Every player needs someone to talk to from time to time. A person that shares a common belief. A trusted ally and a supportive presence in their lives both on and off the ice.
For fourteen years in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League that person has been Bruce Smith of Hockey Ministries International.
“I first pioneered this work during the American Hockey League days here in Saint John. We were seeking to establish chaplains and chapel programs in the league, so with it’s departure, I shifted my focus to junior hockey,” said Smith who is Chaplain Coordinator for the QMJHL.
Hockey Ministries first presence in the league was with the Halifax Mooseheads in 2004. Mooseheads majority owner and former NHLer Bobby Smith fully endorsed the program. The Moncton Wildcats and Saint John Sea Dogs followed suit in 2006.
“My role begun in December of 2005 when Bruce and I approached then Wildcats Head Coach Ted Nolan,” said Bill Parks who still works in that capacity with the team.
“The response was immediate,” said Parks. “I was available to all players and staff whenever a need or concerned arose. To this day that is how I function with the team,” explained Parks.
“Hockey Ministries is a wonderful program that has many great people involved. The program makes a significant difference to some of our young athletes,” said former Director of Hockey Operations for the Moncton Wildcats Roger Shannon.
L”The work that Bruce Smith and Hockey Ministries International does for our young student athletes with the Saint John Sea Dogs is invaluable,” said Sea Dogs President and General Manager Trevor Georgie.
“The commitment that Bruce has made to these young men, being there for them and offering support for all things hockey, and especially all things non-hockey, is crucial to their success as people. There is a lot more to the game of hockey than hockey,” explained Georgie.
“Bruce is a remarkable person, with an experienced hockey background and strong faith,” added Georgie. “What impresses me the most about Bruce is his exceptional listening skills, it is very hard to find a truly great listener,” explained Georgie.
“Our chaplains serve as a resource for teams specifically acting as an emotional and spiritual caregiver. The role creates a safe space for players where they can bring matters on confidential basis to a trusted individual,” explained Smith.
Gaining the trust of any teenager can be difficult, but Smith believes it takes time to establish and is definitely earned. “I’m convinced that junior players can detect the phony or the person who comes in with a hidden agenda,” said Smith.
The rigors of major junior hockey can be all consuming for young players leaving their families behind for the first time amongst other issues that arise within a teenager’s life.
“Junior players are at an age where there are many issues coming at them that they must process and work through. Sometimes a player simply needs a listening ear, someone who they can trust to discuss a variety of subjects,” said Smith.
“It’s clear they come with great concerns and they need a place to vent, and to express their greatest blessings and fears,” explained Parks.
Smith and Parks have witnessed their services benefit players in a variety of different areas over their time in the QMJHL. “In time of injury, chaplains are there to support and encourage. At times of family illness or bereavement, chaplains serve to support players and their families,” Smith said.
“We act as a resource for players to discuss a variety of struggles and issues and they know they will receive a sympathetic ear and support,” explained Smith.
The QMJHL has experienced growth in this area with eleven teams currently offering the service to players. However, Smith understands that this service isn’t for everyone. “Each team makes their own decisions regarding our presence and not every team has seen the value of Hockey Ministries. I would love to see all eighteen teams embrace our services,” explained Smith.
“My wish is that teams would allow each player to decide for themselves if they see a value and would desire to take advantage of the support,” added Smith.
Smith and Parks have seen the impact their services can have in a player’s life but that feeling is often shared. “I have learned the secret to a life well lived is found in serving others. The notes of appreciation from players and their families have been such a wonderful source of encouragement for not only me but the rest of our chaplains,” Smith said.
“I have watched players grow as young men in their commitment to understanding God, and I have see them grow in their understanding that hockey is preparation for life,” said Parks.
“To see young men that I have worked with today married and growing in their career is most gratifying. Players especially need to know what they say stays with me so that it does not effect their life on the ice or in the public,” explained Parks.
Parks has been the chaplain for the Moncton Wildcats for the past 16 years. “I have learned the value of presence, of simply being available and present, to support players and share with them in the highs and lows, the joys and sorrows and victories and defeats,” added Smith.
“To invest in the lives of young men is the greatest gift given to me by God,” Parks said.
Smith believes the growth and longevity of their work has been based on the respectful, quiet, behind the scenes approach that Hockey Ministries International have taken in serving hockey players from youth hockey to the NHL.