Q&A: Zach Hyman on what he’ll miss most about Toronto’s Jewish community

Zach Hyman at a 2016 game for the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports/Wikimedia Commons)

Zach Hyman, a Toronto-born Jewish hockey player, recently signed a seven-year contract worth $38.5 million with the Edmonton Oilers. The move will see him depart his hometown, where he played for the Maple Leafs since 2015, and where his whole family lives. 

Hyman joined CJN podcasters Gabe Pulver and James Hirsh, hosts of the Jewish sports podcast Menschwarmers, for a conversation about leaving his Jewish roots in Toronto, looking for a new community in Edmonton and why his jersey is hanging on the walls of the Burger Shack at Avenue and Eglinton. 

Listen to the full episode here. 

I saw you’re going to be wearing 18 for Edmonton. What prompted the jersey change? And obviously it’s a number that has significance in Judaism. 

I wore number 11 in Toronto, and I think everybody knows who wore number 11 in Edmonton: Mark Messier. It’s in the rafters. So that wasn’t available. And, yeah, 18 has has significance, obviously, in our culture, but my son, Theo—he’s eight months—was born on December 18. So it’s got some personal significance to me. My wife was all excited about it, and it was just a number that I liked and kind of, you know, is for Theo, so it was pretty special. 

You’re going from one city that’s got a really big, proud Jewish community to Edmonton, which has a Jewish community—but it’s a lot smaller. Do you feel any opportunity to be an ambassador there?

In Toronto, I felt like I was an ambassador for the community. I went to Jewish day school, I went to CHAT, which is one of the largest Jewish high schools in Canada. So I grew up fully immersed in the community, I really felt like in Toronto, you know, I wasn’t just living my dream—I was living the dreams of the entire community. So I really felt that extended support. And it was awesome. People who I didn’t know reached out to me or my parents, and they’d always comment on how proud they were of me. Moving from Toronto, which is one of the larger communities, to Edmonton, which is obviously smaller, is going to be a change, but I think it’s gonna be really exciting. Since I’ve signed, I’ve heard from so many people who are already in that community. And even though it’s smaller, when you’re smaller, you’re definitely more tight-knit and everybody knows everybody. So I’m excited to join that community, excited to meet everybody and get to know everybody. It’s been extremely welcoming. 

I’m sure you know this, but [Edmonton Oilers owner] Daryl Katz was also a day school kid.

Yeah, Talmud Torah in Edmonton. I think Theo will—well, he’s only eight months, so. 

And you’ve made that decision? Your kids are gonna go to day school? 

Yeah. For me, it was important, growing up, to have that community aspect and to learn and understand where you come from and your history. It was really important for my parents, and they instilled that in me and my four younger brothers. I’m still friends with guys I went to high school with, to this day; they’re some of my closest friends. So I definitely want my kids, Theo and my future kids, to have a Jewish education and to really know where they come from.

And now you’re gonna be moving away from your hometown. Are there things about Toronto you’re gonna miss? Restaurants or things within the Jewish community?

Just being away. When you’re in Toronto—for me, my whole family’s here, my wife’s whole family’s here. So having that instant access to your family, being able to drive down the street and see your parents—things like that are things that I’ll miss. But, I mean, I’ll live in Toronto in the summer. It’s not like I’m going away for seven years and not coming back. I’ll be back and forth. Obviously, during the hockey season, it’s gonna be all hockey, I’ll be in Edmonton. And hopefully, I’ll be in Edmonton until late June, and then come back to Toronto for a couple months. But, yeah, it’s no different than when I went to school. I’m really excited about Edmonton, I’m excited about growing a family there. When my wife and I went out there, we got to see all the neighbourhoods and we’re going to go out and look for a house, so it’s going to be a really great opportunity for us.

I got a hyper-local Toronto question for you. This will centre this conversation on neighbourhoods, for our non-Toronto listeners. But can you tell me the story of how your jersey wound up in the Burger Shack?

Wow. That’s a good story. I grew up right around there. So Burger Shack, it’s a spot that my brothers and I, my mom would take us there to pick up burgers—even to this day, I’ll go home and she’ll say, “Oh, you want Burger Shack?” And she’ll go pick it up. It’s like a spot that I would frequent before I was a hockey player; now when I’m an NHL player, I still go there. It’s just a sport that I love. So my parents gave them a signed jersey and they put it out and they loved it. And now they’re moving it to give it space on the other side of the wall—there’ll be an Oiler jersey. 

I think that’s the restaurant I’ve been to the most number of times.

Oh, yeah. Yeah, I think so. I can’t count. 

One more Jewish question. We’ve talked about Jewish Toronto, Jewish Edmonton, and you mentioned that some people come up to you and talk about the community. We talk a lot about on our Jewish sports podcast on the sport of Jewish geography. When someone talks to you—a Jewish person—how quickly does it come up? “Oh, do you know so and so?” Or, “We have so and so in common?”

A bunch. The community is small. From the sports side of things, I’m not connected to too many other Jewish athletes. But from the community aspect, because I have four brothers who are younger, they know a family that’s in their age group, I know a family that’s in my age group, and you get to know so many different families. In Edmonton, it’s even smaller. So I’m sure as Theo grows up, and as we have more kids, we’ll get to know a ton of different families.

I think we personally should be praised for not not bringing up, you know, “I know so and so who articled with your wife,” or something like that. We succeeded in resisting the Jewish geography. 

Yeah, you could go on and on. 

You mentioned not necessarily having that many other Jewish athletes that you’re connected to. I guess there hasn’t been another Jewish hockey player for the Leafs recently. I don’t know about Michigan, when you were there. I don’t think there’s anyone else Jewish on the Oilers. Is there a sense of at all of feeling a bit of an outsider at times, or separate from other players? From what we’ve heard, hockey doesn’t seem to have as much of a culture of team prayer before games and things like that as other sports do. But have you come up against that at all in your career?

No. I think growing up, maybe a little bit, but nowadays, all that stuff, for the most part, at least for me, you don’t experience it as much. It was always great for me, you know, when you’re part of the Jewish community, you can almost feel like you’re in a bubble sometimes. So for me, hockey was a great outlet to escape that bubble and meet people from all different backgrounds, get to know different cultures and just meet new people. Obviously in hockey, as a Jewish person, you’re in the minority, but it’s a pretty inclusive environment. I think we can continue to do a better job of being inclusive as hockey players. I was an ambassador for that with the Leafs, and I’ll continue to push the envelope on that and make sure that anybody who wants to play hockey, or wants to be a fan, can, regardless of the colour of your skin and what religion you practice.

I want to finish with somewhat of a lighter question. Is there any particular Jewish restaurant in Toronto that you’re really gonna miss? Like, are you a Bagel World guy or a Gryfe’s guy? Or maybe Dr. Laffa versus Jerusalem? 

I think it’s more just going to my parents’, my grandma’s, you know, their cooking is what I’ll miss: my grandma’s chicken schnitzel or matzah ball soup. Not being home for some of those holidays will be things that I miss for sure. But, you know, we’ve done it before, obviously, when I was in Ann Arbor for four years. And the nice thing about being in Canada is it’s a lot easier to travel back and forth, especially COVID restrictions. It’s easier in Canada, we’re gonna have our family out there and it’ll be great.

Well, we’ll put out a call now for any of our listeners out in Edmonton. Any bubbes who can make Zach Hyman a bowl of matzah ball soup—he might be open to it. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. To hear the full 15-minute conversation, listen to the latest episode on Menschwarmers, the world’s only Jewish sports podcast.