In the heat of a 1991 match, a player for the Buffalo Sabers called then-Canadiens defenseman Mathieu Schneider a "Jew boy." It was the first and only time Schneider had ever experienced anything remotely anti-Semitic in the NHL.
The comment -- an attempt to tap into Schneider's on-ice mean streak -- initially enraged Schneider, but he kept his cool, avoided a penalty and settled it the way most hockey players do -- he checked him into the sideboards in future games. "Every time I played against him after that," Schneider said, "I went after him as much as I could."
Schneider, No. 10 for the Los Angeles Kings, has been playing hockey since he was 4 years old. His father Sam, a youth hockey coach who played the game while growing up in Rhode Island, made sure that Schneider always got the best training available.
"You're taught from the time you're a kid to be mean out there and have an edge," said 31-year-old Schneider. "That helps you to be more successful. Unless you can score 50 goals, you have to be like that."
In addition to influencing Schneider's professional development, Sam also had a tremendous impact on his Jewish identity, which has become increasingly important to Schneider in recent years. Though Schneider spent his youth on the ice instead of in Hebrew school, Sam took him to High Holiday services and raised him to "live a good clean life."
While New York-born Schneider is no stranger to Los Angeles, locally his name remains familiar only to hockey and hard-core Jewish sports fans. He is one of the Kings' most valuable players, the NHL's top Jewish scorer and arguably the greatest Jewish player in the league's history.
There are currently only three other Jewish players in the NHL -- Steve Dubinsky (Chicago Blackhawks), Jeff Halpern (Washington Capitals) and Ronne Stern (San Jose Sharks) -- and nine on minor league teams.
Schneider, a Stanley Cup veteran, was part of the team that brought gold home from the 1996 World Cup, represented America in the 1998 Olympics and wants to play Salt Lake City in 2002. During Wayne Gretzky's last game, he helped the Great One score the final goal of his career.
Raised in West New York and Toms River, N.J., Schneider first experienced the joy of skating when Sam took him to Rockefeller Center at the age of 3.
Schneider's mother, Aline, a French-Canadian from Thetford Mines, Quebec, converted to Judaism to marry his father. (The couple divorced in 1981, but Aline continues to identify as a Jew.)
Schneider competed against his French-Canadian cousins during family trips to New England, and Sam oversaw his training until he was old enough to attend Mount Saint Charles Academy in Rhode Island, a private Catholic high school with a top-ranked hockey program. "I actually learned the most about Judaism in my world religion class there," Schneider said.
Before signing with the Kings, Schneider had spent four off-seasons living in Santa Monica and regularly worked out with former Kings defenseman Rob Blake at Gold's Gym. It was his friendship with Blake that helped seal a one-year, $2 million contract with the Kings, with an option for the 2001-02 season.
For Schneider, whose attitude off the ice is markedly laid back, the beach life of Southern California is a perfect fit.
He appreciates that Los Angeles, like other towns he's played for -- Toronto, Montreal and New York -- has a large Jewish community. "There's definitely a connection between Jews wherever you go," he said. "You immediately feel at home."
In Montreal, he lived "right in the Jewish area of town." In New York, Schneider served as a spokesperson for Tay-Sachs testing, rode a cherry picker to light the first candle of what he described as "the world's largest menorah" in front of a Long Island temple, and joked with fellow Rangers that the NHL Christmas break should be a Chanukah break to allow for more days off.
"The older I get, the more I think about religion," said Schneider, who married Toronto native Shannon Snider in 1999.
Shannon isn't Jewish, but she's been heavily influenced by her husband's growing exploration of his Jewish heritage and wants to convert. "This summer we're planning on going to Hebrew school together," Schneider said.
Schneider's strong desire to raise his son, 3-month-old Mathieu Jr., as a Jew has also contributed to his wife's plans for conversion.
The couple recently purchased a home in Manhattan Beach, where they'll continue living after Schneider retires in the next five years, even if the Kings don't pick up his option for 2001-02.
Schneider said he's probably going to seek a job in personal training after his hockey career is over, and the family will eventually join a congregation when his life settles. "I enjoy temple. I probably wouldn't go on a weekly basis, but I would definitely go on the High Holidays and be part of the community."
Discount tickets are still available for the first Jewish Journal Kings Night, Thurs., March 29, at 7:30 p.m. For more information or reservations, call Marc Entin at (213) 742-7187 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.