Competitive hockey is virtually closed to observant Jewish youngsters, because practically every league plays on Fridays and Saturdays.
For brothers Shlomi and Isaac Levy, both of whom are Orthodox Jews, know that well, given their enthusiasm for the game ever since their family emigrated to Montreal from Israel in 1985. Balancing their ambition to move up the ranks while respecting religious tradition was not easy.
That’s why the Levys founded Tip-Top Hockey Academy, which is based out of the Bonaventure Hockey Complex in St-Laurent, Que. They never hold practices or games on Shabbat or Jewish holidays, and conduct in keeping with Jewish values is expected, both on and off the ice.
From 32 kids during the inaugural 2013-14 season, the academy grew to 85 boys and girls aged five to 13 this past season, the maximum that can be handled under the current format.
The schedule and Jewish milieu is important to many parents. Many less religious parents say it is the quality of the instruction and the opportunity for their children to play serious hockey in a family friendly environment that drew them to Tip-Top.
The Levys, Tip-Top’s head instructors, are veterans of the Israeli national hockey team and were among the gold-medal winners at the 2013 IIHF world championships. Shlomi Levy, 42, played with the team at the international level for 17 years, while playing soccer professionally. He captained the team twice, and his brother was the assistant captain.
Isaac Levy, 36, who was on the Israeli team until last year, also played hockey professionally in Serbia and France. He still suits up in Quebec’s senior hockey league.
Today, Shlomi Levy is a lawyer, while Isaac Levy is the head sports coach at Solomon Schechter Academy, which is the only Jewish school with a hockey team that competes against other Montreal-area schools.
While playing in Belgrade, Isaac Levy taught hockey to kids. When he returned to Montreal, Shlomi Levy’s and their sister’s children were reaching hockey-playing age. They named the hockey school Tip-Top, which was the name of their late father’s construction business and a common expression among Israelis.
The academy is a private enterprise, but the brothers are not in it to make money. Their mission is to enable any Jewish youngster to experience hockey, and Shlomi Levy said that no child has ever been turned away for financial reasons. Tip-Top also works with kids with special needs.
In response to demand, the age range last season was broadened to include kids between the ages of four and 14. The season runs from September to April, on Thursdays and Sundays.
Six teams are formed in a junior and a senior division. Ability, almost as much as age, is taken into account, so that kids can play alongside those with comparable abilities.
More important than winning is building character, learning how to play fair and getting along with others.
– Shlomi Levy
The early weeks are devoted to team-building and drills, before a regular season of 15 games starts. The one staff-to-six-children ratio allows for individual attention, Isaac said. Parents are encouraged to become volunteer coaches.
Tip-Top added a weekly adult program to teach skating and the basics of the game to parents who previously had no hockey experience, but want to share their enjoyment of the game with their children.
During the summer, Tip-Top brings children from Chabad day camps to the arena twice a week to play hockey.
The Levys now want to take the academy to the next level and develop an elite team that could play exhibition games against outside teams, such as those in city or school leagues, as long as there is no conflict with Shabbat.
No matter how good or passionate a player is, the brothers say that school always comes before sport.
“We always stress a healthy mind in a healthy body,” said Shlomi Levy. “More important than winning is building character, learning how to play fair and get along with others.”
They are learning not just how to play hockey, but how to act and be a good person.
– Elliot Shuster
Michael Abikhzer, the father of four sons in Tip-Top, said that the program “saved my life.”
Abikhzer, who runs an engineering firm and serves as a cantor at Congregation Petach Tikvah, has a busy professional life and said that keeping four boys (he has a fifth who’s still an infant) occupied in a wholesome activity is not easy. The fact that all four boys have hockey at the same time and place is a godsend, he said.
In his youth, when he was less religious, Abikhzer played hockey in St-Laurent. “I experienced some things then I wouldn’t want my kids to. At Tip-Top, there are strict standards. We share the same values. It’s priceless.”
Elliot Shuster’s sons, Emanuel, 10, and Jacob, 12, have been at the academy for several years and he has only good things to say about it.
“It’s amazing to watch how their playing has improved,” much more than when they were in a municipal program, he said.
“You feel the coaches really care. They tell the kids what they did right, but will also call them out if they get too aggressive. Shlomi and Isaac are great role models. The kids see them in the synagogue, in the community, and look up to them.
“They are learning not just how to play hockey, but how to act and be a good person.”