As a buzzer sounded one recent Sunday at the Los Angeles Kings Valley Ice Center in Panorama City, nearly a dozen children glided — or attempted to — toward the bench as another dozen stumbled onto the rink. They lodged their blades into the frozen surface and assembled at center ice, where a referee was waiting with a black puck in his hand.
It looked like any other youth ice hockey league, save for a few exceptions: Tzitzit poked out from under most players’ jerseys, many fathers watching from the stands wore kippot, and reggae star Matisyahu was in the house watching two of his sons, Laivy and Shalom, enjoy some ice time.
Meeting every Sunday now for more than three months, the all-boys Los Angeles Jewish Hockey League (LAJHL) already has signed up more than 50 kids, according to Yitzchak Tenenbaum, who founded the league in December with Joshua Botnick and has two sons participating.
Two of Botnick’s sons, Dovi and Ari, also play and were his motivation for helping establish LAJHL, Botnick told the Journal in an e-mail.
“They are huge hockey fans,” Botnick wrote. “I used to take them to ‘stick time’ but could not find a league their age that played on Sunday.”
LAJHL, which draws many of its participants from Hancock Park and Pico-Robertson, is not something that was in the works for years — anything but. The push to create the league came from, of all people, a non-Jewish rink manager. One day in October, when Tenenbaum took his children to the rink to skate around, the manager asked him if he’d be interested in signing them up for a league.
“I said, ‘Most of the leagues are on Shabbos, so we can’t play,’ ” Tenenbaum recalled.
So the manager suggested fielding calls for a Sunday league instead. After a friend forwarded Tenenbaum an e-mail from Botnick, who was already trying to gauge interest in a Jewish youth hockey league, the two were able to sign up 30 children in two months.
“We didn’t know what we were going to get,” said Tenenbaum, a lifelong New York Rangers fan. “We were thinking we were going to be lucky to get 20.”
Demand was so high, though, that by December, Tenenbaum and Botnick had to create two divisions for the league’s first week — one for kids ages 6-10 and another for the big boys, ages 11-13. The league plans to add a 14-17 age group after Passover, Botnick said.
For most of the players, this is their first time playing ice hockey competitively. While Tenenbaum and Botnick said they plan to turn LAJHL into a league with set teams, standings, playoffs and trophies, for now the Sunday games are less about winning than about teaching the game to novices.
During a recent game for the younger division, it was more like six-on-six hockey with training wheels than the high-speed, board-smashing kind. There was some light checking, but many more little falls by kids still learning the art of high-speed ice skating.
There were three coaches, all parents, skating along with the players, and the lines changed every two and a half minutes during the three 15-minute periods. On the ice, the athletes were in full protective hockey gear — helmet, shoulder pads, shin guards and all.
Avi Goldman, 8, a goaltender, recently switched to the position so that he could get more playing time — the goalies don’t sub out at each interval.
“He saved the game last week in a shootout,” his father, Eli Goldman, said of his son, who was sporting the No. 8 jersey.
Asked why he wanted Avi to play ice hockey, Goldman responded, in jest, “He doesn’t know how to fight, so I figured he might as well learn on the ice.” (For the record, the LAJHL prohibits all brawls.)
Although the score — a tie at 3-3 — wasn’t all that important, skaters like Tenenbaum’s 8-year-old son, Tzemach, were certainly playing to win. After the match, Tzemach said he was upset when the referee, Botnick, didn’t call a penalty after a player on the white team supposedly tripped him into the boards.
The boy also succinctly explained his hockey philosophy and why he enjoys playing the offensive position of center: “I like to score goals. I hate stopping goals.”
Eli Dror, 9, who also prefers playing center, said he only got into hockey recently, just after the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2012.
Botnick and Tenenbaum expect the league to keep expanding, but it will take time and, likely, donations and sponsorships.
“We would like to do one or two practices a week,” Tenenbaum said. “We would like for it to grow.”
For information about the LAJHL, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org