Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Globetrotting prospect gets chance with Gulls

By Glae Thien
SPECIAL TO THE UNION-TRIBUNE
Gulls winger Max Birbraer lived in three diverse countries and endured some tumultuous cultural conditions before launching his pro hockey career as the first Israeli player selected in the NHL entry draft.

Birbraer learned the game in his native Kazakhstan in an atmosphere unfriendly to Jews in the post-Soviet Union era. His family later moved to Israel, but in an unusual personal circumstance he was jailed in his adopted homeland. Eventually, he developed as a player in Canadian junior hockey while far removed from his family.

Through it all, Birbraer gained a world of experience in the world itself, and his playing skills progressed to the point that the New Jersey Devils selected him in the third round of the 2000 draft.

Birbraer prefers these days simply to focus on the world of hockey while leading the Gulls with 25 points approaching the midpoint of his first season with the club.

"Right now, I worry about hockey and enjoying my life," said Birbraer, 24, who began last season in training camp with the NHL's Florida Panthers. "Right now, it feels like I'm in some kind of paradise compared to what I experienced before. It makes you appreciate life and enjoy it."

Birbraer sees this season as pivotal in positioning himself to reclimb the hockey ladder following three-plus seasons in the American Hockey League, one step below the NHL. In the ECHL, he finds himself in a developmental league that has more talent than ever because of the NHL lockout.

However tough times have been, Birbraer takes to the ice in an unruffled manner.

"He's very easygoing," said NHL center Curtis Brown, playing with the Gulls during the lockout. "He doesn't get too riled up about anything. That's good because then you don't get too high or too low."

For much of his youth, Birbraer knew nothing about his religious background. His parents felt it best not to advertise their families' Jewish heritage because of anti-Semitism in Kazakhstan.

Hockey became a youthful refuge without such prejudice. Birbraer took up the game at the encouragement of his grandfather Anatoly, who still lives in Kazakhstan.

"It was my grandfather's idea to take me to a hockey rink, and I'm grateful to him for that," Birbraer said. "He made a great choice for me. I enjoy what I do. Also, he lives for that, me playing hockey. I don't get to talk to him that often, but every time he calls, he asks for some (game) tapes."

When Birbraer was 15, his parents decided to move the family to Tel Aviv in hopes of better opportunities for him and his sister.

Although Israel isn't known for hockey, Birbraer took along his skates, his gloves and a stick just in case. Then, in a quick and fortunate turn of events, he found a place to practice, and an onlooking coach invited him to play for the Israeli national junior team.

In a reminder of a rude world, Birbraer and his Israeli teammates were subjected to anti-Semitic taunts and even spitting while coming on and off the ice against the home team during the 1997 World Junior Championships in Yugoslavia. Fortunately, he says it was an isolated incident.

At the same tourney, Birbraer caught the attention of Paul Rosen, a Canadian coaching in Israel. Rosen later offered to take Birbraer to Canada to play and be his legal guardian.

Birbraer accepted the invitation with the support of his parents, Alex and Svetlana.

"Not a lot of parents will send a 16-year-old kid across the world with no guarantees," Birbraer said. "They knew I had to take a chance, and they made the right choice."

The bond between Birbraer and Rosen became one of kinship. In recognition, they each received matching tattoos saying "brothers forever" in Hebrew.

For two seasons, Birbraer played Tier II junior hockey in Shelburne, Ontario. After that, his visa came due for renewal, and a return to Israel was required.

The occasion was also meant to be a family reunion. Before he could see his relatives at the Tel Aviv airport, however, Birbraer was taken to jail in connection with the required military service for 18-year-old Israeli citizens.

Birbraer remained jailed while he balked at serving the minimum three-year commitment because it would derail his hockey aspirations taking root in Canada.

"Then I realized after a month that I would rather be in the army than in jail," Birbraer said. "I went into the army for three months, and finally they discharged me because I was really depressed and couldn't function normally. Then I took the first plane back to Canada."

In turn, Birbraer said he brought even more enthusiasm to the upcoming hockey season, his last in the junior ranks. With Tier II Newmarket, he recorded 50 goals and 32 assists in 47 games.

Then came his selection by New Jersey, then the reigning Stanley Cup champion, as the 67th pick overall in the 2000 draft. Though he initially didn't realize it, Birbraer was informed by media that he was the first Israeli player ever chosen.

"I'm definitely proud to be that," Birbraer said. "But in the hockey world, when it comes down to playing a game, that's not significant. For the Israeli people who follow it, it gives them something to cheer about. That's great. Why not? But I was more happy to be drafted by the NHL in general."

Birbraer played for three seasons with the Albany River Rats of the AHL, the Devils' top affiliate. Following the second season, his family moved to Toronto and away from increasing terrorism danger in Israel, much to his relief.

When the Devils allowed him to become an unrestricted free agent, Birbraer got his chance in the Panthers training camp. He subsequently played with their AHL affiliate in San Antonio and then Laredo of the Central Hockey League last season.

Over the previous two seasons, Birbraer dealt with a hernia injury and later a monthlong bout with pneumonia.

"He's very talented," said Brown, who plays on the same line with Birbraer and Sean O'Connor. "He has all the tools that a hockey player would want to have. He skates real well and he can shoot. He's physical, so he can play any type of game that presents itself. Not many guys can say that."

Gulls coach Martin St. Amour received a positive recommendation from renowned New Jersey General Manager Lou Lamoriello before signing Birbraer this season. The most common critique of Birbraer has been that he needs to be more consistent.

"So I was willing to give him a chance," St. Amour said. "So far I'm not disappointed. Lou said he would score 25 goals (per season) definitely at this level. If Max wants another chance at the NHL, he has to start playing here."

Birbraer has eight goals and 17 assists in 31 games for the Gulls.

"I'm playing here with great players. There is not much more to ask for, especially in a lockout year," Birbraer said. "Everybody has something to improve. I have a lot of things to work on. Martin has been great, giving me advice. He has put me in situations for confidence."

Should he advance to the NHL, Birbraer would gladly add his name to the list of the few Jews who have played at the top level of the pro game. Most notably perhaps is defenseman Mathieu Schneider, who won a Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens and played for the Los Angeles Kings and Detroit Red Wings.

"To be mentioned in the same line with such guys is a privilege," Birbraer said.

And so, too, has been the chance for Max Birbraer to proceed in that quest.