My incredible Journey; Cardiff Devils rising star Max Birbraer served time in jail and the Israeli Army before he was 20, but ice hockey got him through it all.
It began in his homeland of Kazakhstan and involved him crossing continents, being thrown in jail and serving in the Israeli Army - all before he turned 20.
As a young ice hockey player, Max dared to dream that he could turn his passion into his career, but he had no idea that his pursuit of playing would see him put in jail.
The 29-year-old was brought up in Ust-Kamenogorsk, now known as Oskemen, in the east of Kazakhstan. "I was born in what was probably the biggest ice hockey town in Kazakhstan," he says.
His grandfather's love of ice hockey nudged him onto the rink when he bought six-year-old Max a pair of skates. As a child Max proved to be a natural on the ice and quickly became one of Kazakhstan's top young players and participated in all-Soviet finals. But when he hit his teens his family dropped a bombshell.
"My parents told me when I was 15 that my grandfather and my dad were Jewish and that for the family interest my mum, my dad, me and my sister were moving to Israel. I had to make a decision because I thought I was going to stop playing hockey. I was good but I to stop playing hockey. I was good but I wasn't extremely good," he says. At 16 Max thought his hockey career was over, but by chance, a family friend in Kazakhstan approached Max about trying out for an ice hockey team in Israel. He was selected for the Israeli Under-18s and within six months he was playing for the senior national team. It was at a national tournament that he was spotted by a trainer from Canada, Paul Rosen. "He said, 'What are you doing playing hockey in Israel? Come to Canada, stay atmy house for a couple of weeks and go and try out for junior hockey'.
He was one of the most influential people for me because he basically turned my life around," he says. With hisparents' permission,hewent to Canada with Paul as his legal guardian while his family stayed near Tel Aviv in Israel. In a new country once more, Max found himself playing hockey again and having a great time. "The first tryout Paul took me on, I ended up making the team and it just went fromthere.The next three or four years happened very fast," he says. But returning to Israel in 1999 to renew his passport spun Max's world around all over again. "I did not knowat the time that I had been getting letters fromthe army, but when you turn 18 in Israel you have to report to the army for a mandatory three years and I hadn't, so I got arrested at the airport. My parents were waiting forme at the arrivals hall and I never came out," he says. After a night in jail,Maxwas awoken at 6am and brought in front of military personnel at an army hearing.
"I said I was playing hockey and I couldn't go to the army, I told them I played for the Israeli National team - nothing worked. They said 'You're either going to the army or to jail'. I said, 'I can't go to the army because that would be three years out of my life', so Iwent straight fromthere to the army jail," he says. After a month, Max agreed to go to the army for basic training. "It was taking a toll on me because my life got turned upside down," he remembers. "I had been coming back to Canada to playmy final season in junior hockey and now I was in jail in the army in Israel, possibly going on the front lines in a country that's at war." With thedreamof playing hockey to focus on, Max did all he could to keep his pre-season fitness up and after three months and numerous psychological tests, he was discharged fromthe army. "They said I wasn't mentally fit to serve, so they gavemeabus ticket home," he says. Two days later he had a plane ticket and got back to Canada just in time to start a season which turned out to be his best, as he became the first Israeli to be drafted by a National Hockey League team, the New Jersey Devils.
"I ended up getting drafted by the NHL, which is the top league in the world. It was unbelievable, events unfolded so quickly for me," he says. Max's variety of body tattoos include one of barbed wire to commemorate his prison days, but he says he will never forget what he went through. "When I was arrested, I thought I couldn't go to the army because I'd have to forget about hockey after that," he says. "And now, fast forward and I'm in Cardiff and I'm happy to be able to play in one of the best places in the league."
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|Publication:||South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)|
|Date:||Oct 13, 2010|
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