Beginning with the 2019-20 hockey season, the Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL) will make room for three teams that will be exempt from playing on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.
The Avenue Road Hockey Association (ARHA) will field two Single A teams in the GTHL, while JCC Chai Sports, which partners with the Vaughan Rangers, will have one.
The moves will allow the best players in each organization to move up to a more competitive league.
“It’s super exciting news for the Jewish community,” said Neil Greenbaum, president of the ARHA. “It’s something we wanted for a long time.”
It could lead to even more teams joining that league down the road, Greenbaum said.
Currently, JCC Chai Sports and ARHA teams compete in the North York Hockey League (NYHL), a city-wide circuit that includes “select” teams, consisting of the best players from local house leagues. Over the years, the ARHA has lost some of its best players to the GTHL, where starting with single A, the calibre of hockey improves through AA and AAA levels.
On some occasions, ARHA teams have left the NYHL to move up to the GTHL as a group. On other occasions, coaches have taken as many as half the players with them to the GTHL, Greenbaum said.
Beginning in September, the ARHA will sponsor two single A teams containing kids born in 2007 and 2009, while JCC Chai Sports will field a 2008 single A team.
Jeremy Blustein, director of operations for JCC Chai Sports, said that in addition to fielding a team under the auspices of the Vaughan Rangers, as much as half the 2009 Avenue Road A team could be drawn from JCC Chai Sports players.
Scott Oakman, the executive-director of the GTHL, said the league was approached by Maccabi Canada last fall “about the concept of having competitive teams at the A level, that would accommodate the scheduling needs of the families they represent.”
Subsequently, the Avenue Road and JCC programs approached the league, suggesting they had players able to compete at the A level, Oakman said.
“We did some research (and) we thought it was an opportunity to try it out and see if we could make it work in the season,” he said.
The league already accommodates its teams by allowing some scheduling leeway to account for non-league tournaments, exam periods and religious events, he said.
Teams from the ARHA and JCC Chai Sports will play 36-games over 22 weeks, but none of them will take place on Shabbat or Jewish holidays. With those dates unavailable, “it may put a little more demands on them than other teams,” Oakman suggested.
The team being proposed by JCC Chai Sports will become the second 2008 Vaughan Rangers team playing single A hockey next season, Blustein said. Tryouts will determine the team’s composition, but there will likely be substantial, though not exclusive, Jewish participation.
Don Mintz, director of the ARHA, said that, “We’ve always had a dream to play in the GTHL. It’s a natural transition for our league.”
While several of the association’s players have gone on to the GTHL, “it wouldn’t appeal to a large majority of families because they won’t play on Friday or Saturday,” Mintz added.
Mintz believes the inclusion of Avenue Road teams in the GTHL will boost the ARHA’s prospects.
Currently about 95 per cent of the ARHA consists of Jewish players, Greenbaum said.
There are now about 700 players in the ARHA, ranging in age from six to 17, Greenbaum added.
While both Jewish organizations will benefit from the GTHL’s decision, each organization took a different route to this point. JCC Chai Sports is part of the Prosserman JCC and Schwartz/Reisman Centre, and is the official sports program of Toronto’s Jewish community. It is a relative newcomer to the local scene, going back only to 2008.
The ARHA’s history dates back to the 1950s, when it was known as the Avenue Road Boys Sports Clubs and offered young Jewish athletes two sports – baseball and hockey – and played on a field on Avenue Road.