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Friday, January 21, 2022
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Reprinted with permission from USABH Magazine

It’s your senior year of high school. The building is packed with hundreds of fans. You’ve been waiting years for this moment. It started in middle school, then through junior varsity, and now you’re playing in the varsity championship game. Fans from both teams have been bussed in, filling every seat, step and balcony where a view exists. The pregame introductions charge the atmosphere with electricity. It’s been a seven month journey to get here, 14 regular season games and four playoff rounds later... the ball drops… and the championship game begins.

For most of us, this is a scenario we would have loved to have seen played out in our actual lives, but can only imagine.

For some players in the Metropolitan Yeshiva High School Hockey League (MYHSHL), this scenario plays out year after year.

“The atmosphere was crazy. People were packed in. It was extremely hot. No one could breathe. Everyone was screaming. We had a lot of fans and they had a lot of fans. Everyone stood in the bleachers, screaming back and forth,” said Tom Poleyeff, defense, TABC class of 2012.

Poleyeff’s TABC varsity team lost in the semifinals in both his junior and senior years. Losing in his senior year in the semifinals 1-0 in OT was particularly devastating. “It was brutal, I remember lining up after the game. I was crying. It was so heartbreaking. We thought we were going to win it all that year. We line up and shake hands like the NHL which is nice. But getting into that line was brutal. Varsity is a 14-game season, starts September and the championship game is in March. We practice twice a week. It’s a grind.”

The MYHSHL consists of teams from yeshivas from North Jersey, New York, Brooklyn and Long Island. Going on roughly 40 years, it is easily the largest ball hockey community that few know about.

“It’s somewhat out of view in the sense that while we all know each other in the Jewish ball hockey community, people outside of it don’t know about us,” said Samuel Bazian, forward, JEC class of 2005.

Most of the schools transform their gym into a makeshift hockey rink. There is no checking, but the games get very physical. The rinks are small, so the game is played 4-on-4. There is no neutral zone, resembling more like deck hockey rules with center line offsides.

In 2019-20, the MYHSHL consisted of 16 varsity teams, 14 junior varsity teams, and 12 women’s teams. By any measure, what the MYHSHL is doing with organized high school ball hockey is light years ahead of any reasonable comparison. MYHSHL is a long-thriving league pulling teams from individual schools. Many of these players are introduced to ball hockey as young kids in summer camps. They play in youth leagues that have cropped up in Jewish neighborhoods and then they go on to play organized ball hockey in middle school.

“To see an organized program that already exists with box scores and highlight reels, to us that’s pretty new but the MYHSHL has been doing it for 40 years. They are a model for a lot of programs around,” said USABH Director of Operations Cory Herschk.

The women’s division in the MYHSHL has also grown rapidly over the last decade. In it’s last full season the women’s division had 12 teams. Established in 2013, Heschel High School are the reigning back-to-back champions.

DRS, SAR, Frisch, TABC, HAFTR… folks familiar with the MYHSHL associate these schools with their successful hockey programs.

“Some schools have reputations for being incredible year after year. The students know that going into it, and they care about it. These schools are known commodities when it comes to sports,” said Liss.

“We always thought of it as the best version of hockey. I didn’t want to play any other version. I think in our community it’s always been that way. For most of us, it’s been the only option, probably because it’s much simpler to set up. You don’t need ice and it’s more affordable. It’s also easier for people who are generally athletic to pick it up,” said Bazian.

Michael “Mo” Fuchs is the head coach of TABC, which has won five varsity and nine JV championships in his 27 years since starting their hockey program. “I have been coaching longer than anyone in the history of the league,” said Fuchs. “ I was there in its infancy when all out hitting was legal, everything went.” Since 1998 all out checking has been banned but the physical play that has been a trademark of the MYHSHL has remained.

“When I played in the early 1980’s we had six teams. two years ago we had 17,” said Fuchs. “Kids are playing younger now. I believe that the talent level is higher because we have kids playing at a young age.”

To play for TABC and Fuchs, respect is paramount. Respecting your teammates, your opponents and yourself. “When you do anything in life, be the best you can be. If we go 0-14 so be it. I don’t care as much about winning and losing as much as I care about these guys being the best they can be at everything they do. I try to get them to understand that approach applies to playing ball hockey, or how you are as a husband or in business. It doesn’t matter what you are doing, learn to be the best you can be at everything you do. So if you are going to show up to our practice, work hard and get yourself in shape. We only practice twice a week so you have to be working out on your own time.”

Many players in the Jewish elementary schools will also take into consideration the status of the hockey program of a high school when considering where to continue their education.

“That is true, not an exaggeration,” said Bazian. “I remember I went to a TABC open house before graduating from 8th grade, which was one of the high schools I was considering. One of the promotional videos they showed us contained highlights of their floor hockey team. TABC is a yeshiva like all of the schools in the MYHSHL, and although it’s not generally advertised as a hockey school, everyone knows it has one of the best hockey programs in North Jersey.”

“The rivalries come about because you are talking about private schools that recruit kids,” said Fuchs. “TABC, Frisch, MTA… they are all fighting to get the same kids. It’s a recruiting thing in addition to the rivalry between kids who grew up playing together and now split off into different high schools.”

Sam Bazian and his twin brother, Barry, both played varsity for all four years of high school at JEC, the Jewish Educational Center. “Every team has four lines. There are a lot of players. Generally, teams run mostly three lines, and there is a lot of talent, especially on the first two lines. It is very hard to score, not just because of the smaller size of the net, but also the smaller size of the court. We often call it Yeshiva-league style hockey -- it’s a lot of dump and chase. Dump it into the corner, and fight for it.”

“There is a ton of pride,” said Bazian. “On game day we used to all have to wear ties. Everyone in the school knows who is on the team and they go to support their friends. A lot of families come as well -- we all took it very seriously.”

The rivalries between schools can reach intense levels.

“It’s a very passionate league. Our fans are rabid,” said Fuchs. “We have ‘The Pit’ in our games and our fans are nuts. But they cheer positively for our team. To me the code of conduct is important. It’s a fun league. I just find in general that hockey on a pro level and all the way down is just a passionate sport. Hockey players have a different mentality. Even though it is ball hockey, if you take that passionate mentality to the business world, you will have a lot of success.”

The Inline Skating Club of America (ISCA) is one of the most competitive local ball hockey leagues in North Jersey. Since 2013 the Cliftons have been a perennial contender in this league, having won seven league championships. The Cliftons are almost entirely made up of former yeshiva high school league players.

It’s not an exaggeration that the yeshiva high school hockey league has developed the best players we will never see. Since most of the players on the Cliftons observe the Sabbath, they do not play Friday night at sundown to Saturday night after sundown. This is why you won’t see former yeshiva players at local or national tournaments, typically held all weekend.

“For the Sunday night ISCA league, to be able to compete with the top players there showed us -- and it was exciting for us as a Jewish hockey community to see -- that there is life after high school hockey and that we can contend a little bit,” said Bazian.

Originally called the “Yeshiva All-Stars,” the team was formed in the early 2000’s before moving to ISCA in 2007. With a lot of the players being around the Clifton area… the team name gradually changed to the Cliftons. Over 40 different former yeshiva league players have played for the Cliftons since their inception.

There is a waiting list to make it onto the Cliftons roster. That list at the moment is about 20 players deep. They play a finesse style, mixing speed and passing that you can’t pull off in a small gym and 4-on-4 format. While not a physical team, they play tough and don’t shy away from contact.

“It takes skill to play physically but also understand where the line is. Anyone can just play dirty, but being able to play smart and physical hockey is much harder to do,” said Bazian.

“We try to play as physically and intensely as possible, but not dirty,” added Poleyeff.

The idea of an NBHL division starting in North Jersey next spring could start to mobilize the yeshiva player base and shine a light on this deep and talented player pool.

“There are probably 10 times the amount of former MYHSHL players not playing in ISCA and would love to continue playing ball hockey,” said Liss. “If people know it is an option and the NBHL is coming, there is going to be a lot of serious interest. There are several players in New Jersey that would be interested, let alone those that may come out from Long Island.”

Bazian added, “I love the idea of a more official, longer season. I don’t like ice as much as ball hockey, but I do prefer how official the ice leagues are, which makes it feel more real and competitive. [The Cliftons] would definitely be up for the NBHL, and there would be a lot more players looking to create additional teams.”

“The NBHL would welcome the yeshiva hockey players into our league with open arms,” said NBHL commissioner Anthony Sanrocco. “We have seen the skill level through the YouTube videos and think that any teams they entered would instantly make a name for themselves. These players are extremely talented and it would be an honor to have them join the NBHL. We think it would be a great opportunity for the yeshiva players to further grow the sport within their communities and showcase their skill sets by becoming a part of the NBHL”.

Seeing what has been accomplished over the last 30 years, there is no doubt the MYHSHL will continue to flourish for a long time.

**credit NY Times article by Corey Kilgannon

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