YORKTON - When you have been a journalist for close to 35 years, you have interviewed hundreds of people, and in my case that has meant a rather long list of notable athletes from George Reed to Hayley Wickenheiser to Bobby and Dennis Hull to Wendel Clark to Bill ‘Spaceman’ Lee.
But recently I had a chance to spend some time on the telephone with Eliezer Sherbatov, an interview I had very much been looking forward to, and I was not disappointed. He was great to talk with.
By now you no doubt realize Sherbatov is a sports personality although you may not recognize the name. Don’t worry I had not been aware of him either until My Left Skate by Anna Rosner arrived. The book, geared toward young adult readers, tells Sherbatov’s story, and the story is amazing as any I have read about a sports personality.
Sherbatov, who is Jewish, moved with his family from Israel to Laval, Que., when he was two years old. His parents were originally from Moscow, fleeing that country in search of a better life.
Growing up Sherbatov learned to play hockey, and he was very good at it, so good that he played for Team Israel at the 2005 IIHF World U18 championship Division III at the age of 13, becoming the youngest player to step on the ice in an under-18 world championship.
“It was a scary one. It was an amazing experience,” admitted Sherbatov in the interview.
But, playing for Israel was always something he said he felt was important.
“I’ve always been an advocate for Israel hockey,” said Sherbatov. “. . . I could have went with Canada hockey, but I felt more into Israel hockey. You do have to give back.”
It looked like Sherbatov was on his way as a player, but then when he 14 years of age he had a rollerblading accident, seriously injuring his left leg and knee and bones and nerves in them, developed drop foot, and had three surgeries. Sherbatov still has no sensation below his knee and walks with a brace.
It appeared his hockey days were over, but his mother, a top skater in her younger years would dedicate herself to helping her son play again.
“To be honest I didn’t play hockey for three years . . . I couldn’t walk without a brace,” said Sherbatov.
But his mother was relentless.
“Our household was different. We told ourselves we have to try. We gave it our best shot and we came through,” said Sherbatov, adding to this day he runs on the ice more than gliding because of his left foot.
Back in hockey Sherbatov dreamed of playing with the Montreal Canadiens. That would not happen, but he would embark on an amazing professional career that continues today.
He was the first Israeli to have played in the Russian Kontinental Hockey League, having played for HC Slovan Bratislava, which was interesting to be sure, but paled in significance to later stops.
For example, Sherbatov played for TH Unia Oświęcim of the Polska Hokej Liga – in Canada we know the city by a different name Auschwitz. The team plays just a short walk from the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp, where one million Jews were killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
“To be honest it was an overwhelming season emotionally,” said Sherbatov, adding as emotional as it was he felt it was important to be a Jewish player playing in the city. “… It was an important first step for Jews in my opinion. I know what happened but we need to come back and face the ghosts.”
Sherbatov said in spite of the horrors of the place’s past as a people the Jewish community “is way stronger.”
And in some small way maybe Sherbatov was part of some long overdue reconciliation. He recalled his first goal for TH Unia Oświęcim.
“I looked at the fans. The reaction was completely different than 75 years ago. These people are cheering you. These people love you. It was a very special moment.”
But one season was enough so in 2021, Sherbatov signed with HC Mariupol of the Ukrainian Hockey League. Upon the beginning of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, and particularly the battles in Mariupol, Sherbatov found himself stuck in the city before being rescued by Israeli diplomats and members of the hockey community.
“I was just preparing for a game, for another season, then one night there’s bombs beside the hotel where I was,” said Sherbatov.
He needed to escape, boarding a train he had been warned would be destroyed by the Russians with little water or food and a long trek ahead.
“Those four days were the worst days of my life,” he said, adding he is still coming to terms with it emotionally. “The struggle is harder now mentally.”
It is a case of now focusing on things day-to-day, appreciating his family in Laval.
“For now I want to get the Ukrainian experience behind me,” said Sherbatov.
Of course there have been dramatic moments on the positive side too.
In 2019 he was back with Team Israel, this time on the senior side as Captain. He starred for the team as it won the gold medal in the 2019 IIHF World Championship Division II Group B tournament in Mexico City, Israel's first gold medal in hockey.
Sherbatov was named best forward, was the top goal scorer, and was the top scorer with 15 points including seven goals, in five games.
As noted Sherbatov felt he needed to give back to hockey in Israel, and the gold medal was in a way paying him back for his years playing with the national team.
“It was a dream to have been made captain of Team Israel and win gold,” he said. “It was a surreal and amazing moment.”
So given the twists and turns for Sherbatov what was it like to work on the book with Rosner?
“To be honest with you, you don’t know until you sit down and talk about it,” he said of reflecting on his life to-date. “Then you realize what you’ve really went through.”
Sherbatov said while living life it has always just been “go, go, go.” But when you sit down and speak about it you realize you’ve been through a lot. I knew I’d had up and downs, but I just pushed through it. I never thought I shouldn’t, or I couldn’t. At that moment I just go through the obstacles.”
My Left Skate from Yellow Dog / Great Plains by Anna Rosner is due to hit the market this October.