Jewish World Review Feb. 28, 2001 / 5 Adar, 5761

Goal Oriented

By Steve Lipman

First Israeli NHL draft pick dreams of the big time while learning in the minors. -- Albany, N.Y. | A lone hockey player stands along the sideboards of the ice rink at the Pepsi Arena here, taking long-distance shots at an empty goal. He is not dressed in the uniform of his team, the Albany River Rats, but in a sweatshirt and gray sweat shorts.

Max Birbraer is not in the lineup against the Rochester Americans.

And Birbraer, a rookie left wing who made headlines last summer when he became the first Israeli drafted by a National Hockey League team, the defending Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils, has played in only two-thirds of his clubís first 55 games.

"Itís a learning experience for me," says Birbraer, who was born in Kazakhstan, started skating at 6, immigrated with his family to Israel five years ago, was invited to play for Israelís mostly emigre national team and played three years of junior hockey in Canada.

Drafted in the third round by the Devils, he was assigned at the start of the 2000-01 season to their top minor league team, the River Rats of the American Hockey League. On a roster with other young prospects and some NHL veterans, Birbraer is finding that the natural skills that made him a star on the Israeli national and Canadian junior teams need team savvy at the professional level.

"Heís an apprentice, heís learning his profession," says River Rats coach John Cunniff, who has NHL coaching experience. Cunniff has concentrated on Birbraerís conditioning and defensive play.

Going into the Rochester game, Birbraer has recorded only four goals and three assists.

"I was playing against kids" the last few seasons, says Birbraer, 6-2, 185 pounds, who turned 20 two months ago and is the second-youngest player in the league. "Here Iím playing against adults. People are bigger, faster, smarter."

So Birbraer sits, watching the River Rats from the stands, working out on the stationery bike and weights. Heís not bitter about the lack of playing time.

"Iím having the best time of my life this year," he says. "I had harder things in the past I had to adjust to."

Like leaving his homeland as a teenager to escape anti-Semitism.

Like learning at 14 that he was Jewish, a fact kept from him by his parents.

Like learning Hebrew and Jewish customs when he made aliyah.

Like learning English and Canadian customs when he settled in Toronto.

"I feel it is a privilege for me to play here," Birbraer says in flawless, unaccented English, even though heís not getting as much ice time as he would prefer. "A couple of more years, hopefully Iíll be up there," in the NHL.

A popular figure in Israel (the Russian-language press regularly covers him) and among local Jewish hockey fans (day school students crowd around him for autographs), Birbraer sees himself as a role model for young Jewish athletes. "Hopefully, little kids Ö will see that anything is possible."

Birbraer, who was brought to Canada by Paul Rosen, a former trainer for the Israeli national team who became his legal guardian, has a set of honorary grandparents in Albany ó Sanford and Ruthe Levin, retirement-age members of the Jewish community who helped Birbraer find an apartment and invite him for Shabbes (Sabbath) meals.

The Levins watch most of Birbraerís games.

Two nights after the Rochester game, the River Rats have another home game.

"Hopefully Iíll be in the lineup," Birbraer says. If not, more time in the weight room ó heíll keep his body and his attitude in shape. "Itís pretty much your choice what youíre going to do."

Steve Lipman is a staff writer with the New York Jewish Week. Comment on this article by clicking here.


© 2001 New York Jewish Week