Eric Israel celebrates with Rapid City Rush teammates Dec. 11 after a goal against the Utah Grizzlies.
Eric Israel celebrates with Rapid City Rush teammates Dec. 11 after a goal against the Utah Grizzlies. (Rapid City Rush)

Attitude and work ethic has carried the Berkley High School graduate to a height in his hockey career that he considers surreal.

Eric Israel has been knocked down but not out a few times in his hockey career.

So, there’s no reason to believe the 25-year-old from Huntington Woods won’t bounce back from his latest adversity.

Israel, a defenseman for the Rapid City (S.D.) Rush of the ECHL, suffered a torn MCL ligament in his left knee Dec. 12 in the third period of the Rush’s second game of the season, sidelining him for six to eight weeks.

“I avoided a hit on a breakout pass, but the guy [from the Utah Grizzlies] clipped my knee,” Israel said in a phone interview. “It wasn’t a dirty play, but it wasn’t a clean play either. I tried wearing a brace on my knee so I could play, but my knee kept collapsing.”

Earlier in his hockey days, Israel recovered from a broken left leg, broken right collarbone and torn right labrum (shoulder cartilage).

“I’m frustrated, of course, about getting hurt again, but I won’t need surgery, and I’ll use the time off to get stronger and faster, and come back better than ever,” Israel said. “There are many things you can’t control in your life. What you can control are your attitude and work ethic.”

Attitude and work ethic have carried the Berkley High School graduate to a height in his hockey career that he considers surreal.

The ECHL is just one step below the American Hockey League, the NHL’s top feeder league. The Rush is an affiliate of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes.

Larry Knapp, Israel’s former coach in the Honey Baked youth travel hockey program, said he roots for Israel because Israel is a prototypical underdog hockey player who always has a smile on his face.

“Nothing has ever been given to Eric in hockey, and nothing has come easily for him in hockey,” Knapp said.

Rapid City Rush defenseman Eric Israel (6) keeps a Utah Grizzlies player away from the net during a Dec. 12 game.
Rapid City Rush defenseman Eric Israel (6) keeps a Utah Grizzlies player away from the net during a Dec. 12 game. Rapid City Rush

“We won back-to-back national championships the last two seasons I coached Eric. At the time, he was good at everything as a player, but not great at one thing. What separated him from the rest of the guys on our team was his work ethic on-ice, off-ice, during drills and in the summer.

“When he thought he was being overlooked on the team, I reminded him that he was playing on the best team in the country at our level. I told him if he played for any other team, he’d be the best defenseman on their roster.”

After finishing his stint with Honey Baked, Israel played junior hockey for the Brockville (Ont.) Braves of the Central Canada Hockey League for two seasons before achieving a goal to play Division I college hockey.

He was a star for four years at Robert Morris University, outside Pittsburgh.

Israel had 85 points in 146 games for Robert Morris, led Colonials defensemen in goals, assists and points in each of his last three seasons, led the Atlantic Hockey Association and ranked fifth in the Division I in blocked shots during the 2018-19 season, and was a three-time AHA All-Academic Team selection.

The Colonials made it to the AHA championship game in Israel’s first three seasons but lost each time with a chance to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament. They got to the league semifinals when he was a senior.

While he was at Robert Morris, Israel played for the silver medal-winning Team USA hockey team in the 2017 Maccabiah Games in Israel. He had two goals and two assists in four games.

“It was a great experience in Israel. Putting on the USA jersey was a very special feeling,” Israel said. “I’d never had Jewish hockey teammates previously. Playing with other Jews, we made an instant connection. I still talk to many of my Team USA teammates.”

Israel was signed by the ECHL’s Fort Wayne (Ind.) Comets before the 2019-20 season. After playing in two pre-season games for the Comets, he was traded to the injury-plagued Rush for future considerations.

Then came another challenge.

After an early-morning flight from Fort Wayne to Tulsa, Okla., on Oct. 19, 2019, Israel was given an Uber ride to the rink where the Rush was having a morning skate. He got there about halfway through the session.

Despite not knowing anyone on the team, Israel played that night for the Rush and he contributed two assists to a 5-0 victory over the Tulsa Oilers.

He played again the next night in Tulsa, flew back to Fort Wayne, and drove 16 hours to Rapid City.

Israel has been happy on and off the ice in South Dakota. The 5-foot-10, 185-pounder had one goal and 16 assists in 52 games for the Rush last season.

“Rapid City is farther away from home than Fort Wayne, of course, but I’ve loved every second here,” he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic ended the 2019-20 ECHL season in March. Rapid City was 29-25-5 at the time, in fifth place in the Mountain Division and 15th in the league, with a dozen regular-season games to go.

Several league teams opted out of playing this season, an option offered by the league, and their players became free agents. Thirteen league teams are playing. The normal October start of league play was moved to December.

Israel and Rush teammate Mark Auk from Grosse Pointe drove 17 hours from Michigan to Rapid City last month to get to training camp. Each Rush player took a COVID-19 test, then waited five days in quarantine for the result.

Despite having no coronavirus symptoms, Israel tested positive. He didn’t believe the test result.

“I convinced them to give me another test two days after I got the positive result. The test came back negative, and I’ve tested negative every time since then,” he said.

When they’re in Rapid City, Rush players must spend most of their time in their apartment. They go to the rink, a Walmart for groceries, and get carryout and curbside from restaurants.

Masks must be worn by Rush players during team activities except when playing, practicing, working out or showering.

Israel said no Rush player is complaining about the restrictions.

“We all lost our job nine months ago,” he said. “We’re happy to be back doing what we love. And getting paid for it. Not millions, but it pays the bills.”

Nobody plays professional hockey forever, and Israel is already thinking about his post-hockey life.

A sports management major at Robert Morris, Israel at one time thought seriously about trying to be a college hockey coach. Now he’s seriously thinking about joining his family’s business.

The business is Southfield-based Great Lakes Hotel Supply Company, a supplier and installer of commercial kitchens. Israel’s father, Marc Israel, is a third-generation owner of the business, which was founded in 1933.

Mary Jo Israel, Eric Israel’s mother, is a former longtime member of the Berkley School Board (2008-20) who did not run for reelection last month.

Eric Israel went to Berkley schools from K-12, attending Burton Elementary School, Norup Middle School and Berkley High School, where he’s on the Wall of Fame in athletics for golf.

His sister Jaclyn Israel, 28, in her fourth and final year in the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine, is a future family physician who was named the 2020 Outstanding Medical Student in Michigan in August by the Michigan Academy of Family Physicians.

Adam Israel, 24, Eric Israel’s brother, lives in Wisconsin and works for the family business.

Jaclyn Israel and Adam Israel also are Berkley High School grads.

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