UMass F Jonny Lazarus cherishes Maccabiah Games hockey experience

  • The opening ceremonies of the 2017 Maccabiah Games in Jerusalem. COURTESY JOHNNY LAZARUS

  • UMass hockey forward Jonny Lazarus, left, and UConn’s Max Kalter stand atop Masada during their trip to Israel for the 2017 Maccabiah Games. Visit this story at for a podcast with Lazarus. COURTESY JOHNNY LAZARUS

  • UMass forward Jonny Lazarus, right, poses with Israel’s Ilya Spektor at the 2017 Maccabiah Games in Jerusalem. Spektor and Lazarus first met at a 2013 camp for the Wichita Falls Wildcats junior team. COURTESY JOHNNY LAZARUS

  • Jonny Lazarus, front, of UMass, begins a drive to the goal against Colorado College, last season. Lazarus played for Team USA at the Maccabiah Games in July. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

Published: 8/4/2017 10:20:26 PM

Jonny Lazarus didn’t realize just how much playing in the Maccabiah Games would affect him.

The games draw the world’s best Jewish athletes to Israel for an Olympic-style event every four years. The 2017 event marked the 20th games and attracted 10,000 athletes in 45 sports.

Lazarus, a rising sophomore forward at UMass, liked the idea of seeing Israel and playing a summer hockey tournament. But his religion or Israel wasn’t something he’d spent much time focusing on before.

“It was much more than I imagined,” the Syosset, New York, native said.

The day after committing to UMass last summer, Lazarus got a call from Team USA coach Greg Garber, inviting him to play.

“I was in the car with my parents,” Lazarus said. “I didn’t know how he knew I was Jewish.”

A lot of Lazarus’ friends had done Birthright Israel, an organization that offers Jewish men and women from around world between the ages of 18-26 a free trip to Israel. But the Maccabiah experience appealed more. It allowed him to represent his country and be an ambassador for hockey, which isn’t often played in the Middle East.

He joined a team that included American collegians from Division I and III, and some top-level high school players.

The team spent the first week in Israel touring the country. The more he saw and more he learned, the more Lazarus found himself connecting with Israel. The players hiked up Masada and visited the Dead Sea. They prayed at the Western Wall and visited a cemetery honoring Israeli soldiers.

He walked through the Yad Vashem, Israel’s World Holocaust Remembrance Center, with Max Kalter, a UConn rising junior. During the season, Kalter is a Hockey East rival, but on the trip, he was one of Lazarus’ closest friends.

Yad Vashem was a moving experience anyway, but to see it with Kalter, whose grandfather survived the Holocaust, added to the emotion of the visit.

“Israel was never a big part of my life. My family was never very religious. Seeing it changes your perspective on everything,” Lazarus said. “It’s pretty impossible not to feel that way when you walk through the Yad Vashem and see all those things about the Holocaust. The feelings that hit you are so deep. It’s crazy. Seeing (Max) take in everything was pretty unique even second hand.”

The trip allowed him to reconnect with an old friend. In 2013, Lazarus attended camp for the Wichita Falls Wildcats junior team. There his locker was next to Ilya Spektor.

“He told me he was from Israel and I was like ‘wow!’ We were the only two Jewish kids at the whole camp. We connected right off the bat,” Lazarus said. “I kept in touch with him over the years.”

Lazarus joined Wichita Falls, while Spektor played for Jersey Shore in the NA3HL, a lesser junior league. While Lazarus’ hockey path led to a scholarship at UMass, Spektor was summoned home for Israel’s mandatory military service. The gravity of that stuck with Lazarus.

“When you graduate high school you join the army. That’s insane,” Lazarus said. “I’ve been reflecting for the past couple weeks. It made me more appreciative of the United States.”

Spektor is the captain of the Israeli team. Starting with the opening ceremony, athletes from different nations trade gear with one another as souvenirs. Before leaving, Lazarus gave a game jersey to Spektor for some Israel hockey apparel.

“That meant a lot to him,” Lazarus said.

The quality of hockey was better than he expected too. The Americans opened play with a 3-2 shootout loss to Canada. The intensity of the game set a tone.

“Going into it I was thinking it would be fun. In the first shift against Canada, the guys were chirping and throwing bodies,” Lazarus said. “We were like this is legit hockey. Let’s win this thing.”

They got close. USA earned a silver medal after falling 7-2 to Canada in the championship game on July 15.

Since returning home Lazarus has a new appreciation for Israel. Down the road when he’s married with a family, he hoped to bring them so they can experience some of what he did.

“There are some very nice parts and some places that really need some help,” he said. “After seeing it, anyone who has relationship with Israel will do anything they can to help that country.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at

Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061


Copyright © 2020 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy