Bringing the Gospel to the Masses or, in My Case, to the Rink
WORDS // Jeff Fox
Like the start of all good endeavors, the idea for Center Ice Ministries came about while having what I nostalgically refer to as a “casual conversation” with my wife, Tricia, about life. It was during this particular conversation, in 2009, that Tricia suggested finding work where I could combine three of my passions: ministry, young adults and ice hockey.
From that initial conversation, Center Ice Ministries was born: an outreach and discipleship ministry program aimed at targeting ice hockey players, including those in high school, AAA, Tier 1 and Tier 2 Juniors, and collegiate players. Center Ice Ministries’ mission is “To share the gospel message with hockey players who don’t know Jesus Christ, and to disciple those who do.”
WHAT MAKES HOCKEY MINISTRY UNIQUE
The core activity of hockey ministry that Center Ice Ministries engages in is chapel. We bring the chapel to the rink, or oftentimes to the rink’s home or visiting team locker room. This is a place where the gospel has not typically been welcome. The hockey culture is one of toughness and intimidation: physically, emotionally and verbally, but not spiritually.
In Michigan, I grew up playing ice hockey. I loved the sport so much that I even enjoyed the grueling practices. But in 9th grade, I became a Christian and found it tough to live out my faith in the hockey environment. Players engage in a lot of dirty joking and foul mouth conversation in the locker room. On the ice, there is an element of psychological warfare between opponents; the sport practically demands that you put each other down and do your best to come up with the best insult in order to rattle your opponent. The idea of meekness or turning the other cheek are entirely foreign concepts to their world.
As much as I loved (and still love) playing hockey, there was definitely a tension internally as to how to be successful as a new believer and as a hockey player. Men and women playing hockey today who are Christians still face this dilemma.
What’s more is that for players who compete at the higher levels of the sport, including players as young as 14 who play AAA travel hockey, there is no time for church or religious activity. Games are played on the weekend, sometimes as many as 5-6 games, including on Sunday mornings. Practices occur during the week, usually on three different nights, so midweek youth group is pushed aside. Bringing chapel ministry to the rink solves this problem.
In the beginning phase of this new calling on my life, with the help of some friends, I approached the local United States Hockey League (USHL) Tier 1 Junior hockey team, calledIndiana Ice, to see about providing a chapel for the team. It took a year to get it going, as the coach we initially spoke with was not interested. But when a new coach arrived in Charlie Skjodt, he was open to it and gave us the green light. So, from 2010 until the franchise’s end in 2014, I was the Chaplain for the Indiana Ice hockey team, based in Indianapolis. During that time, I was able to connect with approximately 80 junior hockey players while relating biblical concepts to the sport and providing the hope of the gospel. They were surprisingly open to discussing spiritual topics and seemed pleased to see that the Bible was relevant to the sport they loved.
Since those first four seasons, many of my players have gone on to play collegiate and professional hockey. I maintain contact with many of them. In fact, my plan at the time for the next phase of the ministry was to begin providing chapels to these same players at the colleges they attended. That plan has come to fruition. I currently have chapel programs for Michigan Tech University, Michigan State University and Adrian College. I have partnered with Athletes in Action, His House Christian Fellowship and Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA Hockey) to ensure their teams have a local chaplain to help guide their players. Inroads are currently developing with several other universities as well.
STAYING THE COURSE
The picture that Christ described of the fields being ready for harvest is 100% applicable to the world of ice hockey. Despite the presence of chapel programs in other major professional sports, hockey is resistant to this kind of program. Progress has been made over the past several years, but there is a long way to go to reach this largely unreached group of people.
I am passionate about reaching this group of athletes that are seemingly unreachable. Part of their unreachability is caused by their “elite” status. Being highly skilled and famous in a sport puts a person in a small group that tends to isolate itself from outsiders. The athletes have worked hard to get where they are in their sport, and few gain entry. Nevertheless, they are very amicable and approachable once one has their ear.
Coaches are the main gatekeepers, and establishing a trusted rapport with them is the first and primary hurdle I’ve had to overcome in each athletic program. Given my network of hockey contacts over the years and the fact that I played and know the “lingo” helps me gain the little access I need upfront in order to have the discussion about how chapel can help a player and furthermore, a team.
In all ministry difficulties, I am reminded of the verse: “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted.” -Job 42:2
Having built friendships with players nine years ago that I still maintain today keeps me motivated. I have the chance to continuously interact with guys that have progressed all the way to the NHL and others that have hung up the skates and are working regular jobs. I’ve had players accept and express faith in Christ. I had one player return from college and ask me to baptize him in the horse trough at my home church. I’ve had players call me and ask for advice on various topics ranging from girlfriends to playing time to partying and alcohol, among other things. Being asked for advice and prayers keeps me motivated also.
Ultimately, the fact that God chooses to use me (a mere slug) to do His work in reaching these people is incredibly humbling but very motivating. I am so honored and excited to be able do this for God that I am simply anxious to keep doing it and to do more of it.
The conversation I had with my wife that day nine years ago happened during what would normally be a typical phone call while taking a lunch break at work, yet there was this sense of dissatisfaction growing within us in regard to the level of difference we were making in the world for Christ. We came to the halting reality that we were doing this “American Dream” thing where we had the Monday through Friday jobs, the kids, the house, and the two cars. Coming to the realization that the “dream” was what we were chasing, led us to contemplate what more we could be doing. And as I discussed this all with my wife, she mentioned things that I get excited about–namely hockey, doing small group discipleship and young adults. I get excited about hockey and I love being around it, so my exuberance comes out when I serve hockey players. It’s infectious to those I’m serving. And ultimately, I find greater joy in doing things for others than when I do things for myself–it’s the “secret” to finding joy not only in your hobbies, but in God.