Throughout the history of the sport, hockey players aren’t typically known for their spirituality. They’re known for their skill with a stick in their hands, blazing shots, breakneck speed on skates and vicious body checks. Sprinkle in some toughness — like the willingness to lay out and block a six-ounce rubber puck traveling in excess of 100 mph or fighting an opposing player to defend a teammate — and you’d have what many would consider to be the “ideal” hockey player.
Five past and present Bruins showed their spiritual side Sunday morning when they participated in a conversation on life, hockey and following Jesus. The gathering was led by team chaplain and head pastor at Crossway Christian Church Dave Ripper.
The players included David Backes, Adam McQuaid, Torey Krug, Chris Wagner and Brandon Carlo — ironically all five earning a reputation as some of Boston’s toughest over the last few seasons.
The event was the culmination of a steady growth in Bruins players opening up about their faith. Though it took some time, that growth in faith began when the Boston Globe published a piece in April of 2015 focusing on McQuaid’s faith and the lack of it around the NHL.
It caught the eye of Hockey Ministries International, which reached out to McQuaid with the desire of starting chapel services for the Bruins. The former Bruin tapped the shoulder of the pastor at Grace Chapel in Lexington, the one he was attending at the time, to lead it. That pastor was Ripper.
“We were mainly doing a chapel directly after practice that first season,” Ripper said. “The guys would not even be out of their pads often time and we’d kind of find a spot to meet. They had a terrible old facility in Wilmington until they opened their new place. We basically would hang out and give a mini sermon and a little discussion after that and pray. It’d be about 30 minutes and then we’d be done.”
The original crew was just Ripper and McQuaid. But as time wore on, Krug joined and then Kevan Miller began attending. That got the ball rolling on more and more players showing up to chapel.
A huge addition to the group was Backes when he signed prior to the 2016-17 season.
“He really brought a great influence to the team, and [we] saw a bunch more guys start to show up,” Ripper said.
During the 2017-18 season, Ripper estimates some chapel services had as many as 16 in attendance. As players have come and gone since, the numbers have remained roughly the same. Something that has changed is the meeting place: instead of the old stands at Ristuccia Memorial Arena in Wilmington, restaurants for breakfast or lunch are now the desired spot.
Sunday provided the opportunity for some of the chapel service’s members to explain what they’ve learned in their journey through faith. It’s worth repeating that it’s not an everyday occurrence to see NHL players open up about their spiritual life.
The Stanley Cup is the end goal for almost every kid who laces up a pair of skates.
It’s the pinnacle of hockey achievement. Yes, just making the NHL alone is an accomplishment few ever get to experience. But being on the last team standing come mid-June is the peak.
Adam McQuaid reached those heights in his first full season in the NHL back in 2011.
“I just got hit with everything at once,” McQuaid said. “As exciting as it all was, the time kind of passed and it was like I still have to live. It’s like you’re working towards something for so long, you reach it and then it’s like ‘What now?'”
That ‘what now?’ question permeated through McQuaid.
“It made me dive deeper into asking questions and then searching for answers,” he said. “The answers all didn’t come in a matter of days or weeks — it was over time.”
McQuaid soon realized the answers would come in the form of his Christian faith. Growing up, he and his family regularly went to church. His parents prayed with him and his siblings before going to bed and in the morning before going to school.
He still prays about things that make him nervous or anxious before going into the day.
Part of diving back into his faith included reading the Bible and studying the stories of Jesus’ teachings. It was around this time he also met his wife, who greatly encouraged his faith-based ways.
“It’s certainly given so much meaning to what I’ve done and what I continue to do,” he said. “An expression I’ve heard lately is ‘I’m a follower of Christ having an athletic experience’ not ‘I’m an athlete having a Christ following experience’. Kind of putting it in that perspective really helped get me on the path.”
Purpose is one of the five critical needs Ripper says people have, which is partially why he and McQuaid connected so deeply.
But that wouldn’t come until much later. This was only the very beginning.
The firing of Claude Julien was met with mixed reaction in Boston.
On one hand, it was only a matter of time. The Bruins were on the cusp of missing the playoffs for the third straight season. There had already been massive roster and front office turnover. The lineup looked old and appeared well past the glory days.
Julien’s tenure had many “if this didn’t happen, he would’ve been fired” moments. There was uneasiness in December 2010 when the eventual Cup champs weren’t living up to that potential. There were big question marks regarding Julien’s future when Peter Chiarelli was let go. And then of course there was when the Bruins were down 4-1 to the Maple Leafs in the third period of Game 7 in 2013.
But despite all that, Julien is still the winningest coach in Bruins franchise history. He brought the city its first Stanley Cup in 39 years. He led the team to another appearance in 2013. He was extremely well-respected in the dressing room. All of which made for terrible optics when he was eventually fired during the Patriots’ Super Bowl LI parade.
Inside the dressing room, there was lots of uncertainty. Roles were about to change. The Bruins were disappointed. There were the same feelings of guilt that always sit in the players of coaches who were just put on the chopping block.
Dave Ripper could sense these feelings and tailored his chapel services accordingly during this time.
“We looked to the passage in the Old Testament where God’s leading people through this wilderness season,” Ripper said. “We looked at some of the possibilities that unwanted circumstances can bring into our lives and we used that for framing metaphor of the wilderness season that the team was in in this interim time.”
The chaplain’s goal was to help walk the players through this time of uncertainty. Most of the guys in chapel group at that time had never experienced a coaching change at the NHL level.
Eventually, Bruce Cassidy would make real changes. The system became built on more speed, controlled zone entries and quick breakouts — a big change from what McQuaid and some of the other veteran defensemen were accustomed to under Julien’s watch.
That kind of system, as well as a switch to a much faster game league-wide, diminished the roles of players such as McQuaid and Backes.
Enter faith. For McQuaid, a change in roles would lead to one of the chapel group’s most powerful moments.
Dave Ripper could feel tension in the room.
In the weeks prior to the 2018 postseason, the Bruins enjoyed a luxury many NHL teams don’t usually have come playoff time: nearly all of their defensemen were healthy.
Just one year prior, the Bruins had to scrape together three pairs of defensemen with sticks and glue in their first round series against the Senators. The only benefit to this was the emergence of Charlie McAvoy. Otherwise, the lack of backend depth was an area Ottawa exploited.
The only D-man injured was Brandon Carlo heading into Boston’s 2018 first round matchup with the Maple Leafs.
That meant there was competition for the final defensive slot, and it came down to Adam McQuaid and newly-acquired Nick Holden. Both were members of the Bruins chapel group and both were well aware of the circumstances surrounding who would earn the sixth spot.
It was a whole new situation for McQuaid who’d only ever been a regular in Boston’s defensive group.
“At the time, I felt like I was being tested in some ways and wondering how I could grow in my faith through this,” McQuaid said. “Nick Holden was easy to root for because he was such a nice guy. Besides that fact, I genuinely wanted to see him do well. I didn’t want to see him fail in order to give myself an opportunity. I felt like if I was honest with that and that didn’t mean that I was necessarily happier or content in the fact that I wasn’t getting to play. I was still preparing like I would get the opportunity.”
As this situation unfolded, John 15:13 spoke loudly to McQuaid. The passage states, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”.
“I thought about the sacrifice that Jesus made, the ultimate sacrifice for all of us,” McQuaid said. “This is a simple way that if I couldn’t sacrifice a little part of me for somebody else in a time like this, then what am I doing?
“It was something that I wanted to try and do and really go against what the ways of the world would be where you’re supposed to be bitter and look out for yourself. That was something new for me, but I feel like it tested me and grew me in my faith.”
This led him to turn to Holden in chapel at TD Garden and deliver a powerful message.
“I’m rooting for you,” McQuaid said to Holden. “I’m in your corner. This isn’t me against you — we’re all on the same team.” McQuaid says he really meant it. Holden replied with a similar message.
The veteran still ended up playing in all 12 postseason games that spring, while Holden suited up for two.
“It grew me in my faith too,” Ripper said. “Man, that was a powerful moment.”
Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo have become cornerstones on Boston’s backend. They each offer a unique skillset — Krug as the elite, offensive puck-mover, Carlo as the emerging shutdown guy the Bruins use as a crutch in critical, defense-first moments. Their differences make them the perfect pairing. It’s well-documented.
Aside from their glaring contrasts, their faith bonds them in a unique way. It helped them both when they were in tough spots early in their respective careers.
For Krug, it was based in feeling alone.
“Professional sports is at many times a very lonely position in life and we feel that our value is in how we play,” Krug said. “We feel like we’re assets sometimes to a team. After games I found myself checking social media, searching my name, seeing what other people were thinking about me. The fans, the writers in Boston — Boston specifically is a very, very tough place to play but it tends to bring out the best in athletes as well.
“It was just realizing that it doesn’t matter what other people think because I’ve been blessed with a gift from God that has led me to this great city with a lot of great people. I’ve used that as a foundation of my faith and strength.”
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Carlo went through similar hardship with social media and worrying about what other voices had to say about his performance. It made it harder for him to focus, and it reached its peak during his second season in Boston.
At chapel discussions around that time, Danton Heinen shared an expression that changed Carlo’s mindset and marked a turning point for the second-year defenseman. It was one Heinen used when he went through rough stretches: “You’ve got to visualize an audience of one”.
“That just really stuck with me,” Carlo said. “I use that visual now still even if I’m having a bad game or whatnot. Just looking up to the stands and seeing God sitting there — just an audience of one. And recognizing regardless of what you’re doing on the ice, there’s nothing you can do to disappoint him. Especially with hockey.
“I guess you could say turning over the puck doesn’t really have much relevance to your life with Christ.”
Carlo is certainly one for small, impactful phrases. Tattooed on his right arm is “Live by faith not by sight”. Another phrase Carlo draws on has come to be one Krug embraces as well.
Late last season, Krug was tying his skates at his stall. Carlo always has his stick right next to him and because Krug was at the same level as the bottom of the stick, he could see the words “With me” written with a cross next to it.
“I started doing it as well,” Krug said of writing the words on his stick. “I just realized that no matter how lonely we feel, God is always with you and that’s been a strong presence in my mind and I always believe that. It’s led me to feel more content and try to use the gift that he’s blessed me with just to glorify him.”
Carlo mentioned on Sunday the deep dive into faith came from the struggles he had at recognizing his own purpose and rooting his entire life in hockey and trying to fit in.
“It’s been a big transformation in my life and ultimately has helped me with hockey,” Carlo said to the group. “Aside from that, just focusing on being a better person. Those things have really helped to not put all of my purpose or attention within what other people are saying, but trying to base that more in Christ.”
Chapel services have always proceeded as planned during the playoffs. It comes down to what works with the players’ hectic schedules.
Prior to Game 7 of last June’s Stanley Cup Final was no different. The normal crew met at TD Garden.
“You could just feel the pressure of everything,” Dave Ripper said.
The focus of chapel before the game was on a passage in Psalm 46 that states “Be still and know that I am God”. The message was aimed to fit a Game 7 win or loss.
“We just talked about stillness before God will help bring stability out of chaos and just reminding everybody win or lose, you are still loved by God,” Ripper said. “You still are valuable, you matter. The outcome of this does not determine who you are but know that God is with you to empower you, to strengthen you and we can have confidence and assurance with him no matter the outcome.”
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It’s no secret things didn’t work out so well for the Bruins in Game 7, as they lost a 4-1 stinker on home ice to the Blues. The offense didn’t show up. The defense wasn’t much better. Why did Brad Marchand go for that line change at the end of the first period?
After most seasons end, players go their separate ways. Guys go on vacations or back to their hometowns to spend the summer. But there are a few who stay in the Boston area. For those who stay local and also participate in chapel group, Ripper holds more individualized sessions with them since there are less players around and everyone has a different schedule.
A big part of Ripper’s preaching this summer was figuring out how to get the players past the heartbreak of Game 7.
“Everyone was bummed out,” Ripper said. “Romans 12 in the Bible talks about mourning with those who mourn.”
Fortunately enough for him, the studies prior to Game 7 prepared the group for both outcomes. Mourning became a focal point of this past summer for certain guys on the team.
“I tried to mourn with them as much as I could through all that,” Ripper said. “But then we just remember how we gather ourselves and look ahead to the next season.”
Despite COVID-19 forcing the NHL to stop action, the chapel group has not. They still meet via Zoom. The study of the Bible has continued.
During the recent Easter season, the main topic centered naturally around resurrection and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Dave Ripper still makes it a priority for players to share how they feel though, especially with the uncertain world around them due to COVID-19.
“The last time we talked we spent a lot of time just allowing everybody to share how they’re feeling right now,” Ripper said. “In the book of Psalm, there’s a lot of permission when we pray to pray with fierce honesty. We see people mad at God, grieving, lamenting, mourning, asking questions like why? And how long? And we talk about some of the stages of grief along with that.”
The large reason for the grief comes from the recent death of former Bruin Colby Cave.
“We know Colby was a believer and we just trust and believe he’s now with the Lord,” Ripper said. “We take hope and we take heart in that. We pray for his family extensively. We were praying in groups at that time too and were angry that this happened. We’re disappointed. Totally saddened and bummed out and we’re going to continue to support their family.”
Ripper will continue to help the group properly mourn the death of Cave, just as he will guide them through the challenges they face in the coming days, weeks, months and years.
It’s become part of the fabric of this Bruins team.
“We’re just a real group who has solidarity and brotherhood and that makes a real difference,” Ripper said.
And with that its become a little more normal for players to be open with their faith in the dressing room. At least that’s the case in Boston.