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HAVIN' A BALL

01/12/2007 5:15 PM -

Eric Himelfarb played hockey and baseball growing up in Canada. He hopes to stay active in both as long as the competitive juices keep flowing

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Hockey doesn’t have the equivalent of a shortstop, but if the game had a similar position, you’d probably find Eric Himelfarb playing it.
    
And you can bet he’d love every minute.
    
Shortstop was Himelfarb’s natural position growing up. Regarded as the most dynamic defensive position in baseball, the shortstop plays a key role during most double plays, stolen base attempts, sacrifice bunts and outfield cutoffs.
    
If a shortstop is anything, he’s often the team’s sparkplug – typically the fearless little guy who finds a way to get things done, even if he’s not the team’s best hitter or slugger.
    
“I’m trying to do whatever the coach asks me to do, whether it’s on the power play, killing penalties, leading the forecheck or just bringing energy to the team,” Himelfarb said.
    
As a 5-foot-9, 175-found center, Himelfarb knows he’s not going to bull his way through the defense, so he does his best to cause turnovers and create offensive chances.
    
Now in his third full season with the Griffins, Himelfarb is less concerned with personal statistics than he is with helping the team find ways to win.
    
“I’d love to put up the points and be a lot more productive than I have been so far, but I’m only interested in trying to help us win games as much as I can.”
    
Goals have not come as easily for Himelfarb as when he first joined the Griffins near the end of the 2003-04 regular season.
    
Himelfarb, who scored on his very first shot in a Griffins jersey, ranked among the Griffins’ leaders with 19 goals (2nd on the team) during his first full season.
    
His numbers tumbled a year ago – 10 goals and 18 assists in 62 games – in part because he found himself battling for ice time after returning from a broken hand suffered early in the season.
    
Looking back, he acknowledges that the lack of personal success was mitigated by the team’s fortunes last season. The Griffins finished with a team-record 55 victories, the third-highest total in AHL history.
    
“When I came back from the broken hand, it was a struggle to get ice time. I wanted to play but we had three strong lines and the team was winning. I just tried to work my way up.”
    
Himelfarb said coming to the arena is always more fun when your team is winning, regardless of how much you play. “Obviously, when you play this game and you’re competitive, you want more,” he said. “I looked at last year as a learning experience.”
    
As someone who has been playing team sports almost his whole life, Himelfarb recognizes that personal goals sometimes have to be set aside for the good of the team. “From a coach’s standpoint, you have to do whatever you can to put the team in the best position to win games,” he said.
    
If Himelfarb talks like a coach, it’s because he’s thought about it. “I love the game of hockey and whether I’m playing or coaching or scouting, I’d like to stay involved as long as I can.”
    
He’s been playing hockey since he was four years old, having grown up in the former village of Thornhill, Ontario, about 15 miles directly north of the city of Toronto.
    
Himelfarb credits his family - parents Sam and Anne, and brother Adam – for being his biggest supporters.
    
“My brother was much more skilled than I was,” Himelfarb said of his brother, now an elementary school teacher in the Toronto area. “He always said the reason I got further than he did was because he didn’t start playing until he was 7 and I was 4.”
    
Himelfarb’s love of hockey and baseball was fully supported at home, but sports were less than warmly welcomed in the private school he attended as a young Jewish boy.
    
He attended Associated Hebrew Schools of Toronto from 8:20 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day until grade 7. “I’d go to school, get home and grab something to eat, then it was time to go to the games,” he recalled.
    
“When I would tell my teachers that I wouldn’t be there on a Friday because we had a tournament, they weren’t very impressed. My parents always supported me, but the teachers didn’t always understand.”
    
Although the Himelfarbs were not Orthodox, they observed the Jewish High Holy Days by going to the synagogue. In their home, they had separate plates for observing the Jewish dietary laws of kashrut (kosher) – which is not to say that Himelfarb didn’t bend the rules.
    
“I remember we went on a school trip to an afternoon (Toronto) Blue Jays baseball game one Friday and I got something to eat from McDonald’s,” he recalled. “One of the teachers caught me and I got suspended from school for two days.”
    
Himelfarb enjoyed baseball almost as much as hockey growing up. Only the pace of baseball might have kept him from pursuing it further. “Most of the time, you’re just standing there, eating sunflower seeds, with not a lot going on. With hockey, there’s always a lot of action.”
    
To this day, Himelfarb still plays softball during the offseason. He even invited Griffins teammate Darryl Bootland to play on his team for a tournament this past summer.
    
“It’s really competitive, but it’s a ton of fun,” he said. “It’s like any sport you play. Anything you do, you want to win, whether it’s professional hockey or only a stupid softball tournament in the summer.”
    
For Himelfarb, the appeal of sports is universal, whether it means diving for a ball in the hole at shortstop or diving in front of a shot on the ice in front of the net. “It’s all about being with a good group of guys and having fun while being competitive.”
    
Although the Griffins have struggled at times early this season, Himelfarb is confident that the current group will pull together and make a run into the playoffs.
    
“Whether we go into the playoffs as a seventh seed or a second seed, I think we’ll be a tough team to play against.”
    
Himelfarb terms this year a “make or break season” for himself, noting that he’s in the last year of his contract. “It’s obviously a very big year for me,” he said.
    
He knows his future will largely be dictated by the amount of success that the Griffins enjoy during the second half of the season. He points to last year’s record-setting team as proof.
    
Brett Lebda, Valtteri Filppula, Jiri Hudler, Tomas Kopecky and Joey MacDonald are playing for the Red Wings this season, while Donald McLean, Bryan Helmer and Eric Manlow signed new contracts with other teams.
    
With the departure of so many players, Himelfarb has been able to see more playing time.
    
“Obviously, I have a bigger role this year and I relish the challenge of more ice time. I just have to make sure I’m more productive and continue to contribute however I can.”
    
In the end, his fate will be intertwined with the team. Of course, that’s true of most every player.
    
“If the team doesn’t do well, not too many individuals are going to have success. As long as we find ways to win games, I’m pretty confident that things will work out for me.”



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