Daniel Smajovits is a proud sports fanatic with minimal athletic abilities, freelance writer, and full-time public relations professional. He is also the co-chair of the Maccabi Canada’s Quebec Region.
Growing up, sports played a significant role in my life. As my parents can attest, I was not the most athletically gifted child. However, I definitely made up for any shortcomings in sheer fanaticism.
Yet, it was impossible for me to pick a favourite athlete. I cheered for Shawn Green and Jay Fiedler, held my breath during the routines of Sarah Hughes and, of course, wore my Mathieu Schneider jersey with the utmost pride.
As Jewish sports fans, we all know the stories of Sandy Koufax or Mark Spitz – athletes who wore the Star of David as proudly as their athletic crowns. But, with a Jewish history dating back to the 1760s, who is Quebec’s Sandy Koufax? Do we even have one?
The answer will surprise you.
Since 1910, the YM-YWHA – or the Y – has been the beating heart of our athletic community. Within its first 10 years, the facility produced an Olympic medallist: Middleweight boxer Moe Herscovitch (Bronze, 1920 Summer Olympics). Since then, seven Olympians – both Jews and non-Jews – have called the Y their home away from home, including wrestlers David Zilberman (2008 Summer Olympics), Gia Sissaouri (Silver, 1996 Summer Olympics) and Martine Dugrenier, three-time World Champion and two-time Olympian (2008, 2012).
To this day, the Y continues to embrace its fundamental role in developing future generations. As the training hub for Quebec’s Maccabiah athletes, the next Jewish superstar is honing his or her craft before taking to the world stage.
While the YM-YWHA will always be the epicentre for our athletes, more than a century before Kurt Browning or Elvis Stojko, Louis Rubenstein left the confines of theY to lay the foundation for what would become the sport of figure skating. After winning the Montreal championship in 1878, Rubenstein advanced to the first World Figure Skating Championships in St. Petersburg, Russia. In spite of incredible anti-Semitism, as organizers tried to block him from competing, he captured the gold medal. His performance in Russia launched the career of an athlete who would become known as the Father of North American Figure Skating.
Trading figure skates for hockey skates and long before Mathieu Schneider and Michael Cammalleri wore the bleu, blanc et rouge, Cecil Hart commanded the bench for the Montreal Canadiens, winning two Stanley Cup Championships (1929-30 and 1930-31) in nine seasons as the team’s head coach. However, his on-ice success only scratches the surface of his family’s legacy to the sport and to the community. A descendant of Canada’s first Jewish settler, Aaron Hart, Cecil was dedicated to hockey, at both the amateur and professional level, since the age of 17. It was due to Cecil’s involvement that his father, Dr. David Hart, donated the Hart Trophy to the National Hockey League in 1924, a full two years before Cecil’s ascension to head coach. Unbeknownst to the elder Hart, that donation would later serve as a memorial to his son and become the most significant individual trophy in the sport, awarded annually to the league’s most valuable player.
If Cecil Hart was a pioneer in the front office, fellow Montrealer Hyman Buller was one on the ice, playing five seasons with the Detroit Red Wings and the New York Rangers in the 1940s and 50s. Nicknamed the “Blueline Blaster,” fellow athletes admired Hy for his sportsmanship and on-ice abilities. However, long before Sandy Koufax, it was Buller who first refused to play on Yom Kippur, thus making him a hero to New York City’s Jewish community.
Closer to home, Samson Burke – an Olympic swimmer, and bodybuilder – was being recognized as one of the first multi-sport athletes. As a competitive swimmer, Burke won several titles at the provincial and national level, and was named Canada’s Greatest All-Around Collegiate Athlete. His prowess in the water led him to represent Canada at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London. As if being an Olympian was not a feat in itself, in the late 1950s, Burke won the World Heavyweight Wrestling title and the International Federation of Bodybuilders named him the Top Amateur Athlete in the World at the world bodybuilding championships.
Today, researching the feats of Buller or Burke is simple. However, for decades, the public relied solely on journalists to convey stories of competition. The thrill of victory and pain of defeat was felt vicariously through the words of journalists, and for many, the writings of Sam Maltin and Red Fisher served as legendary insights into the hearts and minds of athletes.
Through baseball and hockey, Maltin and Fisher respectively left their mark on the local sports scene. Maltin’s beat was the Montreal Royals and his athlete of choice was Jackie Robinson. On hand when Jackie Robinson broke the professional baseball colour barrier, he remained alongside the team throughout that season, en route to their Junior World Series title. After the win, tens of thousands of fans chased Robinson through the streets; Maltin famously wrote, “it was probably the only day in history that a black man ran from a mob with love instead of lynching on his mind.”
Less than 10 years later, Red Fisher penned his first column for the Montreal Star, kicking off a career as the longest serving beat writer for an NHL team. Always filled with pithy commentary and exclusive insight, Fisher’s columns took readers from the press box to the locker room for more than 50 years.
As journalists and fans can attest to, athletes come in all shapes and sizes, and brothers Joe and Ben Weider are famous for recognizing the strongest of them all. While younger Montrealers might initially recognize the Weiders from the building at the Sylvan Adams YM-YWHA building that bears their name, Joe and Ben were international weightlifting pioneers. From their humble beginnings in 1940, as publishers of a fitness magazine, their business savvy morphed their brandinto a bodybuilding empire, with little-known spokesmodel Arnold Schwarzenegger at the helm. Their impact on the sport spanned beyond the Jewish community; as a direct result of their efforts, doors soon opened for women and minority athletes to compete at the highest level.
While the Weiders were putting Montreal on the map for weightlifting, Eddie Creatchman and Jack Britton were doing the same for professional wrestling. As long-time partners, both found success on the business side of the sport, helping transform professional wrestling into a lucrative business and incredibly popular sport.
Just as the Weiders, Creatchman and Britton revolutionized the business of their respective sports, the Bronfman family did the same for the entire sports scene of Montreal, ushering in an era of unparalleled athletic prosperity for the city. As the first majority owner of the Montreal Expos, Charles Bronfman brought professional baseball to Canada in 1968, restoring the city’s baseball legacy. The newfound prominence and excitement was a catalyst, propelling Montreal to being awarded the 1976 Summer Olympic Games. With the Olympics on the horizon, and the excitement of baseball infusing the city, Peter and Edward Bronfman bought the Montreal Canadiens in 1971, serving as majority owners for four Stanley Cup Championships. With the Bronfman family at the helm of both major professional sports franchises during the 1970s, Montreal became the epicentre of Canadian sports at the time.
The nature of sports is one of ebb and flow, and Montrealers know that first-hand. More than two decades removed from the last Stanley Cup parade, and one decade since the demise of the Montreal Expos, recent years have provided few bright spots for local fans. Yet, with his Herzliah diploma in tow, one man is changing that. Professional soccer player-turned-executive Adam Braz has helped re-ignite the city’s winning ways with the Montreal Impact. Following a nine-year professional career, Braz was hired as the Team Manager in 2011 and subsequently promoted to Technical Director in 2014, where his leadership left the team just short of their first Major League Soccer Championship Game this past season. Off the pitch, his easygoing demeanour and love for the game makes him a fan favourite at events such as the annual Cummings Centre Celebrity Sports Breakfast, where the next generation of soccer superstars look forward to spending time with a local legend.
Whether it’s every June, when the Hart Memorial Trophy is awarded, or it’s through the writing of today’s journalists, whom grew up reading the words of Red Fisher, the history of Quebec’s Jewish sports personalities is one that we should all be proud of. As they have for more than a century, these individuals will continue to inspire and their legacies will undoubtedly live on for generations to come.