by Everlyn Frick
(JTA) — October is a busy month for North American sports fans. The MLB playoffs get underway, the NBA season begins, the NFL season kicks into high gear and both the women’s and men’s pro soccer leagues start their postseasons, too.
To many sports fans the most important milestone is the start of the NHL season. The first puck dropped on Friday, ironically in Prague, in a match between the Nashville Predators and the San Jose Sharks. (The first stateside games started on Tuesday night.)
Another phenomenon that hasn’t been widely covered — outside of our roundup least year — is the league’s currently high number of Jewish hockey players. The same remains true of this upcoming season — here’s who to watch.
Edmonton Oilers, forward
After playing with the Toronto Maple Leafs for six years, forward Zach Hyman signed with the Edmonton Oilers last summer and never looked back. The left winger had a stellar 2021-2022 season, recording a career-high 27 goals and 54 points in 76 games — which included 11 goals and 16 points in 16 playoff games.
Of all the Jewish players in the NHL, Hyman is perhaps the most vocal about being connected to his faith and roots. He wears No. 18 for a reason. “I’m Jewish, and in Judaism, 18 is a lucky number; it’s chai, which means ‘life’ in Hebrew,” he told The Athletic last year.
Hyman comes from a Jewish family in Toronto and attended school at the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto. In 2013, he represented Canada at the Maccabiah Games in Israel, where he won a gold medal.
Last Hanukkah, Zach lit a giant menorah with the Edmonton Jewish community and told The Athletic in February that he finds it important to speak up against antisemitism.
New Jersey Devils, center
All did not go according to plan last season for the No. 1 pick of the 2019 NHL Draft. After multiple goals in the season’s first game, including an overtime game-winner, Hughes dislocated his shoulder in the next match and was off the ice for six weeks. Then in April, an MCL injury ended his sophomore season early with 13 games left. “I haven’t done a ton in this league just yet,” Hughes told The Hockey News in August.
And yet, there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful that the rising star will reach his superstar potential. In just 49 games played last season, he still managed an impressive 26 goals and 56 points (goals plus assists). He and new linemates Alexander Holtz and Ondrej Palat have such an instant chemistry that they’re already nicknamed H20 (Hughes-Holtz-Ondrej).
Another exciting nugget: there’s the possibility that Jack’s younger brother Luke could join him on the Devils next season. Luke was selected fourth overall by the Devils last year, and while he’s playing out his sophomore season at the University of Michigan, he has already shown himself to be a rising force in the NCAA and on the world stage as a member of the 2022 U.S. team at the international junior championship.
While it’s unclear how the brothers identify these days, Jack and Luke (and older brother Quinn, see below) were born to a Jewish mother and a Catholic father. While their upbringing was mostly secular, the Hughes family celebrated Passover and Jack had a bar mitzvah.
Jack Hughes’ first game of the NHL regular season came on Oct. 13, when the Devils take on the Philadelphia Flyers in Philly.
Vancouver Canucks, defenseman
Is it possible to discuss one of the Hughes brothers without discussing them all? Absolutely not.
Last season, oldest brother Quinn Hughes set a Canucks franchise record for defensemen with a whopping 68 points. Though only eight of those points were goals, Quinn has solidified himself as a premiere playmaker.
His only goal: to take more scoring chances on the ice.
“I want to score more, have more shots on net and create more,” Hughes told press. “I think it’s a mentality and trying to rip it and put it through the net.”
Quinn Hughes’ first game came on Wednesday, as the Vancouver Canucks took on the Edmonton Oilers (and Zach Hyman) in Edmonton.
New York Rangers, defenseman
While Adam Fox wasn’t the best defenseman in the NHL in 2022, the 2021 Norris Trophy winner still had a pretty darn good 2021-2022 season. The New York Rangers D-man scored 11 goals and racked up 74 points over the course of 78 games, including five goals and 23 points in the playoffs.
So far in the preseason, Fox has worn an “A” on his jersey (signifying him as an alternate captain), sparking speculation that he could be in the mix for elevated leadership this season.
Originally from Jericho, New York, Fox grew up in Long Island’s Jewish community, where he attended the nearby Jericho Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue. He had a hockey-themed bar mitzvah.
“There are a lot Jewish residents on Long Island, so it’s cool for me to represent that community,” Fox told JTA last year. “And, you know, there’s not many Jewish athletes. So to be one of the few and have people who come from where I come from look up to me… I think it’s definitely pretty special.”
Adam Fox’s first game was Tuesday, when the New York Rangers took on the Tampa Bay Lightning at Madison Square Garden.
Pittsburgh Penguins, forward
In the words of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jason Zucker — who has a Hebrew tattoo on his left forearm — had a “nightmare” 2021-2022 season with the Penguins. He seemed to reaggravate a core injury that had required surgery in 2017; by December he was sitting out of practices and games. He had another surgery in early 2022 and came back in March only to miss a few more games after he took a hit to the boards.
After a summer of rest and rehab, it looks like Zucker might have his redemption arc. On Sept. 25, he helped the Penguins open their preseason by snagging a game winning goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets, looking fast and healthy on the ice.
Though Zucker never had a bar mitzvah, he still engages in Jewish traditions and holidays. “I would do virtual menorah lighting with my family back while I was out of town playing juniors or college,” he explained to the Penguins website.
You can watch Jason Zucker’s first game when the Pittsburgh Penguins take on the Arizona Coyotes at home on Oct. 13.
Arizona Coyotes, defenseman
A good way to measure a player’s talent and value is by who lines up to trade for him when he wants out of the team he’s on. Since Chychrun made clear last month that he wants to be traded from the Coyotes to a playoff contender, several teams have shown interest in the 24-year-old former first round draft pick whose stock is still on the rise.
And he clearly wants to win.
“Careers are so short, the time flies by, and I’m in my seventh year in the NHL. It’s just crazy,” he said. “I don’t want these years to keep going by and be 10, 12 years in and not had a real good chance at not only the playoffs, but winning the Stanley Cup.”
Born to a Jewish mother and Catholic father, Chychrun told NHL.com that he grew up celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas.
Pittsburgh Penguins, defenseman
After years of fighting for playing time, 2022 could be Mark Friedman’s breakout season. Some of his younger roster rivals seemed to have better shots at a final starting defenseman spot (even though Friedman is only 26) until stumbling this preseason. After playing in only 16 games through his first three NHL seasons, Friedman played in 26 last year and saw some playing time in the playoffs, too.
“I’ve had to fight for (ice time) my whole life,” he told Pittsburgh Hockey Now. “It’s nothing new. So now I’m ready for the challenge.”
The Toronto native who loves his bubbe’s cooking grew up attending Hebrew school in his early grade school years.
“It’s nice being in a family that’s Jewish,” Friedman told the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle last year. “It’s different from most of the hockey world. You don’t see too many Jews playing hockey, especially in the NHL. It’s definitely cool when guys ask about it.”
- Center Luke Kunin was traded from the Nashville Predators to the San Jose Sharks in July. He played in all 82 games for Nashville last year, scoring 13 goals.
- From 2009-2021, defenseman Jason Demers bounced around to several different teams. However, this year has been looking up; in January, Demers was selected to play for Team Canada at the Beijing Olympics and is currently signed to a professional tryout with the Edmonton Oilers. As of publication, there’s no word as to whether he’ll make the final team alongside Zach Hyman.
- Forward Nate Thompson, who played for the Flyers last year and converted to Judaism before marrying his now ex-wife, is currently an unrestricted free agent who was just released from a professional tryout with the Los Angeles Kings. Thompson told the Alaska Sports Report that he intends to sign with the Kings’ American Hockey League affiliate, The Ontario Reign, in hopes of still being signed to an NHL team.