How Faith Figures Into the NHL

Josh Gallant, a worker for CGS Imaging, installs a giant image of Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, one of the All-Stars due in Columbus for Sunday’s game, on the windows on the west side of Nationwide Arena. (CHRIS RUSSELL | DISPATCH)
Josh Gallant, a worker for CGS Imaging, installs a giant image of Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, one of the All-Stars due in Columbus for Sunday’s game, on the windows on the west side of Nationwide Arena. (CHRIS RUSSELL | DISPATCH)

Brad Larsen was in his early 30s when a fellow Portland Pirates player invited the team to a chapel service.

Larsen, playing in what would be his final season in professional hockey, had never had much faith in God, but he recently had found himself searching. So, he gave it a shot.

The small group of players met regularly with a Christian chaplain to hear Bible readings, discuss faith and share their struggles, in the dressing area of the American Hockey League team in Maine.

Within two years, Larsen was baptized. It was May 22, 2011, what he calls “the greatest day of my life.”

“The one thing about what God does is he humbles you, and he teaches you about appreciation and help and love and patience,” said Larsen, now an assistant coach with the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets.

“In hockey, where it’s a very reactive sport and a very emotional sport, and your highs and lows can get out of whack … it puts life in perspective.”

The chapel program that inspired Larsen is among 250 provided to teams in more than 30 leagues by the Montreal-based Hockey Ministries International, said former NHL center Laurie Boschman, one of the organization’s NHL chapel coordinators.

Boschman will be in Columbus on Saturday when the group has a faith breakfast to coincide with the NHL All-Star Game. He will share his stories of faith, God and hockey at the event, from 7 to 9 a.m. at the Hyatt Regency Columbus.

Also expected to speak are former NHL goaltenders John Vanbiesbrouck and Glenn “Chico” Resch, and former Blue Jackets forward Mike Rupp.

Ask Larsen and others in the NHL how faith figures into playing hockey and, at first, they might laugh.

“I feel like sometimes the way I play can be a sin,” joked forward Nick Foligno, a captain in Sunday’s All-Star Game. He attends chapel services with a handful of other Blue Jackets players.

A Roman Catholic, Foligno said his mother always reminded him that he was blessed to be successful playing the sport he loves. He said he has leaned on his faith in difficult times, including the loss of his mother and the illness of his newborn daughter last year.

“My mom always said that you’re given these talents for a reason, and they’re God-given, and you want to make the most of them. And I think that always stuck with me,” Foligno said after a practice last week.

“We’re so blessed to play this game and fortunate, and you want to make the most of it. I think that’s why I’ve used that as my motivation — making sure I am a good person, a good father, a good husband and a good teammate. And I think it’s allowed me to become a better player.”

Across the locker room, fellow All-Star and Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has small icons of Jesus, Mary and the Russian St. Sergius of Radonezh — whom he calls his guardian angel — in the corner of a shelf beneath his facemask.

Bobrovsky is Russian Orthodox and said he definitely believes in God. But his faith, he said, is personal and emotional and difficult to talk about.

Foligno said a group of five to eight Blue Jackets tries to meet for chapel weekly, as their schedules allow. The meetings give them a peaceful time to focus on the non-hockey parts of their lives, talk about trials and tribulations, and build a sense of camaraderie.

“Hockey can be so hectic, but there’s more to our lives than just hockey,” he said.

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SOURCE: The Columbus Dispatch
JoAnne Viviano, jviviano@dispatch.com

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