Sports Jan. 15, 2017

Christians skate with Columbus Blue Jackets

By Pat Macken

Faith helps fine-tune our God-given talents

Courtesty of Columbus Blue Jackets

John Tortorella, the bombastic former head coach of the Vancouver Canucks, is currently the bench boss of the Columbus Blue Jackets – a franchise that’s been historically abysmal, recording one of the worst all-time losing records in North American sports.

But this year, with only a third of the season over, Tort’s team is near the top of the National Hockey League standings.

Columbus has a few Catholic connections who are helping the cause.  Of all the major professional sports, hockey sees the fewest outward displays of faith. This is partly due to the Canadian and European content. These players tend to be very quiet when it comes to religious belief, making the story of Nick Foligno and Sergei Bobrovsky more compelling.

Foligno comes from a strong hockey background, with his brother Marcus playing for the Buffalo Sabers, and his father Mike an NHLer for 15 years, most notably also for Buffalo.

Through a couple of tragedies, Nick has grown deeper in his faith. In his early twenties, his mother died, and a couple of years later his daughter was born with a heart defect.

Honoured by being named the Blue Jackets’ captain, Foligno allows his faith to help him lead others. “There is a great deal of trust required in the relationship. They have to trust you to do things to help them.”

He sees a perfect connection between hockey and his Catholic faith, which he was raised to believe is the most important thing in life. “We were taught that how we play hockey is an expression of gratitude to God.” Likewise, any talent received “was given to us without any merit on our part … we are expected to fine-tune that ability and make it productive like the parable of the talents.”

Foligno went through a time of crisis after his mother died of cancer at a young age. “I ran from God initially, but my dad remained strong in his faith, which helped me see a deeper meaning.”

This growth in faith helped him deal with his daughter’s health issues. “I developed a better understanding to humbly accepting setbacks within the context of God’s providence.”

Columbus’s goaltender, Sergei Bobrovsky, is also known as a man of great faith who keeps icons of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Family in his locker. (NHL legends Jaromir Jagr and Pavel Datsyik have also been known to keep religious icons in their lockers.) At first Bobrovsky, a Russian Orthodox, was seen as different, but his teammates now embrace him as a prayerful man.

Another Catholic connection to Columbus is Springfield Bishop Thomas Paprocki, a high-level goaltender when younger who practised for a time with the Blue Jackets. The Bishop actually wrote a book called Holy Goals and is now episcopal advisor for Catholic Athletes for Christ, where he is a strong advocate for evangelization in sports.

If young people are going to aspire to a life of holiness, he says, they need role models – not just in terms of athleticism, but also spiritual achievements. Says the Bishop, “If you have both dimensions being displayed, then the young person will look at a successful athlete and say, ‘Wow this person is successful and a believer.’”