EDITOR’S NOTE: In the first of a three-part series, The Sin Bin’s Kristen Wooten looks at the role religion plays in the sport of hockey. In this first part, you will hear from several players — retired and current — about how they formed their relationship with Jesus Christ.
Skates cutting the ice. The puck hitting stick blade to stick blade. Bodies slamming against the boards. Teammates calling to each other. The unmistakable sound of the puck hitting the iron frame of the goal. It doesn’t take eyes to feel the power flowing on the cool ice during a hockey game.
Night after night for over seven months a year, one season after the next, the uniformed men on that cold, shining playing surface give it everything they have. They do it for themselves, their families, and for the little kid who grew up dreaming of the lives they’re currently living. And for many, they do it all for Him.
The next time you sit down for a day full of baseball or football, I challenge you to pay attention to the words and actions of the players. Watch them during warmups, throughout the game, and listen to their interviews. Whether it’s praying on the field, pointing to the sky with a look of passion in their eyes, or directly referencing God, you’ll see Him.
But if you did the same thing for a hockey game, where would you find Him? The Christian answer is simple: He’s everywhere. But the physical answer is not as clear-cut: you can’t see or hear His presence. At least not in an obvious sense. It’s simply not something hockey is well known for doing.
Yet, that can’t possibly be true. Can it?
On paper, the only real difference between the men in baseball and football in comparison to hockey players is the sports themselves, and arguably, demographics. But that shouldn’t matter, should it? Why do two of the biggest sports in North America show His presence more than another? Why isn’t He glorified on and off the ice like He is on other playing surfaces?
While there’s no clear answer, the truth is this: He is everywhere, and He has warriors all over every rink in this incredible sport. It just takes some digging, and a few God-loving men in the game to bring Him to light.
“The eyes of the Lord search the whole earth in order to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to Him.” – 2 Chronicles 16:9 [Gary Steffes, fORWARD, Allen Americans (retired)]
If you’re in the hockey circle as a believer of Christ, or even if you’re just a minor league fan, Gary Steffes is a name you’ll likely recognize. Known for being a two-time Kelly Cup Champion with the Allen Americans in 2015 and 2016, he made waves on the ice outside of his playing abilities. After nearly every game you could find Steffes, often with other teammates and competitors, kneeling on the ice in prayer. Diligently praying for a teammate each day during his playing career, Steffes’ heart for Jesus far extended an act on the ice.
But his love for Him wasn’t something he had all his life. Growing up in a Catholic church, he mainly attended services on only Christmas and Easter. Hockey was his true passion. He lived and breathed the sport, gauging his self-worth on how he was playing. Hockey was how he defined himself as a man. Fast forward through a two-year junior hockey playing career for the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders in the USHL, Steffes found himself at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio playing for their honored hockey team. To most, they’re the Miami RedHawks. Yet those in the circle know it as The Brotherhood. Little did he know going into his freshman year, his new-found Brotherhood would bring the young Steffes more than a hockey family for four years, but a bond with someone much bigger that would last eternity.
Reminiscing back to the summer after his junior year of college where he was invited to an Athletes in Action event, he recalls with a sense of joy so strong you can physically feel it, he found Jesus in Miami’s psychology building, room number 125. That was the day hockey no longer defined him. Jesus did. He knew hockey was now his tool graced upon him to reach hearts and lead them to the Lord. In his post-hockey career, Steffes now works for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” – Philippians 4:13 [Bryce Aneloski, dEFENSE, Kansas City Mavericks]
A beloved Kansas City Mavericks defenseman, Bryce Aneloski is known to be a successful man both on and off the ice. Radiating a sort of brightness only a truly genuine person could bring into a room simply by his presence alone, it’s clear as to why he’s a favorite wherever he goes.
His journey with Christ began at age 15 while training with a guy playing in the minors in the US and Germany. This man was devoted to becoming a pastor, which ultimately lead Aneloski to attend church with his mentor. As time went on, Aneloski found himself in a situation all to familiar with hockey players in the minor leagues. He was being sent up the the AHL, back down to the ECHL, and what felt like all over the country. Although part of the business, this reality is still difficult no matter how seasoned the veteran may be. Yet holding on tight to his faith has made a world of difference in an industry that can flip your life in a new direction in a heartbeat.
With a cool confidence in his voice, and a seemingly-permanent smile on his face, Aneloski credits his faith to allow him to let go of things he can’t control, especially during a particularly challenging period in his career.
During the 2016-17 season he spent 35 games with the AHL’s Bakersfield Condors where he notes he was very uneasy:
“If I didn’t have God, I wouldn’t have made it. He kept me at peace,” Aneloski said.
“I have set the Lord continually before me; Because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” – Psalm 16:8 [Tyler Wong, fORWARD, Chicago Wolves]
Brought up in a Christian environment, current Chicago Wolves forward Tyler Wong, moved from his home in Cochrane, Alberta to Lethbridge in the same province to play for the WHL’s Hurricanes. During this time in his life, he felt it difficult to pursue his faith on his own without any other open believers on the team. Noting it was a tough year where he made some mistakes, Wong fell away from his upbringing that season.
But come next season, he was determined to mature a bit, and set back on the path he knew he wanted to be on:
“I need to do this on my own. Nobody else is going to do it for me. I can’t get my mom to say my prayers for me, I can’t get my mom to read the Bible, to follow God for me,” Wong said.
He was able to lean on Jack Knight, the chaplain for the Calgary Flames and the city’s CFL team, the Stampeders. At the time, Knight acted as the chaplain for a handful of junior hockey teams in the area. Meeting a couple of times a month over coffee in Lethbridge, Wong’s time with Knight was a turning point in his life where he truly committed himself to God. He credits Knight as being the biggest influence in his hockey career.
Extending his duties as Hurricanes team captain off the ice, Wong noticed an increasing number of teammates attend team chapel as he aged. Often attending with older players, Wong’s influence saw younger guys joining in as well. Be it the natural dynamic of any rookie/veteran relationship, seeing the older players interested in chapel made the younger guys feel welcome to join in the services.
Proud of what he witnessed with the Hurricanes, he knows he left a legacy in Lethbridge:
“It was awesome to see that grow, and to know that rather I’m here or wherever, I’ll be able to have that impact to making it more prominent, where guys aren’t forced to go, but also for guys who are interested they’re able to just go and have no fear of other guys looking down on them,” Wong told The Sin Bin.
“But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” – Exodus 9:16
The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge. He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” – Psalm 18:2 [Jason Kasdorf, gOALIE, Cincinnati Cyclones]
Similar to many people in the Christian community, Cincinnati Cyclones goaltender Jason Kasdorf was raised attending church with his parents and two sisters. Going through the motions of what his family raised him to do, in the ninth grade he took it upon himself to own his faith and to actively pursue it. This choice followed him to college where he played for the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (R.P.I.) Engineers. There, he was a part of a large Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) group that joined together once a week. Meeting his wife along the way, they were both very active with the organization.
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” – Joshua 1:9
“Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed.” -Galatians 3:23 [Brad Thiessen, Goalie, Cleveland Monsters]
Growing up in a Christian family, Cleveland Monsters goaltender Brad Thiessen had faith ingrained in him at a young age. Reminiscing about the years his British Columbia family would make sure to find a church with a Saturday service if he had a game on Sunday morning, his parents made certain to prioritize God over anything else. For Thiessen and his brothers, being faithful to Him was important very early on.
As Thiessen grew older, and his talents sent him all over the North American hockey leagues, even getting five games in with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2011-12. But it wasn’t until his ninth season of professional hockey did he get involved with FCA through a man he had been working out with one summer. Previously, Thiessen had been apart of Hockey Ministries International through their team chapel programs, but never with FCA.
After getting hooked up with Steffes, he began joining what FCA calls ‘Huddles’ once a week where other pro hockey players like himself would be on a call for a Bible study. Today, Thiessen leads his team chapels while they search for a formal chaplain. For him, it’s a new experience that’s been challenging, but one he enjoys.
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” – Philippians 4:13 [Justin Parizek, Forward, Idaho Steelheads]
Underneath the dim lights during the National Anthem, when the entire arena is quiet and still, Idaho Steelheads rookie, Justin Parizek, stands alongside his teammates in his own little world praying to the one who gave him grace. Thanking Him for the opportunity to play a game for a living, he reflects and rejoices, while never forgetting to ask for the safety of both teams on the ice as they head into battle.
Being a rookie is rarely ever easy. It doesn’t matter what league you’re in, or how good you are, every new guy faces fresh challenges on and off the ice as they begin this new adventure in their lives. Not just for rookies, but any player, often times guys are under significant pressure to score, to put up points, and to play a certain way. Add in the lack of job security that many men face in the minor leagues, and for some, even families to support, Parizek looks to play for an audience of one, opposed to everyone else around him.
Coming out of the University of Nebraska-Omaha where he led a Bible study that nearly half of his teammates attended, the professional game has certainly been an adjustment in all aspects. But making sure he continues to look at Him throughout his day-to-day, and playing righteously in His honor every night has made all the difference on the rookie’s exceptional first professional season.
In the next part of my series, I’ll dive deeper into the increasing role religion is playing in minor league hockey.