A few days after my wife of 23 years, Ilene, passed away at 55 years of age following a heroic five year battle with cancer in June of 2009, the principal at All Saints Catholic School in north Dallas – where I taught middle school English – reassured me that “your faith will get you through this.”
The head of school was spot on. I already had a strong relationship with God. My faith that He would give me the strength and fortitude to carry on in Ilene’s painful absence and remain productive and fulfilled served me well.
On this journey, God has brought wonderful people into my life, including my second wife, Colleen and her loving family. My son with Ilene, Jordan, is happily married to a wonderful lady, and both are successful business professionals and avid hockey fans.
Today, even when things don’t always work in my favor, I frequently find myself giving Thanks to God for the gift, the blessings and opportunities that He has bestowed upon me. And I am a happier person for this commitment to my God, and my faith.
When I saw Allen Americans team captain Gary Steffes and defenseman Aaron Gens (as well as other players) participating in post-game prayer circles after each battle on the ice, I immediately saw the connection between what we were all celebrating.
As a result, I am inspired to write about how these ice warriors transform themselves from warriors to worshippers in a matter of seconds, and to share their important message with the world of hockey.
On any given night during the ECHL regular season and into the playoffs, Allen Americans co-captain Gary Steffes (pronounced “stef-iss”) does battle as only a hockey player can. He will fire a pass to a breaking teammate while in full flight on the slick frozen rink just as a rival player tries to plant him into the boards.
The high scoring forward also stubbornly barges into the corner or charges like an interloper toward the opposing goal, coping with a forest of opponents’ elbows, forearms, gloved fists, shoulders, knees, hips, and hardened hockey sticks. He might even retaliate whenever the mood strikes, all in the name of being a clean but fierce competitor bent on helping his team put the puck into the opponents’ goal.
Teammate Aaron Gens, a grizzled defenseman, alternately absorbs and doles out hard body checks in open ice and against the boards while engaging in close quarter combat for possession of the illusive puck. He, too, will use every part of his torso to make contact with anyone wearing rival colors as he defends his team’s goal.
Nothing out of the ordinary – merely survival and the quest for success in the trenches of pro hockey as the Americans – an affiliate of the San Jose Sharks – seek to win games while their players also strive for one last shot at a promotion to the sport’s upper ranks (the American and National Hockey Leagues).
But when the final buzzer sounds, both individuals experience a transformation of sorts. Before they exit the ice for the sanctity of their team’s locker room, Steffes and Gens (pronounced “jens”) will engage in another close quarter ritual.
Every night, whether the Americans have won or lost, played well or beneath expectations.
They will participate in a prayer circle that may involve teammates and, occasionally, one or more members of the opposing squad with whom the Americans have just battled for 60 or more minutes.
“Gratitude leads us to take a knee at (or near) center ice after games,” said Steffes. “We just want to give thanks to Who thanks is due. Jesus is the only reason we play. He has blessed us with talent (and the) opportunity, health, and so many incredible blessings. Without Him we don’t get the chance to compete. Without Him, we are not able. We are so blessed to give thanks to Him.”
Gens added that “giving thanks for everything we have is the greatest thing we can do after a game. Whether we win or lose, it’s something that’s permanent in our game. It starts with how we live and pray daily and transfers onto the ice where we use the gift God gave us.”
This sight of these ice warriors in such a pose of solemn commitment has drawn very positive and appreciative responses from hockey fans of various religious denominations, including Baptist, Catholic, Methodist and Jewish.
The spectators look on as the final buzzer sounds, and Steffes and Gens congratulate or console teammates (depending on whether the Americans have won or lost).
They then retreat to an open area at or near center ice for a brief period of worship and giving thanks. “One of us will speak up and lead – and that changes from one game to the next,” said Steffes. “The leader will give thanks however he feels led, and we all join in that.”
Gens, who missed the final 20 regular season games with a broken leg and hopes to return during the ECHL Kelly Cup Playoffs, proudly watches as teammates such as forward Tristan King and defenseman Eric Roy join the circle after matches. Gens said he intends to rejoin the post-game worship as soon as he returns to the lineup.
Steffes said he began praying at center ice his first season of pro hockey as a member of the Central Hockey League’s (now ECHL) Tulsa Oilers (2010-11). “I had given my life to Christ at the end of my junior season (2008-09) at Miami University (of Ohio), but didn’t start taking a knee after games until (I turned pro),” he said. “By God’s grace I have ever since then for the last six years.
“The reason (we pray) on the ice is because that is where the competition is waged,” Steffes added. “It’s the battleground for where we perform. The battle starts and ends with a prayer. Proverbs 21:31 says…”The horse is prepared for the day of battle, But victory belongs to the Lord.”
Gens began participating in the on ice prayer circle when he accepted his teammate’s invitation to join him before an Americans practice. “Once it happened after the game, it was really special for me,” said Gens.
Steffes and Gens both admit that their commitment to a post-game prayer reaffirms to them why they play the game at such a high level just two tiers away from the National Hockey League.
“You know, when emotions get (the best of) us in a game – and whether we win or lose, or have a good performance or a tough one — praying afterwards draws us back to the fact that we compete for Him,” said Steffes. “At the end of the day, that’s what matters. Did we do our best to honor the Lord, and to honor others, and did we play with all our heart that night? Praying afterwards reminds us what a gift it was to compete for the Lord. Such a blessing cannot help but make us grateful and smile regardless of the game’s outcome.”
Both Gens and Steffes are part of a new generation of professional athletes who have no trouble expressing their inner feelings. Both will speak openly about their faiths, just as they will be candid about how they have played in a particular game.
Gens is the elder of the two, having turned 29 in February. The 6-1, 210-lb. native of Baudette, Minnesota played at the University of Fairbanks-Alaska before turning pro with the Lake Erie Monsters of the American Hockey League in 2011-12. He also skated for ECHL franchises in Evansville, Indiana (2012-13) and Reading, Pennsylvania (2013-14) before joining Allen for the 2014-15 campaign.
Gens notched career highs with 48 assists and 56 points last season, then contributed a goal and 10 points in 25 games as Allen captured its third straight post season championship, the ECHL’s Kelly Cup. Having tallied a career best nine goals this season before missing more than 20 games with a broken leg, Gens is back in the lineup as the Americans battle Missouri in the second round of this year’s playoffs in a quest to add their fourth consecutive title. He reliably sticks up for teammates and what he thinks is right. No stranger to the penalty box, Gens amassed a career high 186 penalty minutes last year and another 65 this past season.
Steffes, a native of Grand Blanc, Michigan who turns 29 on May 20, spent his first three pro seasons with the CHL (now ECHL) Tulsa Oilers before joining Allen for the 2014-15 campaign. He also achieved career highs for goals (44) and points (73) before helping Allen to its third straight title with 13 goals and 18 assists in 25 post season games. He added 22 goals and 45 points this season while also skating for the San Jose Barracuda, his third career “cup of coffee” with an American Hockey League franchise.
Both players have received their share of feedback about participating in the prayer circle. Most of it has been positive, but sprinkled with some negativity. “Many people are encouraged by it,” said Steffes. “Some have shared (that they) feel challenged and (feel) inspired to be bolder in their own faiths. We love the multitudes of people (including fans) who join us after games in it, and how buildings will often get silent as we pray.”
Steffes remembers his first year of pro hockey when he was asked NOT to not take a knee after a game. “The previous night a team took offense at us praying (after a win), as if we were rubbing it in, and they (threatened) to start a brawl after the game (if they did take a knee),” he recalled. “Some people have accused us of ‘being too much,’ or have mocked us, but for the most part we have been given the freedom to just give thanks to Who thanks is due. We compete because of Christ, and for Christ.”
For the most part, Steffes said he has rarely encountered any opposition from opposing coaches or teams “who asked us not to pray on ice. I have had friends experience that, but not personally,” he noted. “If that did happen and it became an issue, we would honor the organization’s wishes and just take a knee somewhere off the ice. The Lord teaches us to “Honor authority” and not be rebellious to governing authorities (Romans 13:1). With that in mind, we will always take a knee and give thanks to Jesus — they cannot stop us from doing that.”
The prayer circle takes on special meaning when one or more members of the opposing team join the Americans, said Gens. “We have played some tough games against Tulsa and against the Colorado Eagles, and members of those teams were willing to join us afterward in spite of the high level of competiveness,” he recalled. “It was a true sign of testament to have them join us in prayer and give thanks, regardless of whomever won or lost the game.”
“Opposing players always have an open invitation to join us,” said Steffes. “Everyone is invited. Fans are invited (in the stands) to join us in prayer. It has only happened a few times in our careers where opposing players have joined us, but those times are, without question, pretty special. We are not sure if opposing teams have prevented it. It is, however, definitely counter-cultural in hockey.”
Steffes argues that individuals who suggest participation in the prayer circle will jeopardize or influence the level of competitiveness are skating on thin ice.
“I disagree, because playing for the Lord does not make us weak,” he insists. “If anything, it makes us more competitive. When you play before the Lord you play with passion and excellence. Excellence honors God and inspires people. We will play within the rules, but we will compete like absolute warriors from the opening puck drop to the final buzzer. Competitors for Christ go to war with honor when they compete. If anything, it would raise the bar of competition in hockey because men will truly be giving all they have every shift, every game out of gratitude to the Lord for the chance to compete.