March Madness to most of the country is a time to follow and enjoy the NCAA basketball tournament. However, to a select group of families in the area, March Madness takes on a whole new meaning, and has nothing to do with basketball. Every year at the end of March, the New England Sports Center in Marlborough, Massachusetts hosts a hockey tournament that fields many more than 64 teams. This tournament hosts over 100 ice hockey teams from across the Northeast as well as Canada with age groups ranging from 9 years old all the way through 18 year olds. It is one of the most heavily attended tournaments in local youth hockey boasting competitive playing levels across all ages as well as a venue that is the largest indoor skating complex in the country.
This year approximately 150 players and parents from the New Jersey area attended this tournament. Four NJ Avalanche teams, all composed of Jewish players from various local yeshivot, both day schools and high schools, competed in this highly competitive tournament. The NJ Avalanche hockey program offers teams the opportunity to participate in ice hockey while making sure the schedule does not conflict with any Jewish holidays or Shabbat. Ali Haji-Sheik, manager of the Residence Inn of Marlborough which hosted all of the teams commented, “It was an absolute privilege to host this group. They were respectful to all of our staff as well as our hotel property and would always give a quick please or thank you whenever we spoke with them. I have come to recognize many of the families that come to stay by us every year at this time and it is always a pleasure to have them in our hotel.” The four shomer Shabbat teams ranged in age from 9 year olds to 18 year olds and represented roughly 12 different local Jewish day schools and high schools in the area.
The tournament works together with the NJ Avalanche to make sure none of the shomer Shabbat teams have any games scheduled that overlap with Shabbat. Teams play two games on Friday, one game after Shabbat, with playoffs on Sunday. The competition is tough and teams must come out with a winning record in order to qualify for the playoffs. Some divisions have as many as 14 teams and only four qualify for the playoffs. Impressively, all four shomer Shabbat teams had successful preliminary games and qualified for the playoffs despite the disadvantage of having to play two games on Friday quite close together to finish in time for Shabbat.
While the hockey is fun, the highlight of the weekend is certainly the Shabbat that all of these families get to spend together. With packed minyanim led by the kids and a communal kiddush and meals following davening, it is no doubt one of the best experiences of the year. The players of all different age groups get to see first hand that regardless of the setting and location, Shabbat is a time to rest from the competition and enjoy each other’s company.
Congratulations to all four of the Jewish teams that advanced to the playoffs and a special shoutout to the youngest age group (10 and under) who took home the first place championship trophy. A special thank you goes out to the staff of the New England Sports Center for accommodating all of the schedule requests in terms of Shabbat, and as always a sincere hakarat hatov to the NJ Avalanche hockey program for fielding these Jewish teams and always making sure that the schedules do not conflict with Shabbat or Yom Tov.
By Jewish Sports Desk