The 17 athletes on the U.S. Under-17 Select Jewish Team roster arrived in Metulla, Israel as a group of individuals focused on playing in an international hockey tournament. Fifteen days later, they left as a team unified by their hard work and achievements on the ice and a cultural experience that will remain with them forever.
They were recruited by long-time USA Hockey volunteer Sam Greenblatt to compete in the World Jewish Ice hockey Championships, the second time the tournament has been held and the first time it has featured a junior division. Hailing from all corners of the country from California to Arizona to Florida and New York, a four-hour layover in Newark, N.J. was the first opportunity the team had to meet each other.
“My concern was going into a situation where I didn’t know anyone,” said forward Aaron Schencopp, whose first experience on an airplane came on this trip. “I was nervous going in but it’s crazy how you can meet 16 individuals right away and bond right away.”
After a day of rest, the team took the ice for practice, its first time together on the ice. While it was a good time to get to know each other as hockey players, things really started to come together in their first game against Canada-White, one of two Canadian teams competing at the tournament. The U.S. lost in a shootout but made big strides as a team by getting to know one another’s playing styles.
A few days off gave the players time to tour historic places in Israel, including the Holy Church of Sepulchre, Jerusalem Cemetery, and the Western Wall, where a few players from both the junior and senior team had their Bar Mitzvah.
“We see these places on TV and read about them in the newspaper but we got to see it first hand and it was unreal,” Schencopp said. “It’s shocking and it kind of hits you.”
With a 2-1 record in the tournament, the U.S. team faced Canada-Red for the chance to play in the gold medal game. It was the second time the two teams had met in the tournament and despite the U.S. storming to a 7-1 victory in the previous showing, they knew the Canadian team was not to be underestimated.
A thrilling overtime victory by the USA senior team over Canada to preserve their undefeated record was enough to get the junior team pumped up for their own game, but it wasn’t enough as they dropped another heartbreaking shootout loss, sending them to the bronze medal game against Israel.
“After every game you listen to the winning team’s national anthem out of respect,” Schencopp wrote in a blog he kept through the trip. “This one was particularly hard to listen to because it hurt us all not to be in the championship game.”
Despite the frustrating loss, the team rallied for the bronze medal game, winning decisively, 5-2, capturing the bronze medal and closing out their portion of the tournament with the playing of the Star Spangled Banner.
On the day of the closing ceremonies, the U.S. junior team watched the senior team crush Canada 6-0 to earn the gold medal. Goalie Dov Morris-Grumet won the Best Goalie Award and forward Alec Kirschner won MVP in the senior division. On the junior side, Brett Lubanski won Best Forward, tied for first in the tournament in scoring with five goals and nine points. Brandon Berkley led all players in the tournament with six assists.
“The junior team could have won it all,” said head coach Sam Greenblatt. “Their only two losses came in shootouts but that’s just the breaks of the game.”
While the junior team finished a couple steps lower on the podium than they would have liked, it was the high level of competition, the camaraderie developed among teammates and the opportunity to experience the culture of the country that made the trip unforgettable.
“Being with these guys made every experience greater because you’re sharing it and it had similar impacts on all of us,” Schencopp said. “A lot of my teammates and kids I played against are going to bigger places in hockey and it was a great experience for me as a hockey player as well.”