you know you can be successful in and sometimes they go in, sometimes they don’t,” Hyman said.

I observed to Hyman that he had likely been one of the only Jewish members of just about every team he’d ever played on. “As you go further the number is less and less,” he acknowledged. “At least on my journey I’ve felt everybody’s been very accepting.” In fact, Hyman appears to be the only Jewish Oiler to have played more than a small handful of games for the team in its entire history. Shane Asbell, president of the modern Orthodox Beth Israel synagogue in the river-valley-side neighborhood of Oleskiw, and someone who personally witnessed Gretzky scoring his 50th goal in the 39th game of the 1981 season, couldn’t remember there ever having been another one.

Asbell and I toured the light-bathed cylindrical entryway and fan-shaped sanctuary of the 25-year-old red brick Beth Israel building. The 118–year old synagogue’s third home is likely too large for the congregation, Asbell acknowledged, though it still gets around 100 people on a typical Shabbat. He wore a blue-and-copper Hyman jersey with the nameplate in Hebrew. This was not a custom job: The official Oilers team store did a surprisingly brisk business in Hebrew Hyman threads. “I know of non-Jewish people with Hebrew Hyman jerseys,” Asbell said. “Wild, eh?”

From left: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Zach Hyman, Leon Draisaitl, and Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers celebrate after Hyman scored against the Calgary Flames during the second period of an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary, Alberta, on Oct. 29, 2022
From left: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Zach Hyman, Leon Draisaitl, and Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers celebrate after Hyman scored against the Calgary Flames during the second period of an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary, Alberta, on Oct. 29, 2022

Derek Leung/Getty Images

The original Jews of Edmonton were traders following the country’s movement west, along with poorer immigrants, mostly from Russia and Ukraine, who decided they’d had enough of the farming colonies the Canadian government created to populate the frontier and drifted toward the region’s one real town. Edmonton had 2,600 residents at the beginning of the 20th century; it became a city of 100,000 in the mid 1940s, meaning it was still young when Gretzky arrived in 1978. The early Jews were both scarce enough and organized enough that there is an official first Jew in town, who came in the 1880s: Abraham Cristall, the founding president of Beth Israel, whose original building was the first home of Talmud Torah Academy, Canada’s oldest Jewish day school.

There are now somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 Jews in Edmonton, which along with Beth Israel has one Conservative synagogue, one Reform synagogue, and a Chabad house. There is a mikvah but no eruv; two grocery stores with well-stocked kosher sections, but no kosher restaurants. Talmud Torah has 150 students but no middle or high school—a more yeshivish school closed in 2019. The federation is using money from the sale of an overly large former country club turned JCC to finance the purchase of a new headquarters and “Jewish living room” for the city, whose community boasts a Jewish senior center, Jewish social services, a chevra kadisha, an Israeli dance troupe, an annual Jewish film festival, and a sleep-away camp. “We’re too big to be small but too small to be big,” Edmonton Jewish federation CEO Stacey Leavitt-Wright told me. “We’ve got strong institutions.” She noted that she is head of the northernmost Jewish federation in North America.

Edmonton might be an equal drive from the Northwest Territories and Bozeman, Montana, but it is a growing city, picking up 50,000 new residents last year. Real estate sells at less than half of Toronto prices, and Alberta’s provincial and corporate taxes are the lowest in Canada. The draw of eastern universities, and of life in larger and somewhat more America-proximate cities in the southeast, still means that young Jews often leave Canada’s traditional oil and cattle country and sometimes take their parents with them. As a Toronto Jew making a life in Edmonton, Hyman is swimming against a recent tide—although, Asbell notes, “he’d probably get a little more harassed in Toronto. Edmontonians are pretty reserved.”

The one serious incident of antisemitism in Edmonton since Oct. 7 was the theft of the Israeli flag flying outside of Beth Israel, which the police quickly located with the help of a non-Jewish friend of the congregation. In Vancouver, a stunning blowout loss in game seven of the Stanley Cup final sparked riots in 2011. Under similar circumstances, said high school teacher Daniel Rubinstein, “we probably would not riot, but we’d say ‘sorry’ one or two less times.”

I met Rubinstein at the Edmonton Chabad house, a strip mall shul which pulled a more-than-healthy 15 daveners on a Sunday morning, and offered equal numbers of English- and Russian-language siddurim. Rabbi Ari Drelich arrived in Edmonton in 1991, a year after the Oilers’ last Stanley Cup win, and three years after the team traded Gretzky to the LA Kings.

Hyman’s true name, Drelich told me, is Moshe Tzvi. The rabbi learned this shortly before boarding a cherry picker with the Oilers winger, to light the 18-foot menorah outside the Alberta legislature building in 2021. Moshe Tzvi “is a really proud Jew,” Drelich said. When being interviewed after the ceremony, the rabbi recalled, the Oiler “broke out with a smile, a nostalgic childlike look on his face. He orbited to a different world.” Drelich told me that if I spoke with Hyman again, I should encourage him to attend this year’s candle-lighting, which will be on Dec. 29.

I asked Drelich if there was any rabbinic advice he might want to impart to Moshe Tzvi before a potentially career-defining playoff run. Drelich thought for a moment. “If they wanted to, the Oilers would win every game,” Drelich began: They could just “get rid of the opposing team” and scrimmage among themselves. “Why do they choose opposition? Because the game would be meaningless without the opponent!”

Drelich explained that every human being has an opponent, a personal inner version of the Vegas Golden Knights that creates the possibility of meaningful action by introducing the potential for failure: This is the yetzer harah, the evil inclination. “Wouldn’t life be easier without the yetzer harah?,” Drelich asked. “But then it wouldn’t be a game. Hashem wouldn’t reward us.”

The Stanley Cup playoffs should be one earthly manifestation of another, higher battle—a champion may well remember his opposition fondly, as a necessary test on the way to victory, and toward things even higher than that. “We want the yetzer harah to work together with us,” Drelich said, “so it should want to do mitzvahs.”

Hyman, who has two young children, inhabits his various responsibilities with care and tact. Throughout the week of the Anaheim game, he had successfully avoided an insulting, media-generated controversy over whether growing up in a wealthy family somehow reduced the accomplishment of his 50-goal season. It’s true enough that Hyman’s father is an all-timer of a hockey dad who used his real estate earnings to purchase a series of minor league teams on which his children then played, but the real psychological drama of Hyman’s career doesn’t come from being a rich Jewish kid battling teammates from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, for respect. Instead, it comes from an even more fraught part of his family background, which is that he grew up a Toronto Maple Leafs fan.

The Leafs are a wellspring of civic and national pathologies who haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967 and whose executives were among the people once telling Hyman, who never wanted to leave Toronto, that he’d probably never score more than 30 goals in a season. They are hockey’s version of the Knicks or the former Washington Redskins, teams whose fans and haters can be equally deranged; deep-rooted institutions whose lack of recent success often seems to implicate more than just the franchise itself, as if the teams’ humiliations are a cosmically just reflection of the societies they represent. If it weren’t for the pressures of the NHL salary cap and a contract offer calculated to make Hyman look elsewhere, a Jewish Torontonian might be living the ultimate dream of proving the cosmos wrong and leading the success-starved obsession of his childhood back to glory (the Leafs are fifth in the Eastern Conference right now, and also headed to the playoffs).

If Hyman harbors such fantasies, they’ve relocated to Alberta. “I grew up [in Toronto], have tons of friends who I went to school with, and obviously they were pretty disappointed that I left. But I had a great opportunity here and it’s worked out really well,” he told me. The lack of any apparent hard feelings over this psychic and physical westward shift proves that Hyman has freed himself from the unending Leafs’ failure vortex. Joining the 50-goal club as an Oiler must have banished any lingering sense of regret. He is now someone who has carefully and healthily integrated everything that’s stemmed from the entire world’s discovery—and possibly his own discovery—that he is in fact historically good at something massively difficult, widely admired, and personally important to him.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.