Paul Golden walks into the Coal Street Ice Rink, carrying his Bible and a cell phone . . . and a Bible study published by Regular Baptist Press. He’s chapel leader for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, the local American Hockey League feeder team for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“The fans call them the Baby Penguins, if you can say a 6-foot-5-inch guy who weighs 250 pounds is a baby,” Paul says.
During the October to April hockey season, he meets with players once a week for chapel, a time of devotions and prayer held after a morning practice.
Paul says he was encouraged toward this ministry by the late Wendell Kempton, who asked Paul to participate in annual baseball missions trips to the Dominican Republic, sponsored by SCORE International. Two years ago, Paul began his volunteer position as hockey chapel leader, a program sponsored by Hockey Ministries International. With chaplains in 25 hockey leagues, HMI functions much like the chapels in other pro sports.
Paul tries to arrive early, while the players are still on the ice, so he can greet each one as they skate off toward the locker room. After showering, four will stay for the Bible study.
Most players are 20 to 25 years old. Those who are from the U.S. probably had a college hockey scholarship. The Canadians have probably come through a league system before signing with the NHL. And some will become famous. At this farm team practice arena, the players pass by a hopeful foyer sign: “The road to Pittsburgh starts at Coal Street,” including photos of 14 players who have moved up.
The financial rewards can be huge. The most promising prospects are awarded coveted NHL contracts that might pay an average of $60,000 a year for their farm team games. If promoted, those who finally make it to the NHL will make an average of $2.4 million a year, way more money than the average American makes in a lifetime.
In the shifting world of pro hockey, Paul never has the same group of players from the beginning of the season until the end. Recently two regulars at his Bible study were promoted to Pittsburgh. But players can move in either direction. Some are sent down to the Wheeling Nailers; some never make it back up.
Brad Thiessen skated for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins early in the season, until the Pittsburgh Penguins called him up in March. “This was the first year that I have been involved in the chapel program, and it was of great benefit not only to me but to many of my teammates as well,” he says. “With the rigors of a long season, travel, and games, it is not always easy to make it to church on a Sunday, and having a chapel program in place was a chance for us to get away from the game and talk about other areas of life.”
“It was a great way to connect with someone outside the team and get a chance to read and discuss the Bible and gain encouragement from our chaplain, Paul. It was a program that I would definitely want to be involved with in future years.”
Today Paul is leading a lesson from Real Men Overcome, a Bible study by John Greening. “Using this Bible study forces the guys to get into the Word,” Paul says, explaining how he gives the players a copy to work on at home. Surprisingly, he didn’t learn about the Bible study through any of his GARBC roots, though he is director of admissions for Baptist Bible Seminary and the son of Craig Golden, the retiring state representative for the Empire State Fellowship of Regular Baptist Churches. No, it was recommended to him by another hockey chaplain who was already using it effectively with the Syracuse team.
Paul spends 15 to 20 minutes teaching the Bible study, a lesson from the life of Joseph about overcoming sin. Reading from the Genesis 37 account of Joseph’s bad treatment from his brothers, Paul asks the players for applications to their own lives. Revenge—“payback time”—can be a huge factor in pro hockey, but the players also find parallels to their personal relationships.
In the practice arena, away from the roar of the crowd, the sound of a puck hitting the net is surprisingly soft, almost inaudible. The loudest noises are the errant shots, the failures, clanging against the goalpost or bashing off the glass wall behind the net.
This is the life of the pro athlete. Always being watched, always being evaluated, always chasing the dream, painfully aware that failure sounds much louder than success.
For Christian athletes, their zeal for a bold public testimony can get shouted down by the “Tebow effect.” Offer too many “Praise Gods” in an interview and suddenly your testimony balloons into religious overexposure, fueling media cynics who are all too happy to report your inconsistent stats.
Meanwhile, the critics are waiting—just waiting!—for some sort of public mistake. Maybe a bar fight, maybe a failed marriage or a bankruptcy, maybe a one-night stand and a surprise child.
All of these pressures leave players filled with questions that their coaches can’t answer: relationship breakups, family problems, and the surprising loneliness of life on the road.
“For many players this is their first real time away from home,” Golden says. “But they’re not going to tell the coach they’re homesick.” Much of what Golden does is behind the scenes—quiet lunches after practice, answering questions about God and life. “The guys know I’m not officially part of the team. Whatever we talk about, I’m not going to tell the coach.”
Then he heads off to the local sushi restaurant with one of the players, staying at the table long after the plates are cleared, talking and pointing to the Bible.
Kevin Mungons is managing editor of the Baptist Bulletin. Darrell Goemaat is director of photography.