While hockey is the most secular sport compared to the main four, it is still a sport that is largely dominated by Christianity. However, one religion is slightly growing in number, albeit on a small scale, within the National Hockey League: Judaism.
“We’re probably looking at a record number of Jewish players in the league right now,” said Mathieu Schneider, arguably the most famous Jewish hockey player of all time. A small yet powerful number of Jewish players are emerging in the NHL. As of now, no Jewish players are throned in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Hopefully, that will be subject to change in the coming years. This article will attempt to shine a spotlight on the players and important people in the NHL whose heritage and religion, along with their contributions to the sport, are so often looked over.
Gary Bettman, the NHL’s commissioner, is Jewish. Raised in New York and taking over as NHL commissioner after a short successful stint in the NBA, Bettman has become one of the most successful commissioners in all of sports history, and has continued to succeed over the pandemic, allowing his league to succeed during a time of turmoil. Bettman became the commissioner of the NHL in 1993, when the league was far from a successful organization. However, he was able to turn the league around, expanding into multiple new cities and adding seven new teams over the years. His actions have led to a growth of revenue from $400 million to about $3 billion today. Gary Bettman is a major representative of Jews in sports, and has done a fantastic job over the years in leading the NHL, despite the chorus of boos that consistently follows him.
The Hughes Brothers
Jack Hughes, the second oldest Hughes brother, was drafted first overall in the 2019 draft by the New Jersey Devils at age 18. He’s the son of a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, and he has stated multiple times that he embraces the heritage of both of his parents. Hughes was the first Jewish player to be picked first overall in the NHL, and his brothers are also proving to be successful in the hockey world. The son of Ellen Weinberg-Hughes, also a Jewish hockey star, Hughes had a Bar Mitzvah, and also has mentioned celebrations of Jewish holidays, including Passover. The center’s first season was solid, putting up a total of 21 points with 14 assists and seven goals. Jack Hughes is an inspirational figure to the many Jewish hockey fans, like myself, around the world.
Quinn Hughes, drafted a year before Jack, is proving to be a solid player. After helping the U.S. finish at the 2018 IIHF World Championship, Hughes was selected by the Vancouver Canucks in the seventh overall in the 2018 NHL Draft. Hughes played one more season following his draft at Michigan, scoring 33 points (five goals, 28 assists) in 32 games before signing with the Canucks on March 10, 2019. After recovering from an ankle injury sustained during the Big Ten playoffs, Hughes made his NHL debut with the Canucks 18 days later, had an assist and was named Third Star of the Game in a 3-2 shootout win against the Los Angeles Kings.
Luke Hughes, the youngest Hughes brother, was drafted fourth overall by the New Jersey Devils and will be joining his older brother in New Jersey. Hughes starts with the perfect skating posture, settling comfortably into his stride as he darts around the ice. His skating habits are pretty stellar, too. Hughes collects the puck in-stride, skates through his passes, and weaponizes movement to draw opposing defenders to his orbit, creating space for his teammates. He’s always looking to create advantages with the puck on his stick, as described by Elite Prospects.
Adam Fox, 24, has become a star in the NHL, his effort for the Rangers earning him the James Norris Memorial Trophy for the league’s best defenseman last year, and a seven-year, $66.5 million contract—the largest in NHL history for a defenseman leaving his entry-level contract. He was selected for his first All-Star game earlier this year but didn’t play because of an injury. He grew up rooting for the Rangers in Long Island’s Jewish community. “There are a lot of Jewish residents on Long Island, so it’s cool for me to represent that community,” Fox said. “And, you know, there are not many Jewish athletes. So to be one of the few and have people who come from where I come from look up to me … I think it’s definitely pretty special.”
Before playing professionally, Fox decided to attend Harvard College, where he majored in psychology. He also immediately made an impact for the Harvard men’s hockey team, leading all NCAA defensemen in points per game in his first season and was named the Eastern College Athletic Conference/Ivy League Rookie of the Year. While in school he also represented the United States at two IIHF World Junior Championship Tournaments, winning gold with the team in 2017 and bronze in 2018. In his third season with the Crimson, Fox was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award for the top NCAA men’s hockey player. Choosing to go pro in his senior year, Fox finished his psychology degree through online classes over the summer. By the end of his rookie season, Fox had 42 points (eight goals and 34 assists) in 70 games. Fox improved during the 2020-2021 pandemic-shortened season of 56 games, leading all NHL defensemen with 42 assists and coming in second for his position in points with 47, thus securing himself the Norris Trophy.
Jason Zucker & Mark Friedman
The Pittsburgh Penguins, for the second straight year, are one of the precious few teams in NHL history to feature not one but two Jewish players on their active roster: veteran left-winger Jason Zucker and defenseman Mark Friedman. The unique pairing came to fruition last February when Pittsburgh, which had already acquired Zucker as a free agent in 2019, claimed Friedman after he was put on waivers by the Philadelphia Flyers.
While neither player has figured prominently in Pittsburgh’s emergence as a Stanley Cup contender, Zucker was a steady presence for the Minnesota Wild in the last decade but he appears to be past his prime, while Friedman has seen limited action as a fourth liner since coming back from Philadelphia. The fact that the Pens have been rolling out lineups featuring multiple Jewish players is noteworthy in and of itself. Zucker is, by far, the longest-tenured Jewish NHL player currently in the league. Since his debut in 2011, Zucker, who recently celebrated his 30th birthday, has tallied 286 points, including 153 goals. “Judaism is all-in or nothing, in my opinion,” said Zucker, who has a Hebrew message tattooed on his left arm, in part to remind him of his beliefs. “I don’t mean that in a negative way. It’s just the way the Jewish religion works. There’s a lot that goes into it.”
Zach Hyman of the Edmonton Oilers is a great example of Jewish representation in the NHL. Hyman, who says he knew he wanted to play in the NHL from a young age, describes his Jewish upbringing as secular—he grew up attending shul on the High Holidays and doesn’t consume pork. “For me, being Jewish is more than just a religion. Obviously, there’s a really big communal aspect to it,” he said, describing the distinction between various religious denominations as “blurred.” After taking a year off to focus on hockey, Hyman spent four years playing hockey on a scholarship at the University of Michigan starting in 2011, where he majored in history. Hyman wears the number 18, in which he chose since its Jewish significance of chai, the Hebrew word for life. Hyman has 113 career goals, 126 assists and 293 points overall since he joined the NHL in 2010.
Josh Ho-Sang, a New York Islander and former 28th overall pick, is on the cusp of Jewish greatness as well. Ho-Sang’s background is a mix of seemingly infinite cultures: his mother, Ericka, is a Chilean Jew, with roots in Russia, Germany and Spain, while his father, Wayne, is a Jamaican Christian, whose heritage can be drawn back to Hong Kong. Ho-Sang was raised celebrating all of the cultural traditions in his household, including those of Judaism, and has embraced his role as a model for the many groups he represents. He has voiced his pride in himself for the hope he has provided for Jews, Hispanics, Asians and Europeans in the sports world. Ho-Sang has seen success in his small sample sizes in the pros, but he still is waiting to have a breakout performance and stake out his position as a star in the league.
These players, among others, will hopefully emerge as superstars in the coming years, providing much needed Jewish representation in the NHL and hockey. Players like this, who have existed since the NHL’s inception in 1917, have yet to receive the recognition they deserve and it is only a matter of time until hockey has its first Jewish Hall of Famer.