Home Culture Sports Canadian Jews are more accomplished at sport than you’d think

Canadian Jews are more accomplished at sport than you’d think

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Jews are known as the people of the Book, but they’ve done pretty well on the hockey rink, the curling sheet, the track and the gridiron.

Contrary to the stereotype about Jews being a bookish lot, there have been plenty of elite Jewish athletes, including many produced right here in Canada. While one might expect there to be a good number of NHL players among Canadian Jewish athletes, and there are, we’ve also produced Canada’s top female athlete of the half century (1900-50), Fanny (Bobbie) Rosenberg, plus Canadian champions in curling, racquetball and boxing. Some have been provincial or national champions, some have even competed in the Olympics, or would have had they not been held in Berlin during the Nazi era.

While some have excelled in professional leagues, many Jewish athletes did well at the local level, as well.

In Toronto, for instance, the Lizzies refer to a collection of sports teams that played amateur baseball and basketball in the schoolyard of the Elizabeth Street School starting in 1912. According to the Ontario Jewish Archives, “This ‘playground’ was situated in Toronto’s first Jewish quarter” and “the Lizzies won more than 150 titles at the city, provincial and national levels in baseball, basketball, football and hockey.” Not bad for a bunch of bookish Jews.

Elizabeth St. Playground (Lizzies) basketball champs, 1929. (Ontario Jewish Archives photo)

To celebrate the many achievements Jewish-Canadians have contributed to this country’s sporting history, The CJN compiled a list of more than 70 elite athletes, with a little help from Maccabi Canada, which finds good athletes to send to the Maccabiah Games in Israel every four years.

It turns out that there have been high-end Jewish athletes dating back to the earliest days of Canada. And given the frigid nature of the local climate, it was skating that produced the community’s first star: figure skater Louis Rubenstein. Born in Montreal in 1861, Rubenstein was the Canadian champion from 1883 to 1890 and won the American championship in 1888 and 1889. His figure skating skills were considered exceptional at the time.

In 1889, the Amateur Skating Association of Canada chose Rubenstein to represent the country at an international figure skating competition in St. Petersburg, Russia. Despite encountering anti-Semitism that nearly prevented him from competing, Rubenstein captured the world title at the event.

If Rubenstein was the first to excel at figure skating, he certainly wasn’t the last. Ellen Burka and her daughter, Petra, were world champions a generation apart. And unlike Rubenstein – who eschewed the jumps and spins that were just then entering the sport, to concentrate on perfect figures – Burka excelled at expressive, dance-like skating.

A native of Holland, where she was a national champion, Burka survived the Holocaust thanks to a German camp commandant who found out about her skating ability and kept her alive to perform for the guards.

After the war, she emigrated to Canada and baptized her children to better enable them to fit in to the anti-Semitic skating culture she found. Petra Burka went on to win the World Championship in 1965.

Dylan Moscovitch

More recently, Dylan Moscovitch and his partner Lubov Ilyushechkina were Canadian silver medallists. Now retired, Moscovitch medalled during the 2016-17 season in all the team events, except the world championships.

They placed sixth at the worlds and were the top Canadian team. Moscovitch, 34, and Ilyushechkina were Canadian pairs silver medallists in 2015 and 2017 at the Canadian Tire National Skating Championships and finished first in the 2015 Skate Canada Challenge.

Sticking to the ice – in this case, pebbled ice – Canada has also produced its share of Jewish curling champions.

In 1965, skip Terry Braunstein led his Winnipeg rink to the Brier championship, which is emblematic of Canadian curling supremacy. Braunstein was joined on the team by his brother Ron, who played second.

It wasn’t their first brush with greatness. In 1958, as juniors, their rink captured the Manitoba provincial championship. That opened the door for them and other Jews to move to hitherto off-limits curling clubs.

Meanwhile, contemporaries of the Braunsteins continued to excel on the curling sheet. Hersh Lerner and Bob Robinson, members of Winnipeg’s Maple Leaf Curling Club, which was primarily Jewish at the time, won three provincial championships in the 1960s.

Barry Naimark, who was born in Regina and moved to British Columbia, won the Canadian and World Championships in 1964.

And to show that Winnipeg continues to produce top curlers, in 2016, Kyle Doering played second and was vice-skip in the Canadian junior championship rink skipped by Matt Dunstone.

Of course, when it comes to winter sports, hockey is the one where we find substantial Jewish involvement, going all the way back to the sport’s early days.

Back before there was an Original Six – the NHL started with five teams in 1917 – a handful of Jewish skaters plied their trade in the NHL.

Two of them, remarkably, hailed from Sudbury, Ont., which, at the time, had a modest Jewish population.

Vivian Field still resides in Sudbury. She knew Joe Ironstone, her uncle, and his contemporary, Sammy Rothschild, who are believed to be the first Jews to play in the NHL, back in the 1920s.

“I knew (them both) very well,” Field told The CJN. “It was a smaller city then.”

Back in those days, there were probably a little more than 60 Jewish families in town. Now, there are about 18, she estimates.

Nevertheless, two of the city’s young Jews made it to the NHL, if only for a short time, in the case of Ironstone. Rothschild had the longer NHL career, having been recruited to play for the Montreal Maroons, the team that rivalled the Canadiens in the early days of the NHL.

In 1924, Rothschild signed with the Maroons, receiving a $1,000 signing bonus and $3,500 per year. Two years later, he did what many only dream of – he won the Stanley Cup, becoming the first Jew and the first Sudburian to do so.

In the course of his four-year NHL career, Rothschild played for three different franchises, none of which survived over the long-term. In addition to three years with the Maroons, he played for the Pittsburgh Pirates for five games before being suspended and transferring to the New York Americans, where he finished his NHL career at the end of the 1927-28 season.

As abbreviated as that career was, it beat Ironstone’s by quite a margin, though it was likely not as colourful.

Ironstone was a top player in his day, but mostly in the minor leagues.

He played two games in the NHL, the first for the New York Americans in the 1925-26 season, when he was a backup goalie, and finally with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1927-28 season.

In his sole appearance with the Leafs, he registered a shut out. Nevertheless, the team didn’t invite him back.

Ironstone had been playing in the semi-professional leagues at the time. In the fateful 1927-28 season, he was backstopping the Toronto Ravinas of the Canadian Professional Hockey League (CPHL), when he was called up to play for the Leafs.

The story has it that Ironstone was blackballed by then-Leafs owner Conn Smythe because he had the audacity to ask for double the contract rate when the Leafs were shorthanded and desperate.

The whole sorry episode is recounted in a 1996 radio drama by Paul Davies, but Ironstone’s niece, Field, believes her uncle’s decision was simply “foolish.”

“He was strange, actually, even though he was my uncle,” Field said.

In the end, Ironstone had a lengthy hockey career with teams like the Niagara Falls Cataracts, the London Panthers and the Kitchener Dutchmen of the CPHL. He retired in 1936 and returned to the family’s men’s wear business in Sudbury.

Rothschild and Ironstone were followed not long afterwards by Alex Levinsky, who was born in the United States but grew up in Toronto.

Levinsky played as a defenceman on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ first Stanley Cup team in 1932-33. He was known as Mine Boy, because his father would attend games and shout out, “That’s mine boy,” when he was on the ice. His nine-year NHL career also saw stints with the New York Rangers and the Chicago Blackhawks.

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Perhaps the most accomplished Jew to play in the NHL was Hy Buller, a Montrealer who played for the Rangers.

Buller’s story would make Don Cherry proud: he was a career minor leaguer who paid his dues and finally made it to the big league.

Buller started his NHL career during the 1943 season, at a time when the game’s top players were serving in the Canadian armed forces. That stint with the Detroit Red Wings lasted seven games before he returned to play with the Indianapolis Capitals in the American Hockey League (AHL). Later, he played two more games with the Red Wings before returning to the AHL.

In three and a half seasons with the Cleveland Barons, the Blue Line Blaster, as he was known, was a two-time AHL all-star.

His NHL career resumed in the 1951-52 season, when he was sold by the Barons to the New York Rangers. Playing with Allan Stanley, who would go on to have a lengthy career with the Maple Leafs, he  became a second team all-star, scoring 12 goals and 35 points in 68 games. He finished second to Boom Boom Geoffrion in balloting for the Calder Trophy, which is given to the rookie of the year.

Unfortunately, his performance dropped off the next year. He was traded to the Montreal Canadiens in the summer of 1954, as the team was about to embark on its run of five consecutive Stanley Cups, but he decided to retire instead of playing. According to one bio, Buller believed he wouldn’t crack the Habs’ lineup and would be assigned to their minor league team. Another bio said that he retired because his injuries had finally caught up with him.

In addition to these NHL trailblazers, a good number of Jewish athletes have also made it to the pinnacle of hockey excellence, even if some played only a few games:

• Zach Hyman, Toronto Maple Leafs, 2015-19;

• Ross Brooks, Boston Bruins, 1972-75;

• Josh Tordjman, Phoenix Coyotes, 2008-09;

• Mike Veisor, Chicago Blackhawks, Hartford Whalers, Winnipeg Jets, 1973-84;

• Larry Zeidel, Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, 1951-54; Philadelphia Flyers, 1967-69;

• Ronnie Stern, Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames, San Jose Sharks, 1987-2000;

• Max Labovitch, New York Rangers, 1943-44;

• Trevor Smith, New York Islanders, Tampa Bay Lightning, Pittsburgh Penguins, Toronto Maple Leafs, 2008-15;

• Steve Dubinsky, Chicago Blackhawks, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues, 1993-2003;

• Jason Demers, San Jose Sharks, Dallas Stars, Florida Panthers, Arizona Coyotes, 2009-19;

• Andrew Calof, Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod, KHL, 2018-19;

• Kaleigh Fratkin, Connecticut Whalers, New York Riveters, Boston Pride, National Women’s Hockey League, 2015-19;

• Mike Cammalleri, Los Angeles Kings, Montreal Canadiens, Calgary Flames, New Jersey Devils, Edmonton Oilers, 2002-18;

• Mark Friedman, Philadelphia Flyers, 2018-19;

• Cecil Hart, Montreal Maroons head coach, 1924-25; Montreal Canadiens head coach, 1926-39;

• Brendan Leipsic, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vegas Golden Knights, Vancouver Canucks, Los Angeles Kings, 2015-19;

• Max Kaminsky, Ottawa Senators, St. Louis Eagles, Boston Bruins, Montreal Maroons, 1933-37;

• Joshua Ho-Sang, New York Islanders, 2016-19;

• Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks, 2018-19;

• David Nemirovsky, Florida Panthers,  1995-99;

• Bob Plager, New York Rangers, St. Louis Blues, 1964-77;

• Brian Wilks, Los Angeles Kings, 1984-89;

• Bernie Wolfe, Washington Capitals, 1975-79.

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