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Israels ice man: Oren Eizenman feels at home playing minor league hockey in Stockton

Oren Eizenman felt right at home when he reported to the Stockton Thunder’s training camp in mid-September. Daytime temperatures were still reaching into the upper 80s, and the area’s farmland and topography put him in the frame of mind of where he used to live: Israel.

But the rest of Eizenman’s tale isn’t so congruous.

He is an Israeli who plays professional ice hockey for a living. A 24-year-old Jewish guy skating in the minor leagues. For a team in the San Joaquin Valley. And if that doesn’t make him enough of an anomaly, a few years ago he played for Israel in two international ice hockey tournaments. (Who even knew that Israel had a national ice hockey team?)

Eizenman does have a leg up when it comes to his sport. Although he spent some of his childhood in a suburb of Tel Aviv and is an Israeli citizen, he was born in Canada, where hockey is a religion. And his parents and brothers currently live in Toronto, where he spends his summers.

So while taking slap shots in the low minor leagues in Stockton might seem odd for an Israeli, it’s just fine for a Canadian.

“I couldn’t ask for a better job,” Eizenman said. “And Stockton is a great place to play in terms of fan support. I played in the all-star game here two years ago [when he was with another team], and seeing how loud and crazy the fans were, I could only imagine what it would be like to have that all season.”

The Thunder might not be well known outside of the 209 area code, but they’re currently in their fifth season and they play in the major league–quality, 10,000-seat Stockton Arena. Last season they led their league in attendance (an average of 6,218 per game) for a fourth straight year.

Oren Eizenman sends a pass into the opposing team’s zone.  photo/stockton thunder/george steckler

The 20-team league in which they play is called simply the ECHL; the initials used to stand for East Coast Hockey League, but then the league started expanding — there’s even a team in Alaska. Although the ECHL is only two levels below the NHL — the league that includes the San Jose Sharks — it is worlds away.

Because NHL teams don’t stock ECHL rosters with prospects, most ECHL players are free agents and/or career minor-leaguers who will never make it to the big time. Most earn between $375 and $1,000 a week, which adds up to no more than $30,000 per season.

The average annual NHL salary is about $2 million, which is perhaps why Eizenman still dreams of becoming the first Israeli to play in the NHL. He did get an invitation to a preseason training camp with the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks in 2008, but that’s the closest he has come.

This season, the 6-foot, 190-pound center is one of Stockton’s best players, with seven goals and a team-best 20 assists through 28 games. He plays the game with intelligence, a bit of speed and a dash of toughness, and he’s considered the best Israeli hockey player ever.

“Last year I played for a number of teams in the AHL [one level closer to the NHL] and had a lot of contact with NHL general managers, scouts and coaches,” he said. “There are only so many spots in the NHL, and a lot of people battling for them. But the percentage of players who even make it to minor league hockey is miniscule, so I have to think already I am kind of beating the odds. I might as well try to beat them just a little bit more.”

Eizenman has a number of interesting Jewish-oriented stories from his three seasons in the minors. One that sticks out in his mind is from October 2008, when he was with Winnipeg’s Manitoba Moose in the American Hockey League. It was during the High Holy Days, and Eizenman took a cab to a synagogue in frigid Winnipeg.

Oren Eizenman skates toward the net in a Stockton Thunder game this season. photo/stockton thunder/george steckler

“So I’m standing outside in the cold, and they tell me, ‘For security reasons, we can’t let you in,’” he said. “ ‘But I want to go inside to hear the shofar, to do my Jewish duty.’ Still, ‘No.’

“Then we started talking casually, and he asked me why I was there, and it came up that I was with the Manitoba Moose. Then, all of a sudden, the vice president of the shul comes rushing up. ‘Of course you can come in! Of course!’ And after services, at least 20 people came up to me and were asking me about hockey.

“The whole thing — letting me in only after they found out I was a hockey player — left a bad taste in my mouth. I don’t think it was proper.”

Ah, good Jewish values. So where did they come from? Eizenman was born in Toronto in 1985 to Israeli parents, Moshe and Ronit, who completed their army service in Israel, moved to Canada for college and stayed. Ronit became a teacher, and Moshe ended up getting three degrees at the University of Toronto and becoming one of the world’s most renowned experts in the field of eye movement.

“At that point, he wanted to move back to Israel, and the family moved back and forth between [Ramat Gan] Israel and Toronto a few times,” Oren said. “My dad had work in both places, so we’d live in Israel for a year, then back to Toronto, then back to Israel. It was kind of hectic.”

Eizenman said he and his two older brothers, Alon, 30, and Erez, 27, have fond memories of playing with their cousins in the community of Even Yehuda, near Netanya. But mostly, they latched onto their studies — and, while in Canada, hockey.

Alon ended up playing in a professional league in France for a few years, and Erez played for a club team in Israel. Games were in Metulla, Israel’s northernmost town, which has the nation’s only two hockey rinks. (Not coincidentally, many Russian immigrants live in Metulla.)

In 2005, the three brothers joined forces on the Israeli national team. Skating on the same forward line — Oren at center, Erez at left wing and Alon at right wing — the Eizenmans helped deliver an absolute stunner at the International Ice Hockey Federation’s World Championships in Belgrade, Serbia.

In Division II Group B, which included teams from lightweight hockey nations such as Spain and Belgium, Israel ended up winning the championship with a record of four wins, no losses and one tie, and a 21-11 advantage in goals.

Oren Eizenman

“Everyone was picking us to finish last, and after we won it, the IIHF had an article saying it was the biggest surprise in hockey since the U.S. gold medal in the 1980 Olympics,” Oren said.

“We were all over the news in Israel, as much coverage as ice hockey can get in Israel. My brothers and I got interviewed by a lot of radio and TV stations. It was interesting because most people in Israel had never heard of ice hockey before that.”

The Eizenman brothers accounted for 80 percent of Israel’s goals in that tournament, including 10 by Oren in five games. Then the next year, with Israel promoted to the IIHF Division I Group A world tournament, the Eizenmans accounted for 100 percent of Israel’s goals — though with much less favorable results. Playing against the likes of second-tier hockey nations such as Germany, France and Japan, Israel was outscored 47-3 and relegated back to Division II.

The next year, without the brothers on the team, Israel finished 2-2 in Division II Group B, with wins coming against Mexico and Iceland.

“I hope hockey does keep growing in Israel and that maybe soon we’ll be able to field consistently good teams, but the rink is about 21⁄2 to 3 hours from Tel Aviv, which is just about as long of a journey as you can have in Israel,” Eizenman said. “They’re trying to get a rink built in Tel Aviv, so we’ll see.”

Although Eizenman tries to visit his relatives in Israel every summer, he hasn’t played on the national team the past three years because of his pro career. But “I did skate in Israel last summer and played in the something called the World Jewish Tournament,” he said. “It was a strange tournament, way out there in Metulla.”

Unlike many top youth players in Canada, Eizenman opted against going into one of Canada’s three major junior leagues, a common route to the NHL for top teen players. Instead, he went to college at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and played on RPI’s hockey team. In addition to having solid stats, he was named to his conference’s all-academic team as a sophomore and earned his team’s community service award as a senior. But, alas, no NHL team drafted him after he graduated in 2007 with a degree in business.

After college, Eizenman signed a free-agent contract with the ECHL’s now-defunct Fresno Falcons and had a great 2007-08 season: a team-leading 66 points (27 goals and 39 assists) in 53 games, and a spot on the all-star team.

 He has since had brief stints with four teams in the higher-level AHL, but no NHL team has offered him a contract. Still, his dream isn’t dead; each summer, he returns home to Toronto, not only to spend time with his family, but also to train with longtime Detroit Red Wings center Kris Draper, whose grittiness and work ethic have kept him in the NHL for 19 years.

Despite his dedication, Eizenman found himself ignored by NHL and AHL teams last summer. So he opted to sign with Stockton, where his focus is on the ice, not religion.

“I haven’t really had time to be in touch with the Jewish community here,” he said. “I did inquire about it, and I know it’s not a huge community but not tiny either. When I was in Fresno, I used to go to shul there.”

He said fans in Stockton are pretty much oblivious to his Jewish and Israeli roots, but sometimes at road games he’ll see an Israeli flag in the stands or meet someone who wants to talk about his status as a Jewish hockey player. “It’s always nice that the community is behind you, no matter where you travel,” he said.

What isn’t very nice, he said, is not being able to find any good Jewish deli food in the Stockton area. For someone who comes from a great deli city like Toronto (his favorite is Pancer’s), not having access to overstuffed pastrami sandwiches and matzah ball soup is not easy.

“I’m always looking for a good deli here in Stockton, and I haven’t found one yet,” he said. “I did find some good hummus, Sabra, in a few stores. But deli? Not yet. If anyone knows of a good deli in Stockton, please contact me.”

 

The Stockton Thunder schedule includes 11 games in January and continues through April 3. For more information, visit www.stocktonthunder.com or call (209) 373-1700 or (866) 373-7088.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr is J.'s former managing editor and former Hardly Strictly Bagels food columnist. He lives and writes in Mexico.