On Tuesday, the Maccabi USA ice hockey team for players 18 years or older had their one and only practice before departing for Israel on Wednesday for this month’s 19th Maccabiah Games.
But that didn’t dampen the spirts of the players gathered together for a send off dinner at Umberto’s Pizzeria and Restaurant in New Hyde Park - or their objectives.
“Winning and seeing the country,” said team members Ryan Scall, a Dix Hills native who was a defenseman at the University of Buffalo.
The dinner at Umberto’s was sponsored by New Hyde Park-based Haines Celestial and arranged by New Hyde Park insurance agent Richard “Big Daddy” Salgado, who counts hockey players and Umberto’s among his clients.
Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano attended the dinner to support the team.
“I’m wishing these great athletes well in those games where they’re going to represent the U.S.,” Mangano said.
The Maccabi USA team will compete against squads from Canada, Russian and Israel.
Coach Billy Jaffe said the teams all play each other in the opening round. The teams with the best and worst records then play each other as the second and third place teams also face off in the semi-final round. The winners of those games meet in the final round.
The Maccabiah Games, which are held in Israel every four years, also fields teams under-18 and over-40.
Jaffe said his initial challenge in assembling his team was finding Jewish hockey players for the team.
“You call players. You call coaches. You know who some of the Jewish hockey players are, you find out and you call them,” Jaffe said.
Jaffe, a Williston Park resident who is a hockey broadcaster on hockey telecasts for the NHL Network and MSG Network, was captain of the USA team at the 1997 Maccabiah games that lost to Canada in the gold medal game.
He said the Maccabiah Games will be a unique experience for the players.
“You’re going to an incredible land with an incredible history but you’re going there to play hockey and be with 8,000 athletes from around the world,” Jaffe said.
Woody Levin, a forward who was also a teammate of Jaffe on the 1997 team, said participating in the hockey tournament - in the country’s only Olympic-sized ice rink in Matula - is a “great” experience.
“Even when I was in college, to team up with other Jewish players, it doesn’t happen,” Levin said.
He said the team would have two practices at Tel Aviv and Metula before the tournament competition begins.
The cost of transportation and accommodations for team is approximately $5,000 per player, according to Phil Pulley, chairman of ice hockey for USA Maccabi.
He said the team’s sponsors are Five Guys Burgers, the Packer Family Foundation and Ron Friedman, who is also an investor in the current project to build an ice hockey complex in Eisenhower Park.
Pulley said apart from the hockey, the Maccabiah Games offer the players a chance to forge a link to their cultural heritage.
“You’re bringing kids who otherwise would not be going to Israel,” Pulley said. “It gives them an opportunity to connect with their roots.”