|06/25/00 By Bridget Wentworth STAFF WRITER
CALGARY, Alberta -- The NHL draft is a piece of cake when your life
until this point has resembled an international spy movie.
A move to Israel to escape anti-Semitism in Kazakhstan. A decision to
leave family behind and go to Canada to play Tier 2 junior hockey. An arrest
at the airport in Tel Aviv for refusing to report to the Israeli army,
followed by a three-week stint in a military prison. When you've been through
all that by age 19, you tend to be a bit more relaxed than your peers,
which might explain why Max Birbraer seemed so poised and confident after
donning a Devils jersey yesterday.
Birbraer, the Devils' sixth pick of the entry draft at 67th overall,
represents possibly the most fascinating story to come out of this year's
draft. A big left wing who scored 50 goals last season for Newmarket in
Ontario, Birbraer's background, and the character development that came
along with it, were just as important to the Devils as his ability.
"I personally like those types of individuals who not only have talent
but who've had a bit of a rough going, who have character and who know
what it is not to have everything handed to them," Devils GM Lou Lamoriello
said. "He has talent, he has size and strength, and now we just have to
wait and see."
Born in Ust-Kamenogorsk in the Kazakh state of the former Soviet Union,
Birbraer didn't know he was actually a Russian Jew until he was 14. His
parents, who'd gone by another name, had kept that fact from him, fearing
anti-Semitic sentiment in Kazakhstan, and six months later, the family
decided to go to Israel to escape Russian oppression. Birbraer, who'd played
hockey since age 6, immediately caught on with the Israeli junior national
team. At 15, the trainer for the senior team gained legal custody of Birbraer
and brought him to Toronto in 1997, where he began playing Tier 2 hockey.
His major troubles began when his passport was due to expire last year.
Because the Israeli embassy in Canada wouldn't extend it, Birbraer had
to return to Tel Aviv to get a new passport. He knew what might be waiting
for him when he arrived -- army enlistment in Israel is mandatory, and
Birbraer had refused his assignment in order to play hockey. The Israeli
government doesn't look kindly on citizens who don't enlist, which Birbraer
discovered when he got off the plane.
"I was going through customs, and the lady there took my passport,"
he explained. "She put my name in the computer and right away it started
flashing. She told me to wait a second, and all of a sudden, two guys came
and grabbed me.
"They put handcuffs on me. I was pretty scared."
Three weeks of hard labor in a military prison followed, but Birbraer
was finally released when doctors cited medical reasons for an inability
to serve. Three days later, with a new passport in hand, Birbraer was back
in Canada. His family, however, has had to remain behind, and Birbraer
himself doesn't know if he'll ever return to Israel. His life, which revolves
around hockey, is here now. He'll likely end up in Albany next year, playing
for the Devils' minor-league team, with an eye toward making the NHL in
Which is fine with him, after all he has been through.
"It was a pretty good experience for my mental strength," Birbraer said
of the last few years. "I feel strong now, because I had to go through
all this stuff."