EDITOR’S NOTE: In a three-part series, The Sin Bin’s Kristen Wooten looks at the role religion plays in the sport of hockey. In the first part, you will hear from several players — retired and current — about how they formed their relationship with Jesus Christ. In the second part, Wooten looks at how players incorporate religion into their lives away from the rink. In the final part of this trilogy, Wooten looks at how faith is integrated into today’s game.
Of the many aspects of the game that goes on behind the scenes without the general public’s knowledge, team chaplains are arguably one of the better-kept secrets in hockey. Unlike their baseball counterparts where Baseball Chapel has become a well-known entity among fans, hockey’s chaplains often fly under the radar.
Hockey Ministries International (HMI) based in Montreal, Quebec, attempts to place a chaplain with each team in professional hockey. According to their website, they currently have chapel programs for over 300 teams in 42 leagues. Brad Thiessen, a former Cincinnati Cyclones goaltender now with the AHL’s Cleveland Monsters, points out that for the most part, teams have a chaplain. While in Cincinnati, the goaltender helped set one up with the organization. His chaplain efforts did not end there, as he currently leads the Monsters’ team chapel while they search for a more formal church leader, a new challenge for the seasoned goaltender, but one he enjoys.
However, it doesn’t always go as smoothly, as he points out that some people don’t want a chaplain as part of their team and organization.
With chapels catered around each individual team’s schedule, most teams choose to have their services after practice generally once a week. Players involved with team chapel describe the voluntary meetings as a blessing. Not just for believers to have an opportunity to continue to grow in their faith, but to do so with teammates who understand what the individual is currently going through.
“To have that intimate kind of one chaplain with ten guys or so, and to have a message that be so directly related to where you’re at, because a lot of the guys in the dressing room are going through the same struggles, the same things, and to be able to have a chaplain that knows where you’re at and can cater a message or get a message that speaks to guys of our age, of our situation, is really important,” said Chicago Wolves forward Tyler Wong.
Although none of the players we interviewed recalled any negative reactions they’ve encountered with players or coaches distaste for chaplain services, Wong points out how important they are for the Christian players:
“To have other guys on the team that do have faith who will speak up so that it’s not just one guy so others aren’t like, ‘He’s into that? That’s weird.’ I believe that’s a trend we have to break; giving people the ability to believe in what they want to believe, and that they don’t have to hide it.”
In essence, the services create a safer place for athletes who look to pursue their faith.
Along with Hockey Ministries International, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) also plays a large role in keeping believers active in their faith while juggle their professional careers.
Made famous in the hockey community by Gary Steffes, a retired two-time Kelly Cup champion with the Allen Americans, FCA Hockey strives to work the Lord into the lives of athletes in the most conducive way possible. Called ‘Huddles’, groups of players are lead by FCA Hockey staff members and other active skaters such as themselves for weekly Bible studies done over the phone. This catered service adds to the limited amount of opportunities the athletes have to keep fellowship as an active part of their lives.
Expressing Their Faith
In defense of those who do make the conscious effort, hockey players deserve credit for their actions to publicly display their faith. Steffes made waves in the hockey community when he prayed on the ice after games. Often joined by another teammate or one from the opposing team, Steffes made a statement typically only seen on the sidelines of a football field or baseball diamond. To him, it’s really no big deal. He’s doing what he should as a follower, adding that believers need to be, “unashamed to express you love the Lord.”
A goaltender’s mask is often a point of interest for fans and players alike, as the designs include beautifully intricate depictions of the team – or teams – they play for, while often serving as an inside look into their personal lives.
Both Jason Kasdorf of the Cincinnati Cyclones and Thiessen have verses on theirs.
This season, Kasdorf chose Exodus 9:16 and Psalm 18:2, whereas Thiessen’s verse of the year is Galatians 3:23. The Monsters goalie goes in depth with his choice, saying, “It talks about how you’re working for the Lord and not for man, and that you’re doing it all for Him not for them. It’s a reminder to myself on the ice who I’m really playing for.”
Other players take to social media to express their beliefs. Wong (@tylerwong_5) uses Twitter as part of his game-day routine, tweeting out a verse before each contest to keep perspective in his life, and to avoid tunnel vision that can come with the job.
“To think hockey is your life, to think hockey is everything, and be able to keep that perspective that we’re blessed to be where we are, we’re blessed to have the abilities, the opportunities to have gotten to where we are today and to just be here right now is an amazing blessing given to us by God. So I think that it’s important for me to be able to use my social media for more than watching funny videos, so I think it’s a good platform for me to use.”
Wong and Bryce Aneloski, although not together, make it a priority to go out in the community to serve their God. Aneloski is a speaker for FCA, leading huddles and sharing stories at local schools in the Kansas City area where he plays for the Mavericks. In the summers, he continues his work with FCA Hockey.
As for Wong, his platform is that serving others gives you perspective.
“He put me here to serve others, to serve Him, and to further his kingdom by drawing others into Jesus. Going into the communities, going to kids, brightening up their days, it makes their day. To go out and do something like that is an amazing blessing for both of you.”
Christian Experiences for Hockey Players
Every year, Hockey Ministries holds camps for kids and teenagers in the development years, but currently does not have programs for collegiate and professional athletes.
FCA Hockey, on the other hand, holds a Pro/College camp each year. At the camp, they focus training in three main aspects of life: mind, body, and spirit. During the four-day camp, athletes train for their upcoming seasons, while meeting with nutritionists, pursue their faith, and work on the mental game.
Outside of that, hockey players do not have many opportunities to grow in their faith during the off-season. This pales in comparison to baseball, whose Baseball Chapel is known to hold retreats for players and their significant others, an experience that strengthens the community as a whole by focusing on the athletes’ relationships away from the field.
While the importance of having a support system for baseball players is well documented, an overlooked part of the athlete lifestyle is the struggles wives and girlfriends (WAGS) face during the season as well. If they move to be with their significant other, they oftentimes find themselves in a community without the built-in support system athletes are provided through their team. If they choose not to move, they struggle being apart from their partner for significant periods of time. In either case, WAGS find themselves needing the support system just as much as their athlete counterpart does, and for some of these women, God has filled it.
Thiessen mentions his envy of events such as these, saying, “[I’m] jealous of the setups in other sports. I believe the potential is there, we just need some leaders to step up and make it happen.”
In order for Christianity to thrive in their sport, Aneloski fully encourages FCA Hockey and Hockey Ministries to grow, while others look to their peers to bring their faith to light.
Best said by Thiessen: “In other sports you have more big name guys that are out there and you can see their faith, like Tim Tebow. People who are in that sport who haven’t been upfront in their faith have that guy to look to as someone who’s living out their Christian life so they can do it too. In hockey there’s a few, but we need a more ambassadors for that.”
A step in the right direction is to break the trend of silencing God in interviews. Wong is not afraid to make that statement, “I try to use interviews to give glory to God. I think that’s good for believers to do. I’m willing to take the heat if guys don’t like that, because it’s my faith and I believe in it.” His sentiment, while not openly believed by others in the sport, is a step in breaking any barriers those in the hockey community may have if they want to be on the same God/sport playing field as others are known for.
God and hockey are not nearly as synonymous as Christianity and other popular sports. But that doesn’t mean He doesn’t exist. In fact, far from it. What it comes down to isn’t the lack of believers, but more so a difference in culture that often silences faith without directly meaning to, paired with only a few number of big names within the sport that preach His name. Hockey and Him does thrive together. Great men are out there making positive impacts not just in their religion, but also the communities they play in.
Hockey players, like the rest of us, are always being bombarded. No matter what it is, they’re always in battle; whether it’s in a game, doing the extra work in and outside of the rink, fighting to keep their careers alive, or working to keep their personal lives in tact. These men go through incredible lengths every season.
Especially in the minor leagues, life can have an added level of difficulty. One day you could be traded to a team halfway across the country, meeting them in the middle of a road trip, then two weeks later find yourself on a plane – or three – headed to the opposite coast as a result of yet another trade. There are many battles in life. For these men and countless others, knowing God is with them is sometimes the most comfort and stability they have.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff.” – Psalm 23:4