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The frozen chosen

Sports | Canada's national team featured three stars with Christian backgrounds

Issue: "Iraq: Terror without end," Oct. 2, 2004

With the danger that their favorite athletes could soon be headed overseas, millions of Canadian hockey fans gathered around televisions on Sept. 14 to watch Canada defeat Finland to win the World Cup of Hockey. Cynics might wonder whether the NHL scheduled the tournament, out of storage for the first time since 1996, to take fans' minds off the impending lockout that began the next day.

Canada's national team featured three stars with Christian backgrounds: Jarome Iginla, the heart of the Calgary Flames and the Sports Illustrated Player of the Year; Shane Doan, team captain of the Phoenix Coyotes, who grew up on an Alberta ranch that doubled as a Bible camp; and defenseman Robyn Regehr, also a Flame and the son of missionaries to Brazil.

Mr. Iginla is known as one of the most humble, gracious stars in the league. His father, Elvis, immigrated to Edmonton, Alta., from Nigeria as a teen in 1976 and cheered as Wayne Gretzky and the Oiler dynasty ruled the NHL in the 1980s. "Jarome reached a point in 1996 where he realized he needed to take [his faith] more seriously," he says. It wasn't easy. Until fairly recently, being known as a believer in hockey was like wearing a jersey that said, "I'm a wimp"-despite a handful of stars and even enforcers in the '80s and '90s who would cheerfully drop their mitts on the ice yet deliver powerful Christian testimonies off it, like Ryan Walters and Stu "The Grim Reaper" Grimson. Even today, only eight NHL teams even have a chaplain.

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At one time three Christian stars on a national team would have been a major breakthrough for sports ministries like Athletes in Action. The idea was to reach NHL players with the gospel in the hope that hockey youth would follow their lead, but results were uninspiring. Now AIA's hockey ministry is mostly summer hockey camps and international tours for junior and college players that help train them to share their faith.

Another strategy: hockey chaplains. In 1993 Mike Waddell was a Youth for Christ staffer in Brandon, Man. Realizing that local youth were hanging out at the Keystone Center Friday nights, he began singing the national anthem at Wheat Kings games for $15 and a free ticket.

The next year he offered to become the team chaplain. The Wheat Kings management told him to get lost. No Western Hockey League team had one at the time. "I pushed too hard," he says. But after three years of "bridge building" and prayer, in 1997 Mr. Waddell began holding biweekly Bible studies and sitting in the stands with the injured players during home games.

Mr. Waddell has since joined Montreal-based Hockey Ministries International, which has dozens of chaplains ministering in locker rooms around the country. Out of 20 WHL clubs, 19 have HMI chaplains. "The association we have had with HMI has been outstanding," says WHL Commissioner Ron Robison. "The program is optional, but the clubs have seen a lot of value in it." Chaplains help players deal with personal crises and teach "values," a concept Mr. Robison leaves undefined but that parents find reassuring.

"We're laying a foundation at a point of intersection between the professional and amateur ranks of hockey," Mr. Waddell says, "so the body of Christ can be trusted to serve the hockey culture." Harry Funk, chaplain to the Portage Terriers of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, explains: "We'd like for kids to get to the NHL and say, 'What? There's no chaplain here?'"

Hockey players are not at all postmodern, observes Mr. Funk. To them, life is like chasing the puck into the corner; if you don't position yourself correctly, you'll get hammered: "They want to know why they wake up at three in the morning, sweating. They want to know what the truth is, and what it costs to follow God, and they want to know that they're going to heaven. They don't want to get too philosophical about life, they just want to know what it is." Four Terriers professed faith in Christ last season.

"Sometimes I tell them that, when you play a good, honest game, win or lose, you make God smile. They like that," he says. "Every kid wants the blessing of his father."

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