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Montreal Should Follow Tampa Bay’s Lead and Use Sports to Support its Jewish Community

The opinions, facts and any media content presented do not necessarily reflect the position of B’nai Brith Canada.

Jan. 8, 2018

TAMPA BAY – The City of Montreal has a vibrant Jewish community of more than 90,000 people and three professional sports franchises – the NHL’s Canadiens, the CFL’s Alouettes and Major League Soccer’s Impact. From 1969 to 2004, Montreal was also home to Major League Baseball’s Expos.

Members of the Jewish community have always played an important role on the local sports scene, be it in an ownership role or through sponsorship, private boxes, season tickets, and other avenues. Montreal Jewish philanthropist Charles Bronfman was the initial owner of the Expos and his son Stephen is now among those leading the charge to bring the franchise back. The late Sam Berger owned the Alouettes and even had a Jewish coach in Marv Levy. Marc Trestman, now the bench boss with the Toronto Argonauts, guided the Als to two Grey Cups, while Paul Harris presently chairs the board of directors for the Als. Irving Grundman was the only Jewish general manager in Canadiens history. As for the Impact, de facto general manager Adam Braz is Jewish.

With all this in mind, I came to a clear realization during my recent trip to Tampa as to how much more our professional sports franchises could do for the Jewish community in Montreal if they merely followed the lead of this burgeoning Florida city.

First off, three of Tampa’s professional sports franchises are Jewish-owned: the NHL’s Lightning is owned by Jeff Vinik, Bryan Glazer owns the NFL’s Buccaneers, and Stuart Sternberg owns MLB’s Rays. Despite boasting a population of only 45,000 Jews in the entire Greater Tampa Bay area, I was beyond impressed at how these teams support our community. In fact, it made me question why none of these ideas have been explored in Montreal.

Fortunately, I managed to catch the Canadiens vs. Lightning game over at the Amalie Arena during my trip, where I found that Vinik is held in high regard by most Floridians. In 2010, after purchasing Tampa Bay Sports & Entertainment, he spent another $150 million (U.S) to buy the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina, located right next-door to the Amalie Arena. Vinik now plans to build two brand-new hotels in the same area as he continues to turn Tampa into a town drunk on hockey.

He and his wife, Penny, are great supporters of the local Jewish community, recently pledging $1.5 million (U.S.) towards creating a new Jewish community centre in West Tampa by renovating the historic Fort Homer Hesterly Armory.

It was also impressive to learn how the family uses sports to promote Holocaust education. In October, the Lightning honoured local man Carl Glassberg with its “Lightning Community Hero” award in support of his work on behalf of Holocaust survivors. As the story goes, on his first date with Irene Berger, who would become his wife of 61 years, Glassberg learned how she evaded death at the hands of the Nazis, twice. He vowed then and there to dedicate his life to advocating for the betterment of Holocaust survivors.

Glassberg directed his $50,000 (U.S.) award from the Lightning and Vinik Family Foundation to the Gulf Coast Jewish Family & Community Services Holocaust Survivor Program, which serves the entire Tampa Bay area. Since 2011, the Lightning have given more than $13.75 million (U.S.) to more than 300 different charities through the Community Hero program. Imagine, the team hands out $50,000 (U.S.) at each and every game and the recipient of the award always receives a standing ovation.

Sounds like a great idea for the Montreal Canadiens Foundation to follow.

Glassberg, who was the 273rd “hero,” said he was overwhelmed by the generosity of the Lightning and enjoyed getting his picture taken with Vinik and star player Steven Stamkos. He also received a custom Lightning jersey.

In celebration of Chanukah, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers recently hosted their first ever Jewish Heritage Night when they played the Atlanta Falcons at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. The event began with an exclusive tailgate as Glazer, Bucs co-chairman and a Jewish community leader, lit a 12-foot tall menorah alongside many others. The tailgate also featured special Chanukah music, potato latkes, sufganiyot, limited-edition souvenirs and a cash bar. Ali Marpet, the only Jewish member of the Buccaneers, took part in advertising for the event with the headline: “Siege the Night with the Power of Light.”

The Jewish Federation of Pinellas and Pasco Counties have previously gathered community baseball fans to show their pride for Jewish Heritage Day at a selected Sunday afternoon game. “We’re here to connect members of the Jewish community to each other and to the larger global Jewish world. I can’t wait to see everyone at the Trop,” said Elana Gootson, the Federation’s director of development. In conjunction with Jewish Heritage Day, it made a community gift to Baseball Le’Kulam, a partnership program between Play Global and the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB), which seeks to bring Jewish and Arab Israeli children together on the baseball field. Though they may be divided by culture, religion and language, the boys and girls are united through baseball.

More great initiatives to follow in Montreal.

Sternberg might just be the most popular Tampa sports franchise owners to Montrealers, seeing how he openly stated Montreal would be an option for him to relocate his team. As such, he is not someone whom Tampa Bay sports fans hold in high regard. As my cab driver told me: “At this point we hope he sells the team to someone who will put the necessary money behind building a winner like Vinik did with the Lightning.” In October, 2014, it was reported that Sternberg, frustrated with efforts to build a new stadium in the Tampa Bay area, had discussions with Wall Street associates about moving the Rays to Montreal, which has been without an franchise since the Expos moved to Washington, D.C. in 2005.

Sternburg currently resides in Rye, New York, an easier commute to Montreal than Tampa Bay.

Mike Cohen is B’nai Brith Canada’s Quebec news bureau chief, a veteran writer and municipal politician. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @mikecohencsl