December 11, 2009
The greatest Jew on ice now
Schneider hopes to bring more than a Kiddush cup to Vancouver.
Vancouver Canucks fans in the Jewish community have a little bit more to cheer about this season.
This past summer, the Canucks went ahead and signed a one-year contract with, statistically speaking at least, the greatest Jewish hockey player of all time. And Mathieu Schneider takes pride in that title.
"I am the self-proclaimed 'Best Jew Ever,' " he laughed while sitting in the Canucks' brand-new, state-of-the-art team locker room.
With more than 730 points in approximately 1,250 NHL games played, few could argue with that assessment. Schneider, for his part, doesn't take for granted what it means to be a Jew in professional sports.
"I always try to meet the Jewish guys that I play against because there is a definite connection," he said, noting that he became close with fellow and former NHLers Mike Cammalleri, Steve Dubinsky and Ron Stern because of their religious connection. "You look out for each other and you have that bond. Wherever I am, whenever I meet someone else that is Jewish I feel an immediate connection to them."
Born in New York and raised in New Jersey, Schneider said Jewish community involvement often took a back seat to sports when he was a child. However, his father always reminded him of what it meant to be a Jew.
"My dad raised us to be very proud Jews and he would always tell us to remember where we came from and who we are," he said. "As I got older that meant a lot more to me and when I had kids that's really when I started to think more about religion."
Although professional hockey does not leave a lot of time for regular synagogue attendance, Schneider did attend High Holy Day services with Congregation Or Shalom this year and brought his two oldest children, now nine and eight years old, with him.
"The whole foundation of Judaism is about strong family connections," he said. "I am kind of learning with [my kids] as they get older."
Professional athletes in the twilight of their career sometimes leave their family behind for a season when signing a short-term deal in a new city. This was not ever a consideration for the father of four or his wife, Shannon.
"There is no way I could live away from them," he said without hesitation. "It's hard enough to go on a two-week road trip because I know that I miss all the little things that they do and come up with."
With a 1993 Stanley Cup ring and several experiences representing the United States Olympic and World Cup hockey teams, Schneider has accomplished things most NHLers only dream of. All of this made his decision to come to Vancouver this season that much easier. When the NHL free agent season opened July 1, Schneider had already decided that Vancouver was the only place he wanted to play hockey this year. The fact that Canucks general manager Mike Gillis was Schneider's former agent helped, but the veteran defenceman also liked what he saw in this team.
"I thought the direction this team was heading in was real exciting," he said. "We've been decimated with injuries but I think with a full line-up it's going to be a very tough team to beat every night."
Schneider started this season as one of the many walking wounded on the team. Injuries take their toll on professional athletes and, at 40, Schneider has beat the odds to stick around as long as he can. The secret to a long NHL career, he said, is discipline and consistency.
"You deal with so many different personalities on different teams with different players, coaches and general managers," he said. "One of my strengths throughout my career was that I could really stay on an even keel as far as not getting too upset when things weren't going well and not getting too excited or emotional when things did go well.
"There were times early in my career where I was probably a little too rambunctious, when I should have picked my spots," he continued, referring to his physical longevity. "You see many guys come in and they are great for two or three years and then they tail off. I think always trying to bring the same thing every single day – that consistency – is the key to having a long NHL career."
When his pro career eventually finishes, Schneider hopes to visit Israel for the first time, possibly following his brother's footsteps by participating in the Maccabiah Games one day. For now, however, Schneider has put all other dreams, including the possibility of playing in another Olympic tournament this February, behind his number one priority.
"My focus is to try to help this team win a Stanley Cup right now."
That's a value you don't have to be Jewish to appreciate.
Kyle Berger is a freelance writer and graphic designer living in Richmond.