Thursday, January 20, 2022

Some teams are just destined for greatness. This was quite evident these past few months with the Shomer Shabbat 16uAA team from the NJ Avalanche. Aside from their tremendous success that led to a New Jersey State title this past weekend, there is something even more unique about this team. No tryouts are held to join this team. No evaluations are made in order to secure a spot on this team. While other programs in this elite division select only the top players to put together the highest level team, this team is selected based on religious observance. Anyone who plays ice hockey but does not want to sacrifice his religious beliefs, specifically playing games and tournaments on Shabbat and Yom Tov, are invited to join. Almost every local yeshiva is represented on this team: Frisch, SAR, Kushner, MTA, Ramaz and TABC.

About six months ago, the NJYHL reached out to the NJ Avalanche ice hockey organization offering this Shomer Shabbat team a spot in the New Jersey Youth Hockey League AA division, the highest level the league offers. All organizations take only their top players and have several rounds of tryouts in order to put together their AA team. Knowing that the Shomer Shabbat team was a team composed “as is,” it was questionable whether it made sense to bother trying to compete at this level. After much deliberation Coach Steven Ritter, along with the committed parents, decided to give it a shot, with a goal in mind of hoping to win half of the games that they would play. The biggest obstacle was that teams at this level start practicing in early August while these boys could not start any consistent practices until midway through the season due to summer plans. The team would also have to contend with a heavily abridged practice schedule as a result of all of the chagim that fell out during the month of September, and games late Saturday night because of Shabbos. No one involved could have imagined what was in store for this team once the season began.

As the season started, many doubted if the right decision was made. The team started off 1-2, and was simply not used to the speed and size of the teams they faced. However, after the slow start something magical happened. They started winning and gaining more confidence. Ultimately, the team went on to record an unbelievable regular season, winning 15 games in a row against top teams of top programs in the state. They somehow secured a first place finish in the regular season and earned a number one seed in the round robin playoff format that was held this past weekend at the Ice Vault in Wayne. But more about that in a minute…

What is perhaps the most unique dynamic of this team is that every single player on the roster contributed. With the early season pickup of Jordan Serviss (Kushner), who is undoubtedly one of the best yeshiva players to ever put on a pair of skates, together with the talented Aiden Sholomon (Frisch), who manages to find the back of the net whenever the puck touches his stick, as well as scoring machine Gabriel Hornblass (SAR), who broke all records in points this season, they formed a line that was no doubt the best in hockey and perhaps one of the greatest lines ever assembled in youth hockey. This line broke all records both for goals and assists in a single season and were virtually unstoppable whenever they were on the ice. Without exaggeration, the Serviss (26 total points), Hornblass (37 points), Sholomon (25 points) line lapped all others in terms of points per game. Similar to the current NHL power line of Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak, or the former Kurri, Gretzky, Tikkanen line or the Bossy, Trottier, Gillies line, these players dominated every shift and each player finished in the top six in the state in terms of overall points for the season. Teamed with Eitan Rosenblatt (Frisch), who was simply magical all season long and no doubt the MVP of their playoff run, they were simply too much for any team to handle. Rosenblatt had the college scouts waiting for him as soon as he walked off the ice after his playoff domination. Josh Levy (SAR) stepped in net whenever called upon and proved every single time he played that he was a superstar as well, especially in the playoff game where he miraculously made 67 saves in one game, some of them literally while standing on his head. The supporting cast would no doubt have been the superstars on any other team. Asher Rudman (SAR), Aaron Lieberman (Frisch) and David Rosen (Frisch) had such chemistry that it looked like they had been playing together for years. Culminating in a magnificent goal by Rudman in the championship game on a beautiful feed from Lieberman, this line proved that hard work and determination will lead to boundless success. Henry Wolf (SAR), Alex Ottensoser (Ramaz), Ezra Nussbaum (MTA) and Jordan Dinovitzer (TABC) all added grit and speed, and this potent offense was lethal every shift of every game.

The famous saying goes that the best offense is a good defense. And there is no doubt that this team boasted a defensive crew that protected the team’s back end. Alex Jacobs (Frisch), Joey Doft (Ramaz), Bennett Burgida (SAR), Max Levy (Frisch) and Gabie Nahari (SAR) would all have gotten an all star vote if there was one. Each of these defensemen stepped up to the plate in every game they played, many times having to deal with players almost twice their size. When not defending, each of these players found their names on the scoresheet plenty of times, especially with Levy’s two assists in the championship game and Doft’s last minute strategic placement as a forward in the playoffs. Doft’s energy and enthusiasm both on the ice and in the locker room was no doubt a large catalyst to the team’s success. Burgida and Jacobs were threats on both ends of the ice. In their own zone they would not let any opponent make a move and in their offensive zone their cannon shots would create havoc for the opponents’ goalies.

This past weekend was the opportunity of a lifetime for these players. Although they finished as the number one seed, they would once again have to face teams that had played them extremely close in the regular season or that were waiting in line to beat up on the number one team. Friday afternoon the first matchup was against the #4 seed Union Thunder. The team from Union were all second-year players and had not yet had the opportunity to play the Avalanche team in the regular season—and boasted one of the leading goal scorers in the league. They came out hungry. However, in usual fashion, Rosenblatt stymied 41 out of 42 shots sent his way, and the Avalanche defense once again shut down players who were big, strong and fast. The game ended in a 2-1 victory on goals by Hornblass and Sholomon, both assisted by Serviss. The next game was scheduled for Saturday night against the powerhouse organization of the NJ Colonials who were the defending champions. The game was not even close. With another standout performance and shutout by Rosenblatt, the team dominated the game in every fashion which earned them a spot in the finals. Their third game early Sunday morning was different. Knowing that they had already clinched a spot in the championship game later that day, the boys took their pedals off the medal for this game. Unfortunately for goalie Josh Levy, this led to a record-setting number of shots against him. In the end the scoreboard showed an amazing 69 shots against, of which Levy saved 65. Undoubtedly one of the best single game performances by a goalie in recent history.

The success of the season and completing the modern-day miracle lay upon the Avalanche’s final matchup on Sunday, with the winner crowned as the New Jersey state champion. The game would be a rematch of the Friday game against the Union Thunder who were a well-coached, strong, physical team, hungry for revenge and to end the miracle run of the Avalanche. Coaches Ritter and Kennedy lined the boys up before the game and laid the groundwork of what the game plan was to capture the title. The stands were packed with fans from both teams as well as hockey enthusiasts who came down to watch this high level matchup. Some team moms even made an appearance to cheer on their boys who normally would not come to the rink because it was too cold. There were NJYHL as well as USA Hockey officials all in attendance, as well as several coaches from high schools and scouts for various programs. It was by far the largest stage this team had ever performed on. The game started off slow with a lot of whistles and both teams testing the waters. However, about five minutes in, Max Levy dug the puck out of the corner, passing it over to Aaron Lieberman who fed a perfect pass to Rudman who was streaking down the left wing boards. Rudman did not disappoint the crowd as he blasted a shot top shelf past the Union goalie sending the home bench and the packed crowd into a frenzy. After a celebratory ‘moonwalk’ both Rudman and Lieberman saluted their injured line mate David Rosen in the stands who was unfortunately inactive in the playoffs due to a wrist injury. Shortly afterwards Union came right back on a nifty move by their star forward who tied the game 1-1. After that it was a defensive battle for the next few minutes. The Avalanche defense stood tall and would not let their opponents penetrate the blue line. Rosenblatt, in his cool calm way, turned away every other shot that he faced and controlled the pace of the game, freezing the puck when necessary. With about nine minutes to go, the Serviss, Hornblass, Sholomon line did what they had done all season long. They moved the puck seamlessly with high level passes which eventually led to a tic-tac-toe goal from Serviss to Hornblass to Sholomon who put the puck in the net. The crowd went nuts and the refs would not restart the game until the noise level receded to a normal level. Coach Ritter kept the boys composed letting them know it was time to shut the Union team down. With under two minutes to go, Union pulled their goalie in a last effort to score a goal and tie the game up, but Rosenblatt would have none of it. He turned the puck away on every shot and with about a minute left in the game Max Levy found a breaking Sholomon who shot the puck into the empty net sealing the deal and securing a state championship for the team. The celebration was a culmination of months of hard work but was interrupted for the traditional handshake line where both teams expressed admiration and congratulations on a job well done.

A special shoutout goes out to the NJ Avalanche ice hockey program who for the past several years worked together with the Jewish teams to make sure their games would not be scheduled on any Shabbat or Yom Tov.

Congratulations to all involved!!

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