For the last several days I have been in Vilnius, Lithuania and Moscow, Russia in support of our teammates of FCA Ukraine. While here in Moscow, I had a great talk with a young man who is pursuing ministry in ice hockey. He was an elite level young player and then a professional until age twenty. As we discussed what he misses most about playing with a hockey team he said, “My teammates. In the summers, when we would go to a summer camp to train and compete, I would come home after the camp and cry in my room. My mother would ask what was wrong with me and I would reply that I miss my teammates.”
For this young ice hockey player, his team and teammates provided community and purpose for his life. After he was passed over for further advancement in professional hockey, he was suddenly thrust into the real world of work and this world provided neither community nor purpose. He was adrift. He descended into a life of alcohol and drug abuse, crime, and eventually homelessness. In the midst of this downward spiral he connected with people in the world of crime. They also welcomed him, without condition, and gave him a community and purpose for living, nefarious as it was.
While homeless, a man approached him on the street offering a way out of his plight through relationship with Jesus. At first he said no. When the same man offered again, he asked what he had to offer. The man gave him the phone number of a rehab clinic that could offer him food, clothing, and shelter. When he made the call he was amazed that they would receive him without condition. This new set of friends offered him community and a purpose for life. He went through rehab, staying and working there for four years.
Now well integrated into his local church, married to a delightful young lady (a former professional volleyball player, now a coach), he and his wife began to dream and to pray about ministry in sport. He said, “How many ushers does a church need? Surely there is a way to serve God outside the church walls.” They were both looking for a way to share community and purpose for life with sportspeople. One day he received a call from a man named, John McIntosh. John has a long history of serving the ice hockey community. John said, “I hear you are a pretty good hockey player, and I hear you are a believer. Can we get together?” They met and that launched their journey toward ministry in sport. They are just beginning, but they already understand the hearts, minds, and lifestyles of elite level sportspeople.
We, as sport chaplains, must be increasingly aware of the loss experienced by sportspeople when they leave the organized, regimented, community of their sport. Whether due to retirement, injury, failure, or simply being released from their contracts, sportspeople experience the same loss of community and purpose as did this ice hockey player. We must find ways to bridge that gap. We must find ways to provide community. We must explore ways to help them find purpose for their lives. Please join me in this most important venture.