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Oakland Kochavim take ball hockey, community to the rinks

on September 27, 2012

Yossi Offenberg is a die-hard fan of ball hockey, which is like roller hockey, only in shoes.  He’s 48 and grew up in Toronto, where he and his friends would wait eagerly for the Saturday morning synagogue services to end so they could they rush home for lunch, and then out to play ball hockey in the streets. They did this until the stars came out and Sabbath was over. Offenberg says those cold winter days were some of the best days of his youth.

“The excitement and exuberance of the game overcame the frostbitten feeling in our toes and hands,” Offenberg says. “And we would walk home all beat up, but very happy.”

In 2002, after years of longing to return to the game, Offenberg asked the rabbi of his Oakland synagogue, the Dimond District’s Beth Jacob Congregation, to let him and fellow members play in the upstairs social hall. The congregation is Modern Orthodox, meaning its members follow very strict rules for observant Jewish life, so they must never play on the Sabbath or any Jewish holidays, the rabbi said.

But on other days? Fine. In fact, the rabbi joined the games.

Naming themselves the Oakland Kochavim (Kochavim means “stars” in Hebrew), the group met every Sunday to scrimmage. But, after two years of playing in the social hall, the synagogue committee finally decided the Kochavim needed to find a new venue.

Offenberg understood. “Social halls are for weddings, not floor hockey,” he says.

For months thereafter, Offenberg searched for a paved lot where at least ten adults could hit a ball around with hockey sticks. He tracked down a myriad of school principals throughout Oakland and asked to use their parking lots. But it was a tough sell.

“They really thought we were crazy,” he says.

Finally, a principal in Montclair agreed to the request, as long as they kept a low profile, due to liability concerns.  So by the light of car headlights, the players continued every Sunday night. That didn’t last long either. The ball would get lost in the bushes, car batteries were dying, and the pavement made for terrible scrapes and bruises.

That’s when Offenberg found The Dry Ice rink near the Oakland Airport. There is no ice at the Dry Ice, which makes it perfect for ball hockey; the rink is used for roller games, mostly, and boasts a digital scoreboard, great team benches and an excellent sound system though which the Kochavim rock out to AC DC and K’Naan.

“We came from a parking lot—this was heaven,” Offenberg says.

Roller hockey rinks are bigger than their Montclair parking lot, and at first the players—none of them exactly professionals—were unable to run the full length of the rink without exhausting themselves. So, for a few games, they shrank the rink by bringing the nets closer together.

“People from the bar were watching us, thinking these guys are absolutely insane,” Offenberg says.

The move to a professional rink brought on a new era for the Oakland Kochavim. They began to gain some attention in Oakland, and not just among Jewish players and fans.  Offenberg started a website which helped reach people of various backgrounds, and ethnicities—including Asians, Indians and Latinos.

There are currently more than sixty members in the Oakland Kochavim. Every Sunday, with the exception of Jewish holidays, around a dozen people show up to play. Teammates come from all over the Bay Area; some make the drive all the way from Palo Alto or San Mateo. The Kochavim group consists of a “mixed group of people of all faiths, all religions,” Offenber said.

On the third Sunday in September, for example—the Sunday between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur , the holiest week of the Jewish New Year—twelve players came out to The Dry Ice to play. Teams were separated by the color of their shirts. Both sides huddled. Then the game was on.

During the first round, Van Diec, 35—who played for the Hong Kong National ball hockey team—is a software engineer from Foster City, and led the offense as he sought to evade Matt Leary, 30, an image analysis technician from San Francisco. Sidestepping Leary, Diec passed the ball to Yuval Atias, 43, who owns a kosher butcher shop in the Glenview District, and was playing in his his kippah, which is a cap worn by some observant Jewish men. This was Atias’ second time ever playing ball hockey. He wielded his hockey stick to bring the ball up the sidelines but was ultimately thwarted by Leary.

That night, the game ended in a 6-6 tie, in part because a player from Offenberg’s team was dispatched to the other side to help even out the formerly lopsided score. But instead of assembling a “shoot-out” to break the tie, both teams agreed to call it a draw because it was late, and a few parents had to get up early to bring their kids to school.

“That’s a really nice game,” Offenberg said later, reflecting especially on the 6-6 tie. “Everybody feels good about it.” The Oakland Kochavim are not as interested in winning as they are in having a good time. And, he said they do not allow body checking, because it’s unnecessary. “We all have to go to work the next day,” he said.

The team holds a broad appeal in Oakland. There is the kosher baker who sometimes brings fresh-baked treats. Offenberg said one of their best players is a physicist from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab who has been playing with them since the early days. Others are physicians.

“When we’ve had injuries, our doctors have helped the people,” Offenberg said.

Once they hired a photographer to take photos of a game. But, unable to resist the fun, he put down his camera midway through the game and joined the Kochavim. The photographer has been playing ever since.   Offenberg says he’s the best defenseman they have.

The Oakland Kochavim are one of two ball hockey teams in Northern California, and every year they send a few of their best players along with the other group, the Bay Area Street Hockey team, to the International Ball Hockey Competition in Las Vegas. Recently, they also fundraised to cover international travel expenses for a team member who plays for the U.S. National Ball Hockey league.

Though Offenberg never reached his childhood dream of being an National Hockey League goalie, he says inspiring his community to play ball hockey is just as good—or even better.

“For one hour on Sunday night, all of us can live it,” he said as be recalled the dreams of his youth. “We are all superstars for that one hour, at least amongst ourselves.”

Correction: An earlier edition of this story reported incorrectly that the Oakland Kochavim played in the social hall of the Temple Beth Abraham. Oakland North regrets the error.  

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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