Inside the National Secular Hockey League

Inside the National Secular Hockey League

Amalie Benjamin of the Boston Globe had an interesting look at religion in the NHL over the weekend that’s worth your time. The theologian thesis: “While spirituality is on display in other professional sports — with pitchers’ fingers pointing skyward, tattooed crosses adorning NBA arms, words of divine praise in postgame sideline interviews — that’s not the case in hockey. In the NHL, religion is mostly omitted from the conversation, God left unsaid.”

That’s accurate, to a point. As she notes, there are players like Mike Fisher and Shane Doan that are open about their faith, to the point where Doan once gave an interview to “The 700 Club” about what Jesus taught him about being an NHL captain:

“He is I AM. He’s everything. And yet, He took the time to wash the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, which is a total contradiction to everything else that we’re taught. Where you make sure you get yours if you want to be a leader, you got to be full of bravado. But He came as a Servant. And that, to me, is an example of His love for us and the thing that I think makes people want to follow Him, and that’s what a leader is.”

The article details how some teams deal with faith, such as 23 teams having some form of chapel and Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill beginning each season by having chaplains speak to his players. That there are certain locker rooms that are more open to it than others.

Via the Globe:

When Vancouver’s Dan Hamhuis debuted with the Predators in 2003, however, he came into a dressing room friendly to those of faith. He was comfortable, he said, and “not afraid if it came up that I was going to be exposed.”


“In a hockey dressing room if you do anything out of the norm you’re going to get called out on it, whether it’s a funny hat you wear, a new pair of shoes, or a bad haircut,” said Hamhuis. “So you’re always kind of on guard and aware of yourself. In matters of faith, it could be something that guys might give you a hard time about, and if you’re not real mature in your faith, you might not be comfortable defending it.”

And that’s the catch. Faith can inevitably lead to confrontation. It’s a room of big personalities and different backgrounds. It’s a room that, as Mike Gartner told the Globe, might see outward faith as a form of weakness.

The fact is that teams don’t want any distractions in their rooms, be it politics or religion or personal conflicts. The question is whether that supression is more destructive than anything that "distraction" might cause.

For example, I’ve talked to dozens of players about having a gay teammate through the years; the responses have always been less about homophobia than about this bizarre, insulting notion that “team unity” should keep players in the closet because of what "might" happen from a distraction standpoint -- questions from the media, and the like.

(Although I can see how many don’t see any nuance here.)

When it comes to religion, we've seen players get themselves in hot water. What Benjamin doesn’t mention are those times when faith does become a point of controversy. Think Mike Fisher supporting Hobby Lobby. Think Pavel Datsyuk, an unfortunate omission in the Globe piece, backing Russia’s anti-gay laws due to his religious beliefs. Think Rocco Grimaldi telling women what to wear to “honor God” because men can’t control themselves.

Grimaldi is, perhaps, the last great example of a player whose faith defined him, allegedly to his detriment. Teams avoided him at the 2011 because of his religious candor. Some might see this as discriminatory at worst, overcautious at best. Some might see it as rightful discretion, given the things Grimaldi has said and tweeted since then.

How hockey treats its most devout is an interesting tale, as is how its most devout approach hockey. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes has an entire hockey arm, holding camps and running travel teams. Former Rangers goalie Bob Froese, now a pastor, is involved. So was Brian Pothier, the former Washington Capitals defenseman, who was open with his faith even if “the NHL isn’t full of Christians.”

One would assume with so many players coming to hockey from small towns and humble backgrounds, religion would play a larger role in players’ lives. But Doan has a theory as to why there aren’t more openly religious men in the NHL, via the Globe:

“The reason I think that faith isn’t as big a part of hockey as maybe other [sports] is the men in hockey are good men. I really do.

“Sometimes good people don’t necessarily believe they need faith. You know, I’m good enough. I think there’s an element to that, and I understand. There’s just really a lot of good men in hockey.” 

(Boy, just when you thought the “hockey is better than basketball because…” memes couldn’t get more insufferable …)

So is religion better left outside the rink, or should religious players be welcomed more to outwardly profess their faith?