This bruising business of hockey, with jarring checks and stick swinging as a way of life, hardly seems the ideal place to practice the golden rule. Spear thy neighbor?
"I don't think they're incompatible kinds of situatons," said Ed Staniowski of the Winnipeg Jets. "If part of hockey is getting the puck out of the corner and giving a guy a clean check, you do it. There's no need to be dirty or break the rules to do your job and live up to the Lord's will."
Like many other players in the National Hockey League, Staniowski calls himself a "Christian athlete," one who has sought reassurance in religion and has "made the commitment (to Jesus Christ)." Some of them talk about their faith freely, even eagerly, quoting involved passages from the Bible. Others are so unobtrusive, few observers recognize that they are indeed, born-again Christians.
"They play aggressive hockey, with team spirit and an unselfish attitude, said Don Lisemer, a former hockey player who runs a Montreal organization called Hockey Ministries International, "but they have a low-key approach."
Doug Jarvis, Mike Gartner, Mike Murphy, Michel Dion, Doug Smail, Darcy Rota, Staniowski, Paul Baxter, Ed Kea, Mike Crombeen, Ryan Walter and other names familiar to hockey followers are all born-again Christians.
They find no conflict between what they do for a living and the faith they practice.
When Gartner flew after Pittsburgh's Pat Boutette last month, with a check heard--and felt--in the cheap seats, no one could accuse him of turning the other cheek.
"Our first job is to play hockey. We aren't paid to study the Bible," said Ryan Walter. "Mike (Gartner) said once, we're paid to win. Exactly. There's talk that Christians are pansies, and that win or lose, they'll just walk away from the team. But that's just talk."
Walter, like some others, is zealous as a missionary in his involvement.
"There are a lot of people missing the boat. I'm more than willing to share my faith," he said. "It's a natural byproduct of knowing the Lord. If this is it, you want others to know it too."
Walter was not raised in a religious family. "On Sunday mornings, I played more hockey than I went to church," he said. "My dad saw people who went to church Sundays, then lived the way they wanted to the rest of the week. It has to be a 24-hour thing, not just there Sundays."
Like many others in his profession, Walter turned to faith as a way of seeking a higher meaning in an affluent existence.
"I had lots of money, was captain of the team, owned a house and a car, which not many 21-year-olds can," he said. "With all that, I knew I should be on top of the world. What's left? But I was having a void in my life."
Walter was faced with a "heavy kind of question."
"I kept thinking, if the plane goes down, am I ready to die?" he said. Walter turned to the Bible and increased his awareness of a world outside hockey.
Staniowski, raised in a "God-fearing home where we read scriptures," said he did not make a personal commitment until he began playing junior hockey. "Being away from home, seeing all the parties, drinking, late nights, created a tremendous conflict for me," he said. The term "born-again Christian," Staniowski said, is sometimes applied incorrectly, but basically the definition is a "rebirth of the spirit."
"Rather than focusing on the selfish things in the world, you recognize you're here for a purpose," he said. "I believe I'm in hockey for a purpose. The ability and skill I have are not by chance. And given the opportunity to use it for God's glory, I do, whether I'm playing hockey or sitting on the bench."
Blessed are the bench warmers, for their faith helps them accept a scratch from the lineup. "It's still hard," Staniowski said. "You're human. You want to see your name in the paper. But you're to be supportive of your teammates, and you accept what comes your way."
If some of what comes their way is ridicule, mild or severe, the players live with that too. "I think the mocking is in just a kidding way," Walter said. "Anytime someone is different from the crowd, there's a question."
When Ed Kea played for Atlanta (now Calgary), he was the only born-again Christian on the team for a long stretch. "That was the example of Daniel in the lion's den," said Staniowski. "A very tough situation." But Kea's influence reached several teammates, and the Flames soon were, to a degree, factionalized.
Such a situation can divide a club. But if the presence of Christian athletes on a hockey team hampers its efficiency, no coach or player will say so.
Bryan Murray, the Capitals' coach, said when he first took over, he was aware that Walter, Gartner and a few other Christian players held meetings.
"Ryan was very religious, and I know he tried to get some of the other guys interested," Murray said. But rather than do something about it--"what would you do anyway?"--Murray said nothing, although he acknowledged that "something different like that, that takes attention away from hockey, isn't good for a team."
When Walter was traded to Montreal last September, the situation dissolved. "Mike (Gartner) and Doug (Jarvis) are very quiet about it," Murray said. Gartner's request to be a bit late for practice on Sundays so he can attend church services does not bother Murray. "And during his time off, I'm not going to follow a guy around, to a bar or to church. What they do is their business."
Lisemer, who played for a time in the Montreal system, started his organization because he felt there was a need in hockey.
"The experience of playing the game at the pro level, you see that the life of a hockey player is very demanding," he said. "The travel is horrendous, more so than football or baseball. As a result, their Christian life is eroded because of no opportunity to attend church."
Lisemer helps NHL teams set up chapel service for teams on the road and stays in touch with the network of Christian players, offering a periodical newsletter and encouraging words.
"As we look at the person of Christ, you might think of him as meek, but that word really means power under control. The pros feel they've been given ability by the Lord and want to use it to glorify Him,
"For instance, Jarvis plays a scrappy game, never dirty, but hardly meek. The motivation and desire to excel is greater than before. You're trying to satisfy your fans, coach and team, as well as yourself and the Lord."
Like other observers, Bryan Murray is puzzled by the hockey playing born-again Christians.
"With Ryan, he'd say he'd go all out, but he wouldn't fight," Murray said. "One time last year, (Pittsburgh's) Paul Baxter was skating off the ice and his language was just awful. Worse than mine. I asked Ryan how this guy could be a Christian, yet come off cussing like that? Ryan just said, 'Bryan, he's one we're not very proud of.' "
But Walter, Staniowski and the rest see few drawbacks in their situation. Danny Bonar of Los Angeles proudly proclaims, "I'm not playing for the Kings but for the King," and others echo similar sentiments.
"The Apostle Paul said, 'Run the race as a Christian,' " Staniowski said. "Even if for a wreath that will wilt. If he used a sports analogy, there must be something positive, some connection about athletics. He could've used any analogy. I'm sure it's all part of a plan."