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January/February 2001 Issue

Taking Christ to the Rink

By Lorelei Adlam

No one would call Stu Grimson a wimp.

The hard-hitting left winger, born in Kamloops, B.C. and currently playing with the Los Angeles Kings, stands 6'5" and weighs 235 pounds (196 cm and 107 kg) and has accumulated more than 1,800 penalty minutes. But few may realize that one of the best-known "enforcers" in the National Hockey League (NHL)--nicknamed "the Grim Reaper"--is a committed Christian. He currently also works as a vice president of the NHL Players Association. Christian teaching doesn't forbid his rough profession, he says. In fact, he believes that God approves of him trying to play the best he can.

Former NHL star Paul Baxter is another Christian known for an aggressive playing style. His style made him popular with his teammates and fans in Calgary, though understandably unpopular with his opponents.

"People think being a Christian means being meek and mild, but they don't realize the courage and toughness Jesus displayed in his life," says Baxter.

In the past some managers in the tough, competitive world of professional hockey worried that if a player is a Christian, he might lack aggression.

Laurie Boschman, retired captain of the Ottawa Senators, recalls being traded from the Toronto Maple Leafs because of his beliefs. The story made national headlines when former Leafs owner Harold Ballard said he was going to trade Boschman "because he had too much religion on his mind." Ballard even resorted to sending Boschman to a psychiatrist to see if he had been "brainwashed." The real cause for Boschman's failing performance at the time was a bout of mononucleosis and blood poisoning. Despite the support of his teammates, Boschman was traded to Edmonton.

Boschman, who was born in Major, Sask., says there has been a great change since the Ballard days. He believes that NHL managers are beginning to recognize that a player who exercises his spiritual muscles can be of benefit both to himself and his teammates. An increasing number of top players profess faith in Christ, putting to rest any worries about Christianity making players into wimps. No one questions the career achievements of Christian players such as Doug Jarvis, Chico Resch, Dean Prentice, Paul Henderson, Roger Neilson and Ron Ellis.

Even Don Cherry, the gruff, tell-it-like-it-is hockey commentator for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, commends Christian players. "A lot of people expect me to put down the Christian athlete and for some reason they think that if you believe in Jesus you have to be a wimp - how wrong they are."

When Stanley Cup champion Ryan Walter once faced public criticism because of his faith, Cherry publicly defended him on national television. Walter, born in New Westminster, B.C., became a Christian in 1980 while he was captain of the Washington Capitals. He was 22 years old, the youngest player in the NHL to be named a team captain. His decision to follow Christ was inspired partly by Jean Pronovost's Christian life and influence.

Ironically, Walter had been asked by the coach of the Capitals to "keep an eye" on the veteran right winger, Pronovost, because the coach was concerned about his "religious views." Pronovost went on to inspire the intrigued Walter both on and off the ice. Now in his retirement Walter is an inspirational speaker, author of Off the Bench and Back into the Game,and manager of the web sites www.ryanwalter.com and www.hothockey.com.

Don Cherry also has a long view of the game and the status of Christian athletes. He recalls his early days when he played in the American Hockey League and players were fighting to make it to the NHL or struggling to prevent being sent down to the minors. He describes the group as the "toughest, roughest, grizzled bunch of guys in any sport ever." The Christian players back then, Cherry observed, maintained a solid focus on their goal, were diligent in their prayer life, and never took the Lord's name in vain. And they're still that way today, he says.

Some of those guys are now heading ministries that reach out to pros, fans and even to children. Many have gravitated to Hockey Ministries International, a Montreal-based group that led the chapel service that introduced Walter to Christ, and which now employs Boschman full-time.

Don Cherry points in particular to one retired Christian player who makes him "proud to say I believe in and am a friend of the Christian athlete." That player is Paul Henderson, the head of Leadership Ministries of Campus Crusade for Christ Canada.

Henderson is best known as the man who scored the "goal of the century" in the 1972 Canada-Russia series. Despite the fame it brought, Henderson experienced an emptiness inside that remained until he became a Christian two years later. He was one of the first high-profile hockey players to "come out" as Christians, along with Dean Prentice, a left winger who played 22 years in the NHL.

Henderson's current work with Leadership Ministries involves taking the gospel to the business and corporate world through evangelistic dinners and one-to-one sharing. Discipleship groups, executive seminars, annual conferences and regional retreats also help leaders grow in their faith. He and his wife Eleanor also lead marriage seminars.

Henderson's personal story, "The Goal of My Life," is featured on the Campus Crusade web site (www.crusade.org) and in a series of evangelistic advertising blitzes, called Power to Change, that Campus Crusade has conducted in various regions of western Canada.

Henderson wishes he had had the "heroes" to look up to who are now available to young players. He acknowledges the importance of positive role models; young athletes require spiritual nourishment in addition to physical training, he says.

Hockey World is Spiritually Needy
Many observers clearly recognize the need for a Christian witness in the world of hockey: players and coaches sometimes celebrate violence and wild living (e.g., alcohol abuse, profanity and promiscuity); life on the road can offer endless temptations and put distance into love relationships; and players can face the sudden despair of going from rising star to injured and useless in moments. That's not to mention the demanding spiritual challenges faced in junior leagues.

Violence within the game has actually decreased in the last decade, say professional players. They also defend the ongoing presence of fighters and enforcers in the league by arguing that they are necessary to protect the "skill players" and to prevent dirty play.

But any decline in violence is not apparent in media coverage. Many say that the media magnify the everyday necessary roughness in an effort to indulge the public's appetite for melodrama. It has reached the point at which spectator violence has become a problem, even in Little League.

Here, for example, are several recent stories:

  • A minor league hockey coach is dead following an attack by the irate father of one of his players.
  • A professional hockey player was charged and found guilty of assault after striking another player with his stick.
  • In British Columbia, parents were asked to agree to "fair play contracts" in Little League sports in an effort to eliminate verbal and physical conflicts that occur among players, parents and children, and parents and officials.
  • Last year the NHL commissioner indicated that there would be a crackdown on "deliberate attempts to injure" in the league.

Hockey Life Conflicts with Faith
Coaches and parents who pursue dreams of prestige and profit often pressure children into following extremely rigorous training regimes. The allure of making it to the big leagues often blinds players and their families. The fight to reach the top and the focus on winning at any cost can stunt the character development, family relationships and faith life of young athletes. Many reach adulthood with a selfish, survivalist attitude not conducive to team building.

For Christian parents, there often exists a dilemma in making choices between minor league sports and worship. Games and practices often take place on Sunday mornings, taking important time away from family and church.

Besides these families needing Christian help, the pros need it too. The rewards associated with successful careers in sports often contribute to the very downfall of athletes who have made it to the top of their game.

Many who are seen as "having it all" actually experience a great sense of emptiness whether they are winning or losing. For others whose careers may end prematurely due to injury or performance, the slippery slope to a "normal" life can be devastating. Extreme pressure, euphoria followed by desolation and back again, fame and fortune all disappear, and young players suddenly find themselves without purpose and employment, facing an uncertain future outside the limelight.

Roots of Sports Ministry
Decades ago, in this tough world of hockey, Don Liesemer envisioned Hockey Ministries International (HMI). Liesemer's name is not a household word, even to diehard hockey fans. By his own confession, he laboured in the 1970s as a journeyman player and was in no way a superstar. But God apparently had something else in mind.

During Liesemer's minor and pro careers in Michigan, he sensed "a great need among his teammates, opponents and their families to know Christ in a personal way." Like them, he was frustrated at how the demanding schedules for practices, games and travel "made it almost impossible for hockey players to have consistent worship opportunities in a local church."

Liesemer was exposed to sports ministry in the United States through the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The hockey world, he noticed, lacked the spiritual nourishment that was beginning to blossom in football, baseball and basketball. Finally, he began to see a solution to the spiritual frustration: bring the church into the rink. Eventually the vision would aim even higher: to reach the world of hockey--"every player, every fan, every arena, everywhere."

In the mid-1970s, Liesemer retired and went back to school. He earned a master's degree and became a teacher for two years. During this time he assisted football players like Wally Buono, Chuck McMann, Don Sweet, Pat Bonnett and others in establishing a chapel program for the Montreal Alouettes, a team in the Canadian Football League.

A hockey ministry finally became reality when he began an outreach with Dave Forbes of the Boston Bruins and Doug Jarvis of the Montreal Canadiens known as "the Iron Man" for playing 964 consecutive games without injury).

Since then Liesemer has become a highly respected and admired mentor, friend, spiritual advisor and confidant to many in the world of professional hockey. Stu Grimson describes him as a "spiritual cornerstone" in his life, standing by his side through "triumphs, tragedies and blessings," one who is always available as a support and for counsel.

Liesemer himself, when he wants spiritual direction and guidance, often goes back to some of his contacts from the early days. In particular, the footballers McMann and Buono continue to mentor him and support HMI, despite their busy work as professional football coaches with the Calgary Stampeders.

Children See Role Models
What began as one summer youth hockey camp in 1977 has grown into an organization that stands out as a credible and influential ministry to hockey players. The first camp, in Montreal, was almost canceled due to low registration until organizers hastily raised scholarship funds, allowing more boys to attend.

The youth outreach has flourished, and today HMI conducts 29 live-in Christian Athlete Hockey Camps in Canada, the United States and Europe, each five days long. More than 2,000 players of age 10 to 17 participate each year. HMI is staffed by 20 employees and hundreds of volunteers, including many current and former NHL players and coaches.

Laurie Boschman and another former NHL player, Bill Butters, currently lead the on-ice instruction in individual and team skills. Certified kinesiologists designed the "dry land" training, which combines participation in various sports, balancing fitness and a healthy lifestyle.

The physical training blends both spiritual and mental training, preparing players for challenges on and off the ice. Morning and evening chapels feature youth-oriented music programs, spirational testimony and intimate contact with the pros. Humour, practical jokes and fun are common.

The young players build lasting friendships under godly influence.

The professional players and coaches at Christian Athlete Hockey Camps spend most of the week in residence with the young players. In many cases the influence of these positive role models remains with the young players long after camp ends.

Jonathan Layman of Beachburg, Ont. learned first-hand about his hockey heroes when he attended his first such camp this summer. Layman attended as a recipient of the Tim Adlam Memorial Fund, a bursary fund initiated by Mike Gartner in memory of a former HMI goalie instructor.

Layman had the opportunity to improve his hockey skills in addition to hearing the message of the cross from pros Laurie Boschman and the Ottawa Senators' Mike Fisher. Layman was very pleased with training both on and off the ice. His view of hockey players has changed dramatically since he met Christian athletes. They have helped him forge a new set of personal goals.

Ministry Has Upheld Family Faith
Twenty years ago the Bassen family spearheaded the first HMI Calgary camp. The Bassens are a true hockey family. Hank Bassen had a successful run in the NHL, and his sons Bob and Mark carried on the tradition with careers in the NHL and European leagues. Hank and his wife Shirley were with Don Liesemer on the weekend when he decided to step out in faith with his dream of creating a Christian hockey program.

Through the lives of their children, these families have seen the results of HMI influence on two generations. The Bassen family credits the blessing of HMI in their lives as a significant contribution to the strong faith of their family. They believe the organization has played a crucial role in guiding them as they raised their family.

There are many others besides the Bassens. Glenn "Chico" Resch, born in Moose Jaw, Sask., was a popular goaltender with the New York Islanders. At one time he was the oldest player in the NHL. Later he became a coach.

Resch puts it this way: "HMI has been my primary church during these last 20 years as I've moved from player to coach to broadcaster in the NHL. HMI's presence has been the only spiritual constant in my life. I know I join with thousands of others who have been touched and ministered to" by HMI.

According to retired goalie Bob Froese, organizations like HMI are a "beacon" within the world of professional hockey. Froese's hockey career took him from the nets to the coach's corner and has led him into full-time ministry. He has been a pastor in New York for the past four years.

At age 75, hockey legend Howie Meeker continues to instruct and inspire young players. He knows hockey camps well, because he operated his own for several years. Meeker describes the HMI camps as a "top rated, great program that's much needed in the hockey world." He explains that the game of hockey often emphasizes speed, skill and aggression more than fun and the quality of the people and professionals involved.

When Don Liesemer felt called to begin his hockey ministry 24 years ago, he had no idea that HMI would grow to include youth camps, clinics, breakfasts, chapels, pro conferences, videos, literature, discipleship and counseling. Thanks to the HMI web site at www.hockeyministries.org, its videos and literature now have a worldwide reach.

HMI has successfully initiated chapel programs in nine leagues in North America and a recent expansion into Europe. In the Czech Republic, Liesemer's daughter Christy has been instrumental in both the summer hockey camp and a new project involving missionary outreach to young players.

For the past 14 years HMI has also conducted a Christian conference for pro players, coaches and their families. HMI also hosts an annual Christian Athletes All-Star Breakfast during the NHL All-Star series.

For the future, HMI leaders intend to promote the establishment of hockey missionaries. As an organization, HMI aims to connect local churches across Canada with tools and training strategies that would enable them to reach the hockey community in their own areas.

HMI's mission is to reach hockey players and fans for Christ and to serve the hockey community by providing counseling, positive role models and support to families as they make decisions about their children.

Critics might fault HMI for its uncritical acceptance of the way hockey is currently played, for assuming there is little or no conflict of interest between following Christ and playing in a physically aggressive style. But the life-change experienced by Stu Grimson and others testifies that God is working through HMI.

Stu Grimson came into a relationship with Christ 13 years ago as a result of a publication produced by HMI, he says. His faith has since received so much support from HMI that he refers to himself as a "product of HMI." He has since served as an HMI instructor. He continues trying to fight the good fight of his faith while playing the game in the traditional, hard-hitting style, both to the very best of his ability. His enthusiastic and competitive style has not lost its intensity.

Like an increasing number of other Christian players, he gets his "edge" on and off the ice from an unexpected source: his faith.

Lorelei Adlam is a criminologist in Renfrew County, Ont. She has published several articles about disability, parenting and bereavement.

Other Articles
Jan/Feb 2001 Issue

Cover Story
Taking Christ to the Rink

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