Team USA Takes On Summertime Ice Hockey In Israel

Lazarus during his time with the Wichita Falls

The recorded temperature in Jerusalem was 92 degrees Fahrenheit on Friday, July 14, but that didn’t stop the 20th Maccabiah Games from continuing as planned. Fortunately, ice hockey is played inside an air-conditioned arena, but had the sport been played outdoors, it would have been the second-hottest hockey game in history, following a 95-degree game played in Las Vegas in 1991.

With the Maccabiah Games in full swing, Maccabi USA has assembled a team of up-and-coming Jewish hockey players to compete in this year’s games in Israel, including Long Island native Jonathan Lazarus.

At first glance, the existence of the sport in the Maccabiah Games is miraculous. Not many Jews play professional hockey. The best right now may be Mike Camalleri of the Los Angeles Kings. The forward has struggled the past few years and is likely nearing the end of his career. He is no comparison to the likes of current superstars such as Sidney Crosby. However, Jewish hockey is on the rise, especially in the tristate area where Jewish teenagers from across Long Island, the five boroughs and New Jersey compete in inter-
yeshiva floor hockey.

Lazarus (left) playing for UMass Amherst in an NCAA game

Lazarus was born in Great Neck in 1996 and currently plays for the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, of Hockey East (NCAA). This past season, he scored 9 points through 28 games played while competing against top NHL prospects such as Clayton Keller (Arizona Coyotes), Charlie McAvoy (Boston Bruins) and Colin White (Ottawa Senators). This comes after two seasons of dominating the North American Hockey League, scoring 74 points in 106 total games played. Scouts, therefore, have reason to believe that his point totals can rise next season. Lazarus agreed, stating that ceiling is “endless” as long as he stays committed to getting better.

Lazarus began playing in his parents’ basement at a young age, strapping on his sisters’ roller skates, donning his Mark Messier jersey and going for a skate.

“After watching players like Mark Messier, Brian Leetch and Adam Graves, it was tough to not want to play hockey,” Lazarus said. The three had led the New York Rangers to a Stanley Cup victory in 1994, only two years before he was born. He credits his cousin for exposing him to the sport which he instantly fell in love with. “Growing up in that era was amazing,” Lazarus said, “but I basically fell in love with playing the game on my own.”

As he grew older and better, Lazarus began playing hockey away from home. His NAHL team was based in Wichita Falls, TX, and he currently plays in Massachusetts. This is, however, his first time playing internationally. As an open athlete in the Maccabiah Games, Lazarus was required to begin his journey to Israel with Israel Connect, a program run by Maccabi USA that allowed him and his fellow athletes to experience Israel before the games began. It also allowed him to forge bonds with his teammates and come into the games with chemistry.

Team USA, which consists mostly of collegiate players and aspiring pros, poses in front of Tel Aviv Beach.

“It’s been very cool to see how many other Jewish American hockey players are just like me,” he said. “We all truly have so much in common and know a bunch of the same people. A lot of us grew up on teams where [Jews] were the minority, and now we are all together in one locker room, it’s a very different feeling.”

So far, the tournament has been successful for the Americans, as they have advanced to the finals where they will play Canada. They did so coming off a strong preliminary round performance, losing a nail-biter to Canada 3-2 in overtime, before defeating Russia 12-3, Israel 7-0 and Germany 18-0. The final is highly anticipated and promises to be an exciting matchup, but Lazarus seems ready. “We have faced a lot of adversity so far on this trip, especially during Israel Connect, so it has for sure made us a closer group. It feels like we have been together for months.”

As Team USA continues competing over the next few days, stories like Lazarus’s highlight the Maccabiah Games’ ability to bring Jews together from across the world to compete in high-level athletic competition. As much as the tournament is competitive, it is also about garnering a strong Jewish identity that the athletes will bring home after all the fanfare has subsided.

Look for further coverage of the Maccabiah Games and athlete profiles in upcoming issues.

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