Monday, January 08, 2007

Hockey and Religion

Should Benjamin Rubin put aside his religion for a chance to play in the NHL? Should the league support players who follow a religion to sit out games? Should it be up to the GM, coach or player to decide if he should play? Is it discriminatory to make a player get on the ice?

In my mind, this issue comes down to the basic idea that you can’t discriminate against someone because of their religion. Forcing a player to take the ice in direct violation of their religious beliefs goes against everything that we as Americans and Canadians believe in regards to freedom of religion. A person should have the right to practice their religion to the extent that they feel necessary.

Consider it this way – if a person works in an office and is an observant Jew, the assumption would be that he or she would be unable to work weekends or even stay late on a Friday. It is the employer’s responsibility to provide a working environment in which that is possible.

The same applies to sports.

Judaism is a religion based on strict rituals designed to separate out days and times of the year as holier than others, times when your secular life must take a back seat to your faith. I am Jewish and although I’m not anywhere near as observant as Benjamin Rubin, I do take off the two holiest days of the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hoshanah and Yom Kippur. My employer has never had a problem with it, nor would I expect them to. I know that I will be out on certain days and plan accordingly to have my work completed in advance or work overtime to catch up after the holiday. I take it for granted that I will be given the necessary days off to practice my religion.

Last year the issue was raised here in DC when Jeff Halpern was debating whether he should sit out back to back games that took place over Yom Kippur. His eventual decision was to play the night before and attend services the day of Yom Kippur, a decision that was fully supported by the coaching staff and his teammates. For Halpern, that was something he needed to do at the time – although not a particularly religious Jew, he felt it was important that he take off this very sacred day.

In sports it is the job of the GM to pick players that he feels will best help his club have a successful season. If it is known that a certain player will have to miss a certain number of games because of religious purposes, whatever religion that may be, the GM has the right to not pick that player. It’s the same as deciding against a player because of size, inconsistency of play, or tendency towards injury, and in my opinion at least does not constitute discrimination. Having said that – if the GM knowingly selects someone whose religion will prevent him from playing at certain times then insists that the player ignore the religious practices, there is no question in my mind that it would absolutely be discrimination.

It’s hard to say whether Rubin should set aside his religion for the chance to play in the NHL. If he is able to compromise in the way that Halpern and other athletes have compromised in the past, taking certain days off but not others, so be it. He may have been raised more observant but choose to follow his own path away from strict Orthodox practices as he becomes an adult. For some people, though, religion is not a choice but a duty. They would never consider compromising on something they see as so important, something that defines who they are and how they live their lives from day to day. Should they then be punished for their beliefs by not being allowed to at least attempt to fulfill their dream? It's a tough call.

Depending on how far he is able to advance in the hockey world, Rubin will have some difficult realities to face. If he chooses to have a goal of eventually reaching the NHL, he’ll have to come to terms with the fact that some GMs won’t want to gamble on a player who won’t be playing in a good portion of the games. The NHL can't be expected to rearrange the scheduling to fit one player. There is a question of compensation. Some players might be offended by him sitting out so frequently. Fans may react negatively to what could be perceived as not being a team player, regardless of how dedicated he may actually be.

Should Rubin make it to the NHL, I believe he would be the first Orthodox Jew to play in the league (I’ll have to check with my dad, though; he knows all kinds of random stuff like that). Roy was obviously willing to take Rubin in spite of his religious practices – will NHL GMs feel the same? It will definitely be interesting to see how this plays out in the future.

Just my two cents...take it for what it's worth :)


Heather B. said...

You pretty much said what I was going to say, CC. I have a lot of respect for Rubin because even at the level he's at now I'm sure there are players, coaches, and fans who don't appreciate him missing so many games and practices. But as a GM, knowing Rubin's practices, I don't think I'd draft him. He could potentially miss a lot of games and chemistry is so important with forwards. Would he miss enough games to complicate that? Definitely a tough question with a lot of issues to consider.

Meg said...

I think it's an interesting question because you have to ask not only what's fair to Rubin but what's fair to his teammates as well.

You mention that you always make sure that your work doesn't suffer even when missing days. It won't be possible to for Rubin to do that. I can totally understand taking off holidays like Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. I don't do it myself, but there are certainly people in my family who do. But missing one or two days of work nearly every week is an entirely different situation, and one that I think most bosses would be less understanding of. And that's basically what Rubin would have to do.

And let's have an imaginary scenario: game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, etc. and he doesn't play because it's on a Friday night. His team loses and the way I see it there's really no two ways about it; that's not fair to the teammates who've worked with him all year long.

I think Rubin, should he decide he really wants to play in the NHL (and if he has the talent to do so) has a really hard decision to make. But I think it will be his decision, because I'd be surprised if there's an NHL team that would be ok with him missing that many games, practices, etc. unless he's a truly exceptional talent.

CapsChick said...

It's true, and I think Margee makes this point pretty well - the impact on those around him has to be a consideration in any decision he makes.

Personally as a GM I wouldn't draft him either, simply because it's too much time to be missed. Most teams play either Friday or Saturday each week and sometimes both; throw in practices on Saturday mornings and he's just missing too much to really be considered a part of the team.

If a GM does decide to sign him the way Roy did, he'd have to be willing to give Rubin the time off, consequences be damned. It's a risk, for sure. But I agree with you that it's unlikely that will happen and he'll have to make a decision at some point what is more important to him - his religion or his hockey. You can maybe get away with missing so much time in the CHL, but not in the tougher (and higher salaried) NHL.

Of course, there may be a small part of me that wants to see him make it to the NHL just because we as a group are not the most athletic - it'd be nice to see some more members of the tribe out there :)

Jordi said...

I think a GM would probably choose a coffee maker over this guy. I'm sorry. I mean Patrick O'Sullivan didn't get his best draft worth because he had an abusive father - GMs want a kid who's brought up in an environment ready for the NHL and not carry extra baggage in.

I think if Rubin can figure out something he might have a chance - but the road is rocky.