Canada’s men and women’s ice hockey teams at the 21st Maccabiah Games in Israel have started their push for gold in a dominant fashion.
In the debut of women’s hockey at the so-called Jewish Olympics, Team Canada’s women’s squad smoked the host Israel’s women’s team 24-0 at the Pais Arena in Jerusalem on July 15. Meanwhile, the senior men are tied for first place after beating a composite European team 6-0 Wednesday. The under-18 men’s juniors have won both their games so far, easily beating Israel 8-2 and then, hours before the Maccabiah opening ceremony, trounced Team USA 9-1.
Having women’s hockey as part of the competition for the first time was what convinced Molly Tissenbaum to come out of retirement to suit up as Team Canada’s starting goalie.
The Toronto native, 28, has been pushing to have the sport included since she was old enough to have a bat mitzvah.
“To finally see it come to fruition and be able to be a part of that, at that first inaugural games, it’s really cool,” she told The CJN Daily in an interview, just before heading for training camp last week.
Tissenbaum spent two decades playing as a goalie—she started when she was eight in Toronto – including her final four with Harvard University’s varsity team. She set a record for stopping 50 shots in a game against Princeton.
But a series of concussions and a bad car accident forced her to hang up the pads on a professional career, after graduation. Tissenbaum has since pledged to donate her brain to concussion researchers.
Although Tissenbaum competed in the 2017 Maccabiah Games, she was playing softball not hockey. She helped Team Canada’s women win the silver medal in that sport.
But when the organizers decided to make women’s ice hockey part of the 21st edition, for the first time—and despite her mother’s uneasiness about Tissenbaum going back on the ice—she couldn’t pass up the chance.
“We were all in, trying to make it happen, because it’s been a dream for a long time, and it’s really going to be something cool to be part of the first ever Maccabiah women’s hockey tournament,” she said.
Flag bearers lead 600-strong delegation
Tissenbaum was named as one of Canada’s official flag bearers for the opening ceremony, which is where she was Thursday night, July 14, at Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium.
The goalie was flanked by two volleyball players—twins Conaire and Nick Taub of Calgary also named as male flag bearers – as the trio led Canada’s 600-strong team during the high energy broadcast.
“It’s an incredible honour to be chosen among the delegation because as far as I know, [it’s] the most number of women and girls ever representing Team Canada, which is amazing,” Tissenbaum said, joking that she should have practised a bit beforehand by carrying a broom around her living room in Boston, to get in shape.
The idea also made sense to the Taubs, who spoke to The CJN Daily on July 5 from the under-18 men’s volleyball team training camp in Toronto. While they were thrilled to represent Canada at the opening ceremony, they, too, wanted to do it right.
“I assume they don’t want us messing this up,” said Nick, with a smile.
“They don’t want us to fall on stage,” agreed Conaire.
They needn’t have worried.
As the trio led the Canadian team onto the ramp and across the stage during the opening ceremony, they had decided the twins would flank Tissenbaum and all three helped hold the flag. With the Black Eyed Peas hit “I Gotta Feelin” pumping out through the stadium’s sound system, the emcees introduced the Canadian team to the crowd as being the third largest international delegation at the Maccabiah, after Team USA and Argentina. (Israel is the largest).
Admire Josh Binstock as role model
The Taubs are also making their second appearance at the Maccabiah, having competed in volleyball in 2017. They are sons of former Canadian Olympic wrestler Ari Taub, now a Calgary lawyer, and Sarah Howell, who ran track.
But the twins never really took to either of their parents’ disciplines.
“We didn’t really love it like he did. We were begging our mom to take us out of karate,” explained Conaire, adding that they discovered they loved volleyball while they were in Grade 7.
“And wrestling, same thing. I didn’t like hurting people. I didn’t like that aspect of the game,” Nick said.
Now, both teens have been signed to play varsity volleyball beginning this fall at the University of British Columbia, when they begin school.
The Taubs credit part of their interest in the sport to the example set by Canadian beach volleyball gold medallist Josh Binstock, of Richmond Hill, Ont. Before retiring to focus on his medical career, Binstock himself was flag bearer at the 2013 Maccabiah Games, and has gone to both the Maccabiah and the Olympics three times. He mentored the younger players at the 2017 Maccabiah games.
For Molly Tissenbaum, the success of American star Chelsey Goldberg in the women’s professional hockey circuit has been gratifying to watch, as is the success of current high profile Jewish players Zach Hyman and Adam Fox in the National Hockey League. She thinks they are inspiring a new generation of Jewish athletes to think seriously about making sport a career.
“It really is a cool thing that it’s not something that you have to push to the side in order to be an elite athlete anymore,” Tissenbaum said, referring to the experience of most Jewish athletes being the only one on their teams.
“And that, for me, is why I decided this was the right thing to do: the ability to compete at the highest level, being a Jewish woman, and bring that whole thing together, it’s an opportunity that you can’t pass up.”
The Taubs maintain they have not experienced antisemitism while playing volleyball growing up in Calgary, and more recently, for the national under-19 Canadian men’s team.
“Sport allows people to be open and honest and kind and not worry about your background. So that hasn’t affected us, really,” said Nick.
But they have received some comments when they told friends that they would be heading off to Israel to compete in the Maccabiah Games.
“They’re, like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re going to Israel. Is that safe?’ Almost every time I say it, “ Conaire added. “I’m, like, ‘Yeah, it’s pretty safe. I went as a 14-year-old kid. I think it’s pretty safe.’”
Mixing religion with their trip
It was as 14-year-olds that the Taubs also made a bit of Maccabiah history. At the 2017 events, they were interviewed on Israeli national television, after celebrating their bar mitzvahs at the Western Wall.
The twins each put on tefillin, carried a Torah and recited the blessings, as part of a large ceremony offered by the Maccabiah for anyone who wished to have the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony. The twins did not speak Hebrew, but found the religious service so meaningful they will do it again this time, although this year, it is “just for the experience,” said Nick.
Molly Tissenbaum expects her repeat trip back to the Maccabiah games will also come with plenty of emotion, especially as she remembers her late grandfather Dr. Ben Tissenbaum of Montreal.
The physician, who died in 2008, played for Team Canada on the 1953 Maccabiah team, as part of Montreal’s YMHA men’s basketball dynasty of that decade. Her uncle Allan, some cousins, and her brother Maxx Tissenbaum have all taken their turns at Maccabiah events in previous years. Maxx is now a retired pro-baseball player who was drafted by the MLB’s San Diego Padres in 2012.
Molly intends to bring something with her to the Western Wall in honour of all her relatives who have passed away, including her “Zaidy” and both her mother’s parents.
“So I’m definitely hyper-aware of the emotional rollercoaster that I know this is going to be, because there really isn’t anywhere that you feel more connected to your Jewish upbringing and heritage than being in Israel,” she said.
Nick Taub won’t be bringing his lucky baby blanket with him when he visits the Kotel, but it is coming along with him in his Team Canada duffle bag. He always carries the rainbow-coloured keepsake to competitions.
“I wash it sometimes, it smells like me,” Nick admitted, as he showed the blanket to me during our Zoom interview.
His brother Conaire will wear a dark grey “Israel Volleyball” jersey that he received as a gift in 2017 at the last Maccabiah. Conaire wears it for every practice. The gear came from the scouts of an Israeli professional volleyball team who tried to recruit the then-14-year-old boys to make aliyah, become Israeli citizens, and play in Israel.
“It’s very flattering. It’s just not that time and place right now. We’re going to university for five years or however long it takes to finish a degree and then maybe pro after,” Nick said.
Going for gold
Although Tissenbaum doesn’t plan to make the Maccabiah her personal return to playing professionally, she is buoyed by the fact that the sport is debuting as part of the regular roster of events. She has long advocated that there is a lucrative business model for fans interested in seeing women compete at the highest level.
Since graduating from Harvard, Tissenbaum has been working for the Boston-based Sports Innovation Lab, which uses fan data to convince companies that they should be investing in women’s sports.
“There’s an entirely untapped market on the women’s side that people just aren’t necessarily considering because no one’s really done the research,” she said. “These women fans of women’s sports are spending more.”
In Jerusalem Friday, after Canada’s drubbing of their Israeli counterparts — the Canucks invited the losing squad into their dressing room, to spend time together.
According to Dan Smajovits, who handles communications for Maccabi Canada, the Israelis gifted the winners some souvenir replica coins from the Bar Kokhba period in the second century. (He led a Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire that resulted in a short-lived independent Jewish state).
As for whether anything less than a gold medal will do for the Canadian ice hockey teams, Tissenbaum knows that is the expectation of fans back home, especially for the men’s and juniors teams. But she looks at it as an opportunity for her group, since none of the three women’s teams have ever played in a Maccabiah. The Canadian women’s round robin opponents are Israel and Team USA.
“I do think that we have a really good shot at coming out on top because of that,” Tissenbaum said.
Canada’s next women’s game is Monday July 18, against the Americans. Her father has already arrived in Israel to watch.
Meanwhile, in volleyball, the Taub brothers under-18 men’s team beat Argentina 3-0 in a lopsided game July 14 just hours before the opening ceremony. They face Israel next on Sunday, July 17.
And what advice did the twins receive from their parents, who are themselves veterans of international competition?
“Go and have fun,” said Conaire, adding that he knows how unoriginal that may sound.
“So just going and having fun and playing in the moment is what’s going to help you win, what’s going to help you actually enjoy your time and make the experience worth it.”