Meet the Canadian hockey legend who defied danger to help Soviet Jews
Sherry Bassin smuggled Jewish prayer books into the Soviet Union in the early 1980s.
Episode originally aired May 9, 2021.
Growing up in a small Jewish community in Semans, Saskatchewan, Bassin fell in love with hockey. But their father had insisted that Bassin get an education, saying "Hockey, Schmockey. You're going to school!"
"I was very realistic. I wasn't good enough to be a pro player, so I realized early enough that I'd better get an education," says Bassin.
Bassin earned a Juris Doctorate, a Masters in hospital administration and a Ph.D in pharmacy. He spent decades as a college professor, pharmacist, junior hockey coach and team general manager. He also worked as a television color commentator and served as assistant general manager of the NHL's Quebec Nordiques.
But it was his work as assistant coach and general manager of Canada's junior national team that would lead to one of his greatest accomplishments.
An opportunity … and a danger
In 1982, Bassin's first year as general manager and assistant coach, Team Canada won a gold medal at the World Junior Ice Hockey Championships. The following year, he helped assemble another strong roster that included future NHL legends and eventual Hall of Famers Mario Lemieux, Dave Andreychuk and Steve Yzerman. As the team was training in Canada in preparation for the 1983 World Juniors in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), he got an idea.
In the early 1980s, religious practice was officially tolerated in the Soviet Union. But Bassin had learned that travel restrictions on Soviet Jews and state crackdowns on printing houses had made it difficult for them to acquire new Siddurim, or Jewish prayer books. And it was nearly impossible to get new prayer shawls, or Tallesim. Since Jewish men are buried in them, there was a dwindling supply all over the country.
In late 1982, Bassin decided he'd try to smuggle as many Siddurim and Tallesim into the Soviet Union as he could. He went to a Judaica shop in Toronto and purchased as many books and shawls as he could afford.
Bassin had no idea how many he could safely smuggle. But he came up with a plan in the weeks leading up to the 1983 Championships. He'd pack one Siddur and one Tallis in each of the players' equipment bags and stash the rest wherever he could. He'd distribute them evenly amongst the team luggage so that they'd be harder for Soviet authorities to discover.
Because of the risk involved, Bassin asked for the approval of Team Canada players and coaches, none of whom were Jewish. And yet, despite the obvious risks of smuggling Jewish religious items into the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, everyone agreed to the plan and promised to keep it a secret.
In December 1982, with the beginning of the tournament just days away, the Canadian team boarded a train in Helsinki bound for Leningrad. When it reached the Russian border Bassin recalls, "The soldiers came on the train. One was a commissioned officer, and two of his assistants. And they're holding rifles. One guy's pointing it at me."
The soldiers confiscated the team's equipment bags. Bassin, the coaches and the players were escorted to the team hotel. Team Canada lodged an official protest.
Later that day, Bassin was approached by a tournament organizer who wanted the Canadian team lineup for the official program. One of Bassin's colleagues had the lineup with him, and he almost handed it over.
But Bassin thought quickly. "It's in one of the bags that was confiscated," he said. Soon Bassin was on his way to a cold, dark building to retrieve the team's equipment bags. Miraculously, the bags hadn't been searched.
They were rejoicing like you wouldn't believe.- Sherry Bassin
"Absolute, utter enjoyment"
Bassin had trouble getting a taxi to take him directly to the synagogue. One taxi agreed to drop him off a block away. Bassin entered the synagogue and tried to tell the congregants, in English, what he had brought for them.
"And at first, they thought I might be KGB and were quite alarmed."
After a few tense, uncertain moments, one man came forward and opened the box full of the brand new Siddurim and Tallesim.
I still remember their eyes … from concern that it might be KGB, to absolute, utter enjoyment.
They were rejoicing like you wouldn't believe. They were dancing and singing, hugging me, and they wanted to give me an aliyah."
To be given an 'aliyah' is the great honour of being called up to bless the Torah in front of the congregation.
"You know, I was rejoicing with them, because I was happy that they were happy."
Bassin stayed a couple hours, answering questions, as best he could, about life in Canada and about the latest news from Israel. Then, because there was still a hockey tournament to play, it was time for Bassin to return to Team Canada.
The tournament ended on January 4, 1983, and the Soviet Union stood atop the medal stand. Czechoslovakia took silver, and Canada the bronze. Though Team Canada had fallen short of the gold they had won the previous year, Bassin felt like he was on top of the world.
"Proud of my identity"
Sherry Bassin kept the story to himself for decades. He only began mentioning it to some friends a few years ago, after which he was approached by someone who called him a "hero."
Bassin is now 81-years-old. He lives in the Toronto area and serves as Director of Hockey Operations for the French River Rapids junior team. Whatever hockey hat he's worn over the decades - as player, coach, broadcaster or general manager - he's always remembered who he is.
Gary Waleik is a freelance journalist.