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May-11-07
Issue: 8.04
this is column number 17
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Lenn Zonder looks at the modern Jewish sports scene!

Should an 18-year old Orthodox Jew be allowed to dictate to his hockey team, or should he “get with” the program and play hockey on Friday nights and Saturdays because it is part of the schedule?

This loggerhead between Judaism and one particular Canadian hockey team came into conflict last month, when Patrick Roy (pronounced Wah), the owner of the Quebec Ramparts Major Junior hockey club informed 18-year old Benjamin Rubin there would be a spot for him on the team next season, only if he agreed to play and practice seven days per week.

This past season, Rubin missed 35 Friday night or Saturday games. He also brought his own kosher food on the road, skipped the team meals.

The problem is not a new one. Many Jewish athletes, Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax and current outfielder Shawn Green, to mention three, became “cause celebre” for opting out of playing on the High Holidays. In Koufax’s case, Yom Kippur fell out in the middle of the 1962 World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Minnesota Twins. The decision to miss one game was perfectly acceptable to the Dodgers officials and Koufax’s teammates. But in a display of politically-incorrect judgment, Koufax was publicly castigated by the Minnesota Twins radio announcer for not being willing to play in that day’s prestigious event.

Rubin’s case is different. He is an orthodox Jew and strictly observant. Unlike most other professional amateur Jewish athletes who observe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur but do not observe Shabbat, Rubin refuses to diminish the stricture of the scripture, the fourth commandment — to “Remember the Sabbath day and to keep it holy.” He adamantly refuses to play hockey or even practice with the team on Shabbat, between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday. Nor will he ride on the Sabbath.

Rubin’s orthodoxy wasn’t a problem this past season. Roy allowed Rubin to maintain his religious observances and it led to 35 missed games.

However, after the Ramparts' season ended, Roy told the 6-foot-1, 186-pounder he would be invited back next season and have a spot on the second line, only if he could play every day.

The Toronto newspaper quoted him as saying, “They just told me that's the deal. That's why I'm not going to be playing, because I missed too many games.

"He (Roy) told me I had third- or second-line (talent), but I missed too many games to fill the spot. He can't have that next year."

Rubin wrestled with his decision, but ultimately chose religion. So Roy told the forward his roster spot would go to another player.

As a Jew, I want to stand up and cheer for Rubin, obviously a young man with high ideals he’s willing to put on the line. But at the same time, as a former baseball coach and sportswriter, I empathize with Roy, who is running a team and a business.

There is a saying in sports, albeit trite, that says, “There is no I in team.” I believe that whole-heartedly. Team concept is everything in sports. A player can score 100 points a season and be an All-Star, but the day he forgets the other five men on the ice and the 20 or so on the bench, and the roles they contribute that allow him to excel, is the day dissention sets in and the coach (and owner) loses control of the team.

In Roy’s case, what if he had a few born-again Christians on his roster and they all suddenly decided they wouldn’t play on Sundays, their Sabbath? What if players in the NFL, the NHL or the NBA decided they wouldn’t play on Christmas Day, even though the leagues schedule games, sell tickets, and rent the forums? Frankly, to my way of thinking, it’s an open door to chaos and disintegration.

When I coached, I made it perfectly clear to my players, all of them amateurs. Once they took “my” uniform, they had made a voluntary choice and a tacit agreement to play for our team, to obey all its rules and the rules of the league. Their choice required them to attend all practices and games. They could be excused for special events, especially those that were part of their family’s life cycle; funerals, weddings, B'nai mitzvahs, etc. Taking their girlfriend to a party or a significant event of her family would not be excused.

Making choices is something we all have to do in life. Rubin is making a choice and so is Roy. Unfortunately, in this case, the choices present a lose-lose situation.

Rubin, who it is said has National Hockey League talent, would have to give up his religious principles, or Roy would have to make a special concession to one player at the detriment of the entire team.

"It was really hard, because it's my future in hockey," said Rubin. "I still think I can make it far with keeping my religion. I think there's a chance for the NHL, but I'm not sure."

Rubin, who said Roy’s action wasn’t religious persecution, said he expects Roy to trade him to a team with few Friday night games.

But I ask: If Rubin is fortunate to keep playing hockey for another team, does he really expect to make to the NHL playing on a part-time basis? I don’t think the premise would ever reach the point of consideration, much less a possibility. One thing for sure. It’s never been done before in hockey, although Roger Clemens is doing it in baseball.


 

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