Following the Vancouver Canucks’ 3-2 loss to the Boston Bruins on Nov. 28 — a game in which the Canucks blew a late lead for their ninth defeat in the past ten games — head coach Travis Green was asked to assess the performance of fourth-year defenseman Quinn Hughes.
Green was running out of patience with his last place team and knew his dismissal was imminent. Yet, when Hughes’s name was uttered, the coach had to acknowledge the merits of his 22-year-old stud blueliner.
“He’s playing well,” Green acknowledged, less than two weeks before he was, indeed, relieved of his position. “He’s a great young player in the league. I thought the last two games his game has come around. He’s trying to improve in his own zone but he’s still putting up some good offensive numbers.”
Since bursting onto the NHL scene as a teenager in 2018, Hughes has been a cornerstone player for a struggling Canucks franchise, playing in the NHL All-Star Game as a rookie before finishing second to Colorado’s Cale Makar for 2019-2020 Rookie of the Year.
After the truncated 2019-20 season, Hughes was limited to 56 games as he (along with many teammates) suffered through a bout of COVID. But his prolonged absence and, perhaps understandably, diminished production last season didn’t stop the Canucks from inking him to a $47.10 million, six-year contract this past October.
There are quite a few Jewish players currently in the NHL. Players representing Judaism on the ice include one of Hughes’s younger brothers, Jack, a former No. 1 overall pick by the New Jersey Devils — who was recently signed to a mega-extension — and the youngest, Luke, who was selected by the Devils and currently plays at the University of Michigan. Both parents were former collegiate hockey players, and Hughes’s mother, Ellen Weinberg-Hughes, played for the U.S. Women’s national team at the 1992 Women’s World Championship.
This winter, Quinn Hughes hopes to represent the stars and stripes at the 2022 games in Beijing (assuming the NHL participates). Certainly, no one in the Vancouver locker room would object.
“He’s kind of the engine that drives our team,” says teammate Conor Garland. “He’s a big piece of our team. He always seems to have the puck a lot, always moving it up quickly, and very elusive at the blue line. He’s been great for us all year.”
After swatting 352 homers — more than any Jewish ballplayer in the history of baseball — Ryan Braun announced his retirement on Sept. 14. After being named National League Rookie of the Year in 2007, Braun would go on to earn NL MVP honors following the 2011 season. A lifetime .296 hitter who was named to six All-Star teams, Braun played his entire 14-year career for the Milwaukee Brewers.
While he didn’t play in 2021 after the Brew Crew declined their end of a $15 million mutual option last winter, Braun waited until the very end of the season to make his decision official. Often dubbed the “Hebrew Hammer,” he told USA Today in 2010, “I do consider myself definitely Jewish. And I’m extremely proud to be a role model for young Jewish kids.”
However, as many baseball fans are well aware, the slugger hasn’t always served as the greatest role model for the younger generation. It was eventually discovered that Braun had resorted to performance-enhancing drugs to recover from injuries during the end of his 2011 MVP season, a course of action that he initially denied, before ultimately admitting to in 2013.
The PED episode notwithstanding, Braun has been an upstanding citizen, and his retirement last fall was met with well-deserved fanfare considering that he had helped to elevate a traditionally moribund franchise to the status of perennial postseason contender.
In a video posted by the Brewers to social media, Braun announced: “While it’s impossible to summarize my emotions right now, what I feel most is one simple thing: gratitude.”
In 2020, the New England Patriots finished 7-9, their first losing campaign since 2001. Once the free agency period started last March, longtime owner Robert Kraft seized the opportunity to reload, shelling out a record $163 million in guaranteed money during free agency to acquire impact players Jonnu Smith, Matthew Judon, Davon Godchaux, Jalen Mills, Hunter Henry, Kendrick Bourne, and Nelson Agholor. His spending spree has been justified. All of the aforementioned rookies have contributed to the Patriots’ resurgent season, and now, as January looms, the franchise looks poised to make another deep postseason run
Since purchasing the Patriots back in January 1994, Kraft, who is Jewish and an active member of a synagogue in the Greater Boston area, has presided over the most successful franchise in NFL history. A dynasty in every sense of the word, the Patriots have won six Super Bowls this century — an even more impressive feat considering the league has instituted parameters (unrestricted free agency, salary cap) to foster parity.
But, after Tom Brady bolted following the 2019 season, even the most ardent Patriots supporters weren’t predicting a turnaround as swift as this, especially going into the season with a rookie quarterback in Mac Jones. But behind Kraft’s deft maneuvering of the salary cap and willingness to spend an outlandish sum, the team struck gold in free agency (this hasn’t always been the case in New England recently), providing the twenty-three-year-old Jones with a support system in which he has flourished.
A year ago, many pundits around the league were predicting a long and slow rebuild for New England. But at this hour, the team is arguably the odds-on favorite to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LVI this coming February in Inglewood, Calif.
The narrative around Tom Brady never getting hit hard invariably revolves around favorable rule changes and, perhaps, favorable treatment from officials. But maybe, just maybe, the defending world-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive line deserves some credit for keeping Brady upright one Sunday after another.
One of the anchors of the Tampa O-line is left guard Ali Marpet, a 7-year veteran from tiny Division III Hobart College, who now serves as a team captain. Last February, when the Bucs defeated the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV, Brady was naturally the center of attention. But Brady’s MVP performance (three touchdowns without a single pick) was due in no small part to Marpet’s holding down the offensive line. That Brady was sacked only once, for a six-yard loss, served as further testament to the effective blocking from Marpet and Co.
Shortly after the Super Bowl, Marpet told his New York hometown newspaper, the Rockland/Westchester Journal News: “I definitely think there’s been a lot of surprises along the way. I feel like, depending on when you ask me — if I thought I’d be here — I never would’ve thought (a Super Bowl) would be on the table.”
In a couple months, another one may very well be.
At first sight, it may seem strange to see the principal owner of the New York Mets mentioned here. After all, the Mets, under Cohen’s first year of ownership, finished the year with an underwhelming 77-85 record, good for a third-place finish in the National League East. It also can’t be overlooked that Cohen’s first marquee deal, a mega contract extension to Francisco Lindor worth over a third of a billion dollars, has thus far been a colossal failure.
But, in 2021, no team has enjoyed a better off-season (at least on paper) than Cohen and the Mets, who signed three prized free agents (pitcher Max Scherzer, center fielder Starling Marte, and infielder Eduardo Escobar) to multi-year contracts literally days before the ongoing lockout commenced. With the newly-acquired Scherzer, certainly the most desirable pitcher on the free agent market, coupled with ace Jacob deGrom at the front end of their rotation, the Mets look poised to contend for their first World Series title since 1986.
On a different level, Cohen has pledged to drastically improve the heavily-maligned culture of the Mets organization, one that has been rocked by a series of humiliating sexual misconduct allegations. In addition to hiring new legal and HR executives to rectify the systemic issues plaguing the organization of late, Cohen has promised to streamline the process whereby employees report violations and to ensure that such violations are investigated and resolved in a timely manner. The underlying goal, according to Cohen, is to “emphasize the overarching value of a safe and respectful workplace.”
While he hasn’t posted the most mind-blowing stats, Tennessee Titans tight end Anthony Firkser has followed up a career 2020 season with a solid season in ’21. Firkser, who grew up in Manalapan Township, N.J., where he attended Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah, is on pace for over 30 receptions while serving as a key cog in the Titans offensive system.
However, it has been Firkser’s off-field actions this year that have endeared him most to the Jewish community. Back in November, Firkser gave a very candid interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, in which he expressed great pride in his Jewish background, while acknowledging that, for many of his teammates, he is the first Jew they have ever come across.
“It’s cool to talk about … to share a little bit different background than a lot of guys are used to in the league,” Firkser told the JTA. “Guys get to learn about [Judaism] who have never kind of experienced it.”
While he acknowledged that he has never faced anti-Semitism in the NFL, last fall, after star wide receiver DeSean Jackson’s anti-Semitic comments, Firkser and other Jewish football players participated in an online forum about Jews and pro football. Soon thereafter, Firkser became an ambassador for “Unity Through Sport,” a nonprofit organization that leverages sports to combat discrimination in society at large.
“Unity Through Sport is an initiative trying to bring everyone together. It’s kinda like a locker room where no one sees any differences,” Firkser told the JTA. “We’re all working towards a common goal. That was something good to stand behind and be able to use my Jewish background as something that could be seen as different that people don’t understand, but show them how similar it all is.”
Unless you happen to be a fan of the Miami Marlins or a diehard seamhead, you’ve probably never heard of pitcher Richard Bleier. Middle relievers such as Bleier simply don’t garner a lot of attention. (It’s a situation akin to that of offensive linemen in football.) If they are in the spotlight, it is probably because they are starting to blow late-inning leads by serving up gopher balls.
And that certainly hasn’t been the case for the 34-year-old Bleier, who broke into the big leagues in 2016 with the New York Yankees, following a lengthy minor league career after being drafted by the Texas Rangers back in 2008. Since his rookie season, the big southpaw has been a model of consistency on the mound, posting five sub-3.00 ERA seasons, including this past one, when he registered a nifty 2.95 mark for his hometown Marlins.
After giving up a seventh inning homer to Austin Slater of the San Francisco Giants on April 17 (his fourth long ball given up in the opening month), Bleier, who played for Team Israel in the 2013 World Baseball Classic’s qualifying round, reclaimed his penchant for keeping the ball in the yard, not yielding a single homerun over his final 59 appearances.
While he continues to carve out his niche as a reliable late-inning reliever at the big-league level, Bleier’s past accomplishments at Florida Gulf Coast University received their due recognition this past November, as he became the fifth athlete in the program’s history to be inducted into the ASUN Conference Hall of Fame.
World Series — Max Fried
How could a 2021 year-in-review not include a mention of the World Series, well-documented as the most Jewish Fall Classic ever?
This past October, there were indeed four Jewish ballplayers in the World Series: two on the Atlanta Braves (Max Fried, Joc Pederson) and two more on the Houston Astros (Alex Bregman, Garrett Stubbs). This was unprecedented and, considering the finite number of Jewish major leaguers, a fortuitous event that may never occur again.
While Bregman, Stubbs, and Pederson’s contributions were relatively limited, Fried proved to be a key difference-maker in the Braves’ first world championship since Bill Clinton was in office. After a rough start in Game 2, Fried, a member of the U.S. junior baseball team during the 2009 Maccabiah Games, bounced back nicely in the Braves’ closeout Game 6 win. By scattering four hits over six shutout innings, the slender southpaw from Santa Monica delivered one of the all-time great performances by a Jewish pitcher in the World Series.
Fried doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. He is only 27 years old (he turns 28 in January) and under contract with Atlanta through 2024. (Once the lockout ends, he will be eligible for his second year of arbitration and should see his 2022 salary bump up to $7 million). It is quite possible that the Braves will sign him to a long-term extension given his track record in the regular season and now his proven ability to deliver in October.
But, irrespective of his future career trajectory, the recent World Series Game 6 masterpiece ranks as one of the greatest feats ever accomplished by a Jewish athlete.
Few are aware that Sue Bird, one of the greatest female basketball players in the modern era, belongs to the Jewish community: her father, Herschel, is of Russian-Jewish descent. But wait, there’s more. In 2006, while starring for the Seattle Storm, she made a purely “basketball-motivated” decision to become an Israeli citizen so that she could play for different European teams (teams across the pond are only allowed to have two Americans).
Fast-forward 15 years, to 2021, when Bird — already a four-time WNBA champion and two-time national collegiate champion at UCONN — took home her fifth gold medal at the Tokyo Games, a record for a basketball player in the Olympics.
The 41-year-old has not decided whether she is retiring from the WNBA, leaving the door open for potentially returning for a twentieth season.
Leading up to the 2016 Games in Brazil, Alix Klineman was hoping to crack a spot on the U.S. indoor volleyball team roster. A former volleyball standout at Stanford University and member of the Southern California Jewish Hall of Fame, Klineman had been pining for the Rio Games for years. Unfortunately, she fell just short of her goal to become an Olympian when an invitation to join the U.S. team never materialized.
No problem. This was just an opportunity for her to switch to beach volleyball, a sport in which she did become a U.S. Olympian this past summer. Indeed, it was during the Tokyo Games in August that Klineman, along with partner April Ross, defeated an Australian duo to earn gold.
“I looked at the beach as a new opportunity and a chance to chase my dreams without anybody having to give me approval or put me on a roster,” Klineman told The Times of Israel after her career milestone.
“I still don’t know if I really ever expected this to come true. It feels like such a fairy tale.”
- David Ostrowsky
- Year in Review
- National Hockey League
- Quinn Hughes
- Vancouver Canucks
- Travis Green
- Boston Bruins
- Cale Makar
- New Jersey Devils
- University of Michigan
- Ellen Weinberg-Hughes
- U.S. Women’s national team
- Conor Garland
- Ryan Braun
- Milwaukee Brewers
- Jewish ballplayer
- National League Rookie of the Year
- Hebrew Hammer
- Jewish Kids
- Robert Kraft
- Super Bowl LVI
- New England Patriots
- Jonnu Smith
- Matthew Judon
- Davon Godchaux
- Jalen Mills
- Hunter Henry
- Kendrick Bourne
- Nelson Agholor
- Inglewood California
- Ali Marpet
- Super Bowl
- Tom Brady
- Kansas City Chiefs
- Hobart College
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Super Bowl LV
- Steve Cohen
- New York Mets
- Francisco Lindor
- Max Scherzer
- Starling Marte
- Eduardo Escobar
- World Series
- Jacob deGrom
- Anthony Firkser
- Tennessee Titans
- Manalapan Township NJ
- Bar Mitzvah
- hebrew school
- Jewish background
- DeSean Jackson
- Unity Through Sport
- Florida Gulf Coast University
- Richard Bleier
- ASUN Hall of Fame
- FGCU Athletics
- Miami Marlins
- Texas Rangers
- New York Yankees
- Austin Slater
- San Francisco Giants
- Max Fried
- 2021 World Series
- Atlanta Braves
- Joc Pederson
- Houston Atros
- Alex Bregman
- Garrett Stubbs
- Bill Clinton
- Jewish Pitcher
- U.S. junior baseball team
- 2009 Maccabiah Games
- Jewish athlete
- Sue Bird
- gold medal
- Neil Enns Seattle Storm
- jewish community
- basketball players
- Russian-Jewish descent
- Israeli Citizen
- 2016 Olympics
- Alix Klineman
- Volleyball World
- Stanford University
- Southern California Jewish Hall of Fame
- April Ross
- Rio Games
- Tokyo Games
- U.S. Olympian
- social media
- performance-enhancing drugs