Daniel Spivak, who was born in Israel and plays for the national team, has been one of the Gwinnett Gladiators steadiest defenseman this season. (Photo: Amanda Hertel)
DULUTH — For Gwinnett Gladiators defenseman Daniel Spivak, his whole life has been filled with choices.
Choosing to play hockey. Choosing to skip Canadian juniors to go to college. Choosing to return to his homeland in Israel and make a major impact on the development of the sport he loves. Choosing to play professionally, far from his close-knit family.
With so many forks in the road, it could be overwhelming. But it’s easy to see that the 25-year-old takes everything with a laugh and an easy attitude. He grew up that way.
Spivak was born in Netanya, Israel, an area known for its miles of beaches and its three popular soccer teams. Netanya is a popular tourist destination, but it’s about as far away from the epicenter of hockey as possible. When the average low in January is around 50 degrees, finding ice can be difficult.
“In Israel, they are starting to build more rinks,” Spivak said. “Before, the only rink was way up north, like two hours from a major city. So to go play, you’re driving two hours to play, then play for two hours, and then come back. That’s a six-hour commitment. That’s a long day. Who’s going to want to do that?
“So it’s good that they’ve started to build more arenas in the area. Like a small arena in the central so more people can play. In a place that’s really hot, everybody wants to go somewhere where it’s cold.”
Netanya is also known as an area that welcomes immigrants, like Spivak’s grandparents. His paternal grandparents came from Poland, while his maternal side came from Morocco. Both of his parents were born in Israel, like Daniel and his two older brothers.
And in the war-stricken Middle East, where there’s conflict coming from seemingly every side, the country has a strict policy of military involvement. The Israeli Defense Forces, which many consider one of the most advanced military forces in the world, mandates that all citizens over the age of 18 enlist in the military draft. Men are obliged to three years of some kind of service, ranging from reserve to permanent service, while women serve two years.
Many opt to fulfill their mandatory service years behind a desk or as an instructor, but Spivak’s parents chose to serve as soldiers. Since Daniel and his older brothers were born in the country, they too are obligated to serve in the Army if they return to visit.
“Because I was living most of my life in Canada, and I got a hockey scholarship, I was waived from the drafting process,” said Spivak, who was not even a year old when his family moved to Canada. “So if I go back to Israel, it’s not like I’m deserting my country. You just have to make sure that you have that paperwork completed. My two older brothers and I, we all got releases, and my two younger brothers were born in Canada, so they’re all set.”
That’s necessary paperwork for Spivak because he returns to Israel often. Whenever he is able to leave in the summers, he goes back to visit hockey friends and has worked to establish the development of hockey in the deserts of Israel.
He has played not only for Israeli teams Maccabi Lod, HC Metula and the Haifa Hawks, but he’s devoted years to Team Israel in the World Cup. From 2004 to 2012, Spivak has stepped onto the ice 40 times wearing the light blue sweaters with the Star of David on the front, representing his homeland.
As a defenseman, it’s hard to calculate his impact without seeing him play, but the impact he makes off the ice is obvious.
“I had to take a leadership role, because they looked up to me,” he said. “Whether you like it or not, you’re the guy who plays in Canada, the home of hockey. I was playing in Canada and I was coming into here with guys who have no idea what to expect.
“If the youth can get into it, then they’ll support it. The adults are only going to get older, but if the young kids can grasp it and invest in it, then hopefully the country can invest in it and it’ll take off one day. Hopefully.”
Spivak counsels some of the kids with the help of Facebook and email.
And beyond playing, he aided the team by supplying them with some of the equipment it needed in order to succeed.
“It was just awesome that I could just go back and give them as much equipment as I could — helmets, gloves, sticks, skates,” Spivak said. “I’d just give it all to them, because to them, to just get a pair of skates is something. There isn’t a store nearby. You have to order it from all the way overseas, or from Europe, and that costs an arm and a leg.”
Succeed, Israel has, despite its limited abilities.
In his nine seasons with Team Israel, Spivak has helped them win two World Championship gold medals (2004-05 in Division II-B and 2010-11 in Division III) and a bronze (2006-07 in Division II-B).
An injury prevented Spivak from competing last year, but Team Israel still won an improbable Division II Group B gold medal at the IIHF World Championships in Turkey after entering as the second-lowest ranked team.
Spivak, for one, isn’t surprised at the against-all-odds success of Team Israel.
“To them, it’s like you’re playing in the Stanley Cup every time,” he said. “They’re learning every time you play with them. But it’s fun.
“They give everything they have. They’re very hard-working and they just want to succeed. The talent may not be there, but the work ethic is, so that’s why they’ve had some success. You see them, and that’s how you remember that hockey is fun.”
Spivak’s hockey journey began in the suburbs of Toronto, in Thornhill, Ontario.
There, his parents made a choice for him.
“I can remember this exactly — 5 years old in Canada, and it’s freezing,” he said. “My parents are like, ‘What do you do?’ Someone said, ‘Sign him up for house league. Everybody’s playing house league.’
“So you just go down the street and there’s a rink on like every corner in Thornhill. And especially the greater Toronto area. For like every mile, there are five rinks. So I just signed up and started playing.”
All five Spivak boys played in hockey at some point, but each one had different things they were interested in, including gymnastics and karate.
“They’d say, ‘Anything you want to do, we’ll do it and as long as you give it 100 percent,’” Spivak said.
He is also quick to admit that the hidden talent in the family may lie with his younger brother Aaron, who has benefited from having witnessed his three older brothers go through the hockey life before him. Now at age 18, Aaron is facing the same choice his older brother had to make six years ago.
“He’s really good,” Spivak said. “Anywhere where I’ve screwed up, we’ve corrected that with him. I was basically the guinea pig, me and my two older brothers. I mean, how do you work three kids at once, all playing hockey in different spots? So my older brothers and I have shown him and my youngest brother the ropes and figured it all out.”
Colleges have come calling for Aaron.
“He’s got a lot of options, like he had the option to go into the Ontario Hockey League, just like I did, and you have to make that decision,” Spivak said. “Do you want to play that game and do you risk it, or do you go to school? He had the option, and he got a better offer than I did for the OHL, but I guess he has decided to go the school route because I influenced him.”
Just like Aaron, Daniel made a tough choice for himself at the last minute.
“Before I was even in school, I was in the QMJHL and I was going to play in an exhibition game, and then I got phone calls,” he said. “Basically with that decision, I didn’t feel like that was the right move. The same day as that game, I just went to the GM and just said I was going to leave. And then I went to R.I.T. instead.”
Spivak sounds fully at peace with his decision, and doesn’t regret attending the Rochester Institute of Technology.
That’s how he feels about most things.
But if you ask him about what he does wish he could change, he has a simple idea.
“I think not being with my family for certain holidays, it is different,” Spivak said. “Like growing up in a large family with five boys, we’d always have the table extended and we’d have two other families show up. My mom, she has a huge family — seven sisters, five brothers. Family friends would show up to our dinners. I mean, a 50-person table, maybe more, and food up to your neck.
“So for me, that’s one thing I miss, and that’s also something you learn to get used to. Not that I want to get used to that, because when I have a family, it’s going to be the same thing of having the Friday dinner with family.”
Spivak is sound in all the choices he’s made.
He loves the sport he calls his profession. He’s happy to have moved to Canada, but still chooses to return to Israel to help those who want to learn the game he loves, now and possibly in the future. He’s satisfied in the path he’s taken to get to the pros by going to college instead of juniors. But it all still comes down to family.
“Every choice I’ve made, it’s kind of crazy,” Spivak said. “My parents would say, ‘It’s your decision. You’ve got to live with it.’ I made my decision.”