Sportsmanship/Derekh Eretz v’Khavod Level I: Following the Rules

By Rabbi James M. Gordon

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While Chanukah is a holiday that we celebrate and publicize Hashem’s miracles, it also is a time that we are reminded that miracles only happen when the Jewish People first do all that they can to “persuade” the Almighty to intervene.   We are taught by the courageous Maccabees of days of yore and the brave members of today’s TzaHa”L (IDF), that we must use our physical strength for holy purposes and at the right time. When we do so, miracles can indeed happen.

The Talmudic sage best known for his brawn was Reish Lakish.  While Reish Lakish may get credited with scoring the “winning goal” in teaching all about Level I of Sportsmanship/Derech Eretz v’Khavod, we can award the late Chicago Blackhawks Hall of Famer Stan Mikita with an “assist”.  

I hope you enjoy and find the following excerpt from my new book PRAY BALL 2!! Spiritual Insights Into Sportsmanship meaningful.

Introduction

So you want to be a good sport?  Start by following the rules. Every sport has rules.  Study them. Learn them. And then respect them by following them.  

Players and coaches who are caught breaking rules are penalized.  Inevitably, their indiscretions hurt the entire team and their chances of winning.  While avoiding fouls in basketball is a key to winning the game, once fouled, it is critical that the team that incurred the foul takes advantage of the foul.  In most cases, this means hitting your free throws. In football, penalties are recognized by moving the line of scrimmage back five or fifteen yards giving the aggrieved team better playing position.  In hockey, the offending player is removed from the game for a number of minutes (usually two), isolated in the penalty box, and his team is forced to play with one less skater for the duration of the penalty or until the team with the power play advantage scores.

No one followed the rules better than one of hockey’s all-time great players, Stan Mikita (1940-2018).    Along with his stellar play, this hockey superstar was rewarded for his playing by the rules by being awarded the NHL’s sportsmanship award – the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy – twice.

The Transformation of Stan Mikita

Parents refer to it as a time-out, while teachers call it detention.  In hockey, it is known simply as a penalty, with the punishment being served in the penalty box.  Out of all the major American sports, ice hockey is the only sport where a player who is cited for an infraction of the rules, is not only removed from the game, forcing his team to play shorthanded, but is required to sit by himself in a secluded area until his penalty time has lapsed.  I like to think that the rationale for originally implementing this rather peculiar practice is one in the same with why a parent gives a child a time-out; that is, to provide the offender the opportunity to cool down and ponder what he did wrong, with the hope that he will reform his ways.  

One of the greatest hockey players of all-time was Chicago Blackhawks legend Stan Mikita.  Having moved to Canada at age eight from his native Czechoslovakia, the relatively diminutive, five-foot-nine inch Mikita is remembered during his twenty-two-year NHL/Blackhawks career for his artistic stick handling, deft skating, and prolific scoring.  Although he retired after the 1979-1980 season, Mikita still remains the all-time assists and points leader in Blackhawks history.

Awarded the prestigious Lady Byng Memorial Trophy, which is presented annually to the player who best displays a combination of “gentlemanly conduct” with playing skill, Mikita is also recognized for his sportsmanship and the relatively few minutes he spent in the penalty box.  However, such was not the case during the first chapter of his playing career. From his rookie season in 1959-1960 through the 1964-1965 campaign, Mikita actually averaged more than 100 penalty minutes per season. During this six-year span, with the exception of one season, #21 had more penalties in minutes than points.

After 1965 though, something drastic changed in Stan Mikita’s life and game.

The story is told that one day, one of Stan’s young daughters inquired innocently why Dad spent so much time sitting by himself during a Blackhawks game.  Apparently inspired to set a more favorable example, Mikita learned how to better control his temper. The result was an almost 180-degree change in his game and contribution to his team’s success.  For the balance of his career, from the 1965-1966 season to his final season in 1979-1980, #21’s collective point total cast a giant shadow over his collective total penalty minutes. In fact, Stan Mikita became the first player to win all three of the most prestigious NHL awards in back-to-back years when he led the league in scoring (Art Ross Trophy) and was the league’s MVP (Hart Trophy).  The third award was for his exemplary display of sportsmanship (Lady Byng Memorial Trophy).

Not only did Stan Mikita help his Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup championship (1961) and to multiple winning seasons, but he is also credited with inventing the curved blade stick.  This helped increase scoring. He is also the first star to wear a protective helmet, inspiring many other players to start wearing this headgear, which now is a mandatory part of the hockey uniform.

A great example of how important it is to manage one’s temper, Stan Mikita shows that a highly skilled player can contribute far more to the success of his team, while on the ice and not in the penalty box.  From learning how to manage his temper – inspired by the words of a child – emerged one of hockey’s greatest, most exciting, and sportsmanlike players.

Following the Rules: Spiritual Insights

Reish Lakish: From Captain of Thieves to Leader of Scholars

The Talmud (Bava Metzia 84a) relates that one day, while at the shores of the Jordan River, Reish Lakish (Shimon ben Lakish), an infamous leader of a band of robbers, noticed that someone was swimming in the river.  Apparently, with the intent to stir up trouble – after all, that’s what criminals do – Reish Lakish jumped into the Jordan to pursue the swimmer. The unknown swimmer happened to be the great Talmudic sage and very handsome Rabbi Yochanan.  When seeing the bandit’s extraordinary, Olympic-level diving skills, the venerable sage remarked: חֵילַךְ לְאוֹרַיְיתָא/Cheilakh L’Orai’ta – – “Your strength to [i.e., should be used for] Torah!”  Not missing a beat, Reish Lakish retorted: שׁוּפְרָךְ לְנָשֵׁי /Shuf’rakh L’Nashei – – “Your beauty belongs to women.”    

Rabbi Yochanan then made the following offer to Reish Lakish – contingent, of course, on the approval of his sister.  Rabbi Yochanan said to the leader of the band of highway bandits that, if Reish Lakish would abandon his criminal ways and instead devote his many great skills (i.e., strength, leadership, intellect) to repent/perform T’shuva (Repentance; i.e., the study and practice of Torah), Rabbi Yochanan would do all that he could to convince his sister – also known for her beauty – to marry Reish Lakish.  This was an offer that Shimon ben Lakish simply could not refuse.

Reish Lakish did indeed repent, as he channeled all of his leadership, intellectual, and physical skills to the study of Torah, emerging as a scholar par excellence, at the level of his teacher and now brother-in-law Rabbi Yochanan.  

Because a great sage took an interest in and made an irrefusable offer to a misdirected criminal, this highway robber was able to channel his skills for the benefit of the Jewish people.  

The first level of Derech Eretz v’Khavod (Respect and Honor) is to not harm the person and property of others.  While Rabbi Yochanan’s efforts led to Reish Lakish attaining this level, it also was the impetus for Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish to perform and teach others to perform many Mitzvot that manifest Derech Eretz v’Khavod.

 

Copyright © James Michael Gordon

Rabbi James M. (Yaakov Moshe) Gordon, JD, is the author of PRAY BALL 2!! Spiritual Insights Into Sportsmanship which can be purchased at Rosenblum’s World of Judaica, Kesher STAM and Amazon.com.  Five or more copies can be purchased at a deep discount at: www.TeamSpiritInstitute.org .

 

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