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Keeper Of The Faith

03/13/2002 1:43 PM - Proud of his Jewish heritage, David Hymovitz counts playing hockey in Israel among his biggest thrills.

Story and photos by Mark Newman

David Hymovitz will likely never get a chance to play in the Olympics, but as far as he’s concerned he’s already experienced the next best thing.

The Griffins veteran was a member of the U.S. team that participated in the 15th Maccabiah Games in 1997, the first and only time that hockey was included in the quadrennial event that attracts Jewish athletes from around the world. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime thrill,” Hymovitz says. “It was just an amazing experience, something I’ll never forget.”

Named for Judah Maccabee, one of the great warriors in Jewish history, the 15th Maccabiah Games were scheduled to open at Ramat Gan National Stadium near Tel Aviv. Nearly 50,000 spectators waited to welcome 5,000 athletes from 54 countries when tragedy struck.

“We were waiting in a couple of big fields, getting ready to march six abreast into the stadium for the opening ceremonies,” Hymovitz recalls. The U.S. team was slated to be the third country, behind Australia, to enter the stadium.

“We didn’t know what happened, but we could hear sirens and could see ambulances and helicopters. Our first thought was there had been a bombing. I immediately thought about my parents and my brother Marc who had made the trip and were inside the stadium.”

In fact, a temporary pedestrian bridge into the stadium had collapsed, sending a portion of the 373-member Australian delegation plunging into the polluted waters of the Yarkon River 25 feet below. Four athletes were killed and 70 more were injured in the accident.

Needless to say, the opening ceremonies were postponed and the 600-member U.S. contingent bused back to the hotel. After some debate, the decision was made to allow the games to continue, a moment of silence marking the start of each event.

Playing hockey in a country torn by violence might seem crazy, but not to a boy from Boston for whom such a trip had seemed like only a dream to be lived out sometime later in life.

“I could talk about the trip for days,” Hymovitz says. “I couldn’t wait to play hockey in Israel, then we got over there and I couldn’t believe I had to play hockey. We toured all the famous sites -- the Wall, Mount Sinai, the Dead Sea -- and it was a pretty emotional experience. Hockey almost became secondary.”

Competing for hockey gold were four countries: the U.S., Canada, Israel and Ukraine. The games were held in Metulla, a town in the northern part of Israel not far from the Lebanon border.

“We could sit by our hotel pool at night and the sky would light up from bombs,” Hymovitz says. “It was a little scary at first, but the people there were awesome. They made you feel safe.”

It didn’t hurt that the team was guarded by an 18-year-old Israeli armed with a machine gun. “After a while, I didn’t think twice about terrorist attacks. Once your nerves settled, you just enjoyed it.”

Being in the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was a heady experience for Hymovitz and his family. As conservative Jews, they observed the kosher dietary laws and celebrated the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

“I’ve always been proud to be Jewish,” Hymovitz says. “There aren’t too many Jewish guys playing hockey, but I couldn’t be prouder to be Jewish.”

He admits that he has heard his share of anti-Semitic remarks on the ice over the years, but has learned to turn a deaf ear to disparaging comments about his Jewish heritage.

“In youth hockey, I remember chasing around this kid and ending up in the penalty box,” Hymovitz says, chuckling at the memory. “I thought my dad was going to be proud of me after the game, but he couldn’t have been any madder. He said, ‘That’s what they want you to do!’”

Hymovitz’s family has always been very close. In addition to walking together to temple, they went to hockey games. His parents, Allen and Gail, made sure he went along to the rink when his older brothers, Scott and Marc, started playing the sport.

“My biggest supporters have always been my family and now my wife Kristen,” Hymovitz says. “There was always at least one family member at every one of my games through all four years of college.”

Hymovitz attended Boston College, an ironic choice considering its roots as a Jesuit school and the fact that his father went to cross-town rival Boston University. “Academically, it was a great fit and hockey-wise I knew I could jump in and play because they had lost a number of guys to graduation.”

Of course, some concessions had to be made. He couldn’t practice during the Jewish holidays. Special arrangements had to be made for team meals since kosher laws forbid eating meat and dairy products together. Turkey and cheese sandwiches didn’t cut it.

For his part, Hymovitz attended Sunday services with the team, sitting through mass as a sign of his solidarity with his teammates. He fulfilled the college’s theology requirements by studying the Old Testament.

As things turned out, going to Boston College proved to be an especially fruitful experience.

It was at the school that Hymovitz met his wife, Kristen. “She’s Catholic but it hasn’t been a problem,” he says. “I teach her about the Jewish faith and she teaches me about Catholicism.”

The school also gave Hymovitz an opportunity to play in the Beanpot hockey tournament, an annual event that pits Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern and Harvard.

“If you’re from Boston, there’s nothing bigger in town during the first two Mondays in February,” he says. “My dad had been taking my brothers and me every year since I was seven or eight years old.”

Boston College’s hockey team didn’t break many records during Hymovitz’s tenure at the school, but the team managed to win the Beanpot during his sophomore season.

“We beat Steve Martins’ Harvard team in front of a sellout crowd at the Boston Garden the year before it closed,” Hymovitz says. “At the time, it was a dream-come-true.”

Hymovitz’s professional career has taken him full circle. After a year with Columbus in the East Coast Hockey League, he played a couple of seasons in the IHL with Indianapolis before landing in the AHL the past two years. Playing for Lowell gave him a chance to play in front of family and friends again.

“Even today, my dad listens to all the games on the internet,” Hymovitz says. “He’s still giving me advice, like I’m still a pee wee. I call him after every game and he’s still saying the same stuff to me. I love it.”

He credits his upbringing for his interest in supporting charitable causes. “It goes back to my family,” Hymovitz says, referring to his religious faith. “Those are the kind of things they instilled in me.”

And it’s his upbringing that makes him thankful for being able to play the game he loves, whether it’s in Grand Rapids, Salt Lake City or Israel.

“I’ve been fortunate to have been able to play the game this long,” he says. “For me, every year is a bonus.”

And it’s gratitude that has led Hymovitz to donate his time to a variety of charitable causes over the years.

“I think it’s important to give back to the community,” he says. “As a kid, I’ll never forget the feelings of what it was like to meet people, whether it was an athlete, a doctor or somebody else you could look up to.”

He attended high school at Thayer Academy in Braintree, Mass., where Chicago Blackhawks star Tony Amonte was a senior when he was a freshman. He remembers a visit by Dave Silk, a Thayer grad who was a member of the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team.

“Just to see an Olympian -- and a gold medalist at that -- was a big deal,” he says. “I speak in hockey terms because that’s what was important to me growing up, but it could have been anyone.

” Hymovitz is proud to be working this season with the Muscular Dystrophy Association through the Griffins’ Puck Pals program.

“For these kids, it might be as close as they ever get to the game of hockey,” he says. “Just to see a smile on their face means everything.”

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