СЕЗОН 1999-2000 ГГ

ДРАФТ 2000
Калгари, Канада. 24-25 июня 2000 года.

Devils: Challenge has been off ice for their top pick

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 two years. 

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." 

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