Andrew Cristall wants to ‘represent’ his Jewish identity in the NHL as he signs with the Washington Capitals

Andrew Cristall
Vancouver's Andrew Cristall shows his hockey skills at the Washington Capitals development camp shortly after being selected 40th overall in the NHL 2023 draft. (Washington Capitals photo)

Andrew Cristall always makes sure he dons his hockey equipment from right to left.

Like many athletes, the forward from Vancouver follows his own personal superstitious routine religiously each time he opens his hockey bag in the dressing room.

“Right sock, left sock, right knee pad, left knee pad and then right skate, left skate.”

But he doesn’t know why he practises this ritual habit. 

As the only Jewish player out of 224 prospects chosen in last month’s NHL 2023 Draft, doing things from right to left certainly might send a deeply symbolic message to his Jewish fans–especially after The Canadian Jewish News reminded him in our interview that Jews read the Torah from right to left.

“Yeah, I didn’t realize that,” Cristall said, with a laugh, from his home in Vancouver on July 9. “But yeah, maybe I’ll say that now!”

Cristall, 18, is the son of a prominent Vancouver Jewish family: his father Alex is a real estate developer who leads the fundraising for the current $450 million revitalization of the city’s Jewish community campus on Oak Street. Andrew’s mother Jodi works at King David High School.

Although Andrew chose to attend a private prep school with a strong hockey program– St. George’s– he previously attended Vancouver’s Talmud Torah elementary school (after winning a Mensch of the Month award in 2014). He also had a bar mitzvah.

40th pick

The Washington Capitals selected Cristall as their 40th overall pick in the annual NHL draft on June 29 in Nashville, Tenn. The teenager’s whole family was there, nervously waiting to see whether any team would think enough of his hockey abilities.

He was the leading scorer this past season on his junior club, the Kelowna Rockets, with 95 points—despite missing nearly two months due to an undisclosed lower body injury. He was ranked in the top 15 prospects in North America.

Still, his name wasn’t called on the first day, when to no one’s surprise, Connor Bedard—a summer roller-hockey teammate of Cristall’s back home in B.C.—was the draft’s first pick, selected by the Chicago Blackhawks.

Watch how Andrew Cristall reacted when Washington selected him in the second round of the NHL Draft on June 29, 2023.

‘Rollercoaster of emotions’

Then, mid-morning on the draft’s second day, Washington Capitals announced their selection of Cristall, who bounded down the stairs of the Nashville arena to don the team’s jersey and shake hands with the general manager and senior front office staff.

“I think it’s definitely like a roller-coaster of emotions,” he recalled. “You’re going up and down a lot and, you know, it all happens so fast, in the blink of an eye.”

The rest of the day was a flurry of photoshoots with Cristall posing wearing his new Washington Capitals hockey sweater, emblazoned with his number 28. He also held his first press conference as a prospect. The team whisked him onto a flight to a private development camp in Arlington, Virginia, where he and the other young players were put through their paces on the ice.

Cristall then set out to show he has what they are looking for. After a mandatory hockey tournament, which his team won, they sent a film crew to capture him performing some of his best stickhandling and goal scoring trick shots with the puck.

Then it was back home to Vancouver where, on July 7, he sat at his parents’ dining room table and signed his $2.85 million (USD) three-year, entry level contract with his new club.

Andrew Cristall, 18, of Vancouver, signing his first NHL contract after being selected 40th overall by the Washington Capitals during the 2023 NHL draft. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Cristall / Instagram)

While his fans and family have high hopes that the draftee will earn a berth on the roster when the season opens in October, Cristall is already prepared for the likelihood he will spend 2023-2024 playing for his current team in Kelowna. He knows he needs to grow physically–he’s five-foot-10 and 175 pounds – and he has to work on his skating, or, as he once quipped, “get his man legs.”

But he’s optimistic that it won’t take too many years of seasoning before he gets a shot at his own locker in the Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C.

Gabe Pulver, co-host of The CJN’s Menschwarmers podcast, believes Cristall has a shot at seeing action sooner rather than later—which he told him directly.

“You’re a high pick, you’re a second-round pick. Ultimately, I’m sure you know this, you’re going to get a chance to make the team.”

Didn’t yet meet Ovechkin

Joining the Capitals has been “a dream come true” for the young left-winger. Not only did the team win a Stanley Cup five years ago, but their captain is none other than Alexander Ovechkin, arguably the best left-winger in the history of the National Hockey League.

With 1,485 points in his storied career so far, Ovechkin is also on track to tie Wayne Gretzky’s record for the most goals scored by a player.

To his disappointment, Cristall didn’t meet the Russian superstar while being evaluated at the team’s development camp. In fact, none of the regular players were around at all, just the staff. But when he does eventually meet “Ovie,” Cristall is sure it is going to be “pretty surreal.”

“Yeah, I probably won’t say too many words. I’ll probably just, like, hopefully shake his hand or, look at him and probably be smiling a lot.”

Cristall hopes to watch No. 8 at work on the ice, and learn from him to help his own goal-scoring techniques. Interestingly, he doesn’t use the same style of hockey stick as Ovechkin, which has a big hook. Cristall’s preferred shape is the same one used by Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs, known as a P92.

“That’s just kind of what worked for me,” Cristall said.

Admires Zach Hyman

Cristall doesn’t know what style of stick forward Zach Hyman uses when he streaks up the ice for the Edmonton Oilers. But it isn’t just Hyman’s hockey talent that has made the Toronto-born star sit atop the list of his own favourite Jewish athletes. 

Hyman has been very public about his background. He’s involved in fundraising for Jewish charities. He lit the giant Hanukkah menorah outside the Alberta legislature in 2021, and spoken out about antisemitism in sports. He even now wears the number 18, which is the Jewish symbol for life.

Cristall hasn’t been told what number he might be assigned with Washington, but he would like to emulate how Hyman navigates being Jewish with a pro-hockey career, as part of a small but growing group of fewer than two dozen currently in the NHL system, or feeder leagues.

“Definitely, yeah, I like to represent, I think,” he said. “I grew up with it and my family is Jewish and we take a lot of pride in it. So it’s definitely not something that I’m gonna be shy of, but also I hopefully follow in Zach’s footsteps a little bit.”

There have been only three Jewish players in the history of the Washington Capitals franchise: the list includes retired goalie Bernie Wolfe, and former captain Jeff Halpern, a centre who is now an assistant coach with Tampa Bay; and André Burakovsky, now with Seattle, who has Jewish roots on his father’s side.

The Sandy Koufax question

While he was in touch with the local Jewish community while playing for Kelowna, the team schedule usually meant Cristall was playing on Friday nights. Invitations to Shabbat dinners had to be turned down.

And while his favourite Jewish food is challah (with matzah ball soup a close second), it was a fast day that caused Cristall to decide how he was going to reconcile his faith with his obligations on the ice.

Yom Kippur began on the evening of Oct. 4, and with it, came a lengthy fast period for all Jewish adults. Kelowna had a game scheduled for 7 p.m. against Victoria the following night.

“I didn’t sit the game out, but I fasted as long as I could, and ate my pregame meal right before the game.”

Cristall is well aware of the legendary American pitcher Sandy Koufax, who famously didn’t play during the World Series—and asked to switch his place the L.A. Dodgers’ pitching rotation to observe Jewish holidays.

The budding hockey star could face a similar issue in September when the Washington Capitals open their training camps. Rookie camp is scheduled to start on Sept. 16, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.

And while he isn’t worried right now about a timing conflict, Cristall has already found a community of sorts inside the organization.

“I got to Washington and a couple of the training staff were also Jewish and they kind of mentioned to me that they were and ‘You know, we stick together a little bit.’”

Family support

Cristall’s bedroom at his family’s Vancouver-area home is decorated with a poster of his personal favourite NHL team, the Vancouver Canucks. The walls are covered with framed action shots of him playing for his previous teams growing up. To date, his career has been all with British Columbia clubs.

This season, though, he played in two international tournaments wearing a Team Canada jersey. He won gold in the U18 Hlinka Gretzky Cup, and a bronze medal in the IIHF U18 World Championships.

Andrew Cristall
Andrew Cristall speaks to The CJN via ZOOM from his family home in Vancouver on Sunday July 9, 2023.

In his day, Andrew’s father also competed for Canada on the world stage. Alex Cristall was part of Canada’s men’s rugby squad in 1993 at the 14th Maccabiah Games in Israel. Dad also started out playing hockey, in goal—but, according to Andrew, his father abandoned the rink for the rugby pitch.

Andrew discovered his own passion was for hockey at a young age, following in his older brother’s footsteps.

Tyler Cristall, now 21, also played junior hockey in Kelowna before choosing to remain an amateur (for now) and take the NCAA route. Tyler is studying business while playing hockey on the Division 1 team at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y. (And he wears the number 18.)

Their sister Sydney Cristall also is involved with pro hockey, but not on the ice. She didn’t actually like to play hockey. Instead, the family joke is that she reached the NHL before her brothers did when she landed a marketing job with the Vancouver Canucks organization.

Handling the attention

Andrew Cristall’s career move has caught the attention of well-wishers across North America: Karl Alzner, a former Washington player, reached out to congratulate him, as did Anthony Housefather, the Liberal MP for Mount Royal. The Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee sent a “huge mazel tov” on Twitter, as did Ezra Shanken, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver.

Cristall plans to spend the summer hitting the gym, plus playing inline hockey with his friends.  Then comes the Caps training camp in Washington, where he hopes to prove himself.

“There’s going to be a ton of NHL players, and Ovechkin, and all these great players like [Niklas] Backstrom and [John] Carlson,” he said. “The thing that I want to do most is just kind of be a sponge and learn, you know?”