Skating Toward Olympic Gold

By Nathaniel Popper

Published February 10, 2006, issue of February 10, 2006.
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Mathieu Schneider, one of the few Jewish hockey players in the National Hockey League, is always on the lookout for other Jewish skaters. When he was trying out for the American Olympic ice hockey team in 2002, he sought out Jeff Halpern, captain of the Washington Capitals — and a fellow Jew.

Though neither ended up making the team, Schneider, in a chat with Halpern, joked that he was still “the best Jewish hockey player in the world,” Schneider told the Forward.

And he just might have been right. This year Schneider, unlike Halpern, was chosen for the United States team and is heading to Turin, Italy, this week for the 20th Winter Olympics.

Schneider, an all-star defensemen for the Detroit Red Wings, is one of just a handful of Jewish athletes taking part in the games. But like the American ice hockey team, which won the silver in 2002, a number of the Jewish athletes competing in the games are considered contenders. Israeli ice dancing duo Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovski are seen as Israel’s best ever shot for a Winter Olympic medal. American figure skater Sasha Cohen, who placed fourth in the 2002 Salt Lake City games, is also favored to win.

Among Jewish athletes, though, Schneider is unusual in his vocal and upfront talk about his Jewishness.

He has skipped practices and fasted on Yom Kippur, and lit a Chabad menorah on Hanukkah. And, when he finds them, he makes sure to take other Jewish players under his (red) wing. While playing for the Los Angeles Kings a few years ago, he was teamed up with Mike Camalleri, one of the only other Jews in the NHL. “I went out of my way to make him feel welcome,” Schneider said.

“I’ve always been taught by my father that Jews stick together and take care of one another,” Schneider told the Forward during a visit to New York City. He had come to the Big Apple to visit the Ronald McDonald House and to play a charity hockey game with New York firefighters and policemen.

Schneider attributes the lack of a Jewish presence in the NHL to the Jewish community’s relative wealth. “To reach that level, you need a certain drive that kids that aren’t so well off have,” he said. “They think that’s their only way to make something of themselves.”

And there’s also the matter of violence. “I think Jewish mothers tend to have their kids shy away from that,” he said.

Schneider was born in New York City to a Jewish father and to a mother who had converted to Judaism from Catholicism. Schneider’s first skating experience was on the rink at Rockefeller Center, but New York never has been a great city for budding hockey players. Recognizing his son’s knack for the sport, Schneider’s father eventually sent him to a Catholic school in Rhode Island that is known for its hockey program.

Between hockey practice and piano lessons, Schneider did not have time for Hebrew school or for a bar mitzvah. Instead, he learned about Judaism in his Catholic school’s religion class.

Judaism didn’t occupy much of a role in Schneider’s life until five years ago.

At the time, he was playing for the Los Angeles Kings, and the Chabad rabbi in Redondo Beach would send over his assistant twice a week to talk about Judaism with Schneider and his wife, Shannon. Though his wife had grown up Catholic, Schneider said that the couple’s conversations with the 20-year old Chabad rabbi’s assistant changed both of them.

“The more she learned, the more she got into it,” Schneider said. Though she has not yet converted officially, Schneider said his wife already considers herself a Jew.

Schneider plans to become more involved in the Jewish community after he retires. He’s 36, but he gives himself a few more seasons. For him, 2006 has been a career year; he’s leading all NHL defensemen in scoring. That might make him not only the best Jewish defenseman in the world, but also one of hockey’s best defensemen — period.

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