Religion rarely on display across the NHL
He used to keep it hidden. Even many of his teammates — those Adam McQuaid spent years playing with, protecting, avenging — didn’t know. He only recently reached the point that when asked what he has done on unencumbered Sundays, he mentions church.
He used to leave that out.
There were hints: the cross dangling from a chain around his neck, the black rubber encircling his wrist with “I am second” in white. He said little about it, even as he drew closer to his religion in recent seasons as illness and injuries interfered with his career.
“I know that there’s other guys on the team that do the same thing,” McQuaid said. “I’ve kind of come to a point where if someone’s going to ask me, I’m going to be honest.”
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.
Now McQuaid is saying it, softly, hesitatingly: faith.
. . .
Just before the Christmas break, McQuaid sits in a back room on the ninth floor of TD Garden, talking about faith in bashful, sometimes rambling tones. He is not used to revealing this part of himself.
He glances toward ice he cannot see. The Bruins are playing the Nashville Predators that evening, and on that ice, coincidentally, is Mike Fisher, one of the NHL’s more outspoken players concerning faith. He is a rarity.
“Because they know it’s a kind of a little bit against the hockey culture,” Fisher said.
That culture has evolved, albeit slightly. When Laurie Boschman played from 1979-93, hockey ranged from standoffish to downright distrustful of religion. Even now, it’s not always easy to reveal to teammates willing to mock your every move or to a not-always-friendly front office.
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.”
Because of this, faith can be a closely guarded secret in the NHL. Shane Doan, the captain of the Arizona Coyotes and another out-and-proud Christian, had no idea that McQuaid is part of his tribe. “What?” he says, when told about McQuaid. “No way.”
. . .
The usual explanation is straightforward: The NHL is a league of mostly Canadians and Europeans, cultures that don’t have the enthusiasm for religion found in the American south, whose sons populate the NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball.
Those leagues have institutionalized religion in a way the NHL seemingly never will. It is understood that their faith has a home, and a guide, and a place to pray.
It is so ingrained in the NBA, where all teams hold joint chapel services before games with the home team’s chaplain, that it made news in 2013 when the Los Angeles Clippers held a rivalry-fueled separate session without the Golden State Warriors.
Hamhuis has heard stories about these services. That “would be unheard of in hockey. You know, some coaches won’t even allow it or GMs won’t even allow it in the arena [in the NHL]. So it’s kind of funny how it works like that,” he said.
It’s a fact that chafes some in hockey, that some teams across the league will spoon-feed their players everything else — providing real estate agents and equipment reps, recommending tailors and car services, even taking rookies to the grocery store to demonstrate a proper diet — but won’t provide them with the option of a chaplain or a service.
Twenty-three of the 30 NHL franchises have some form of chapel, according to Hockey Ministries International. However, when all teams were surveyed by the Globe, only two-thirds with a program acknowledged having one. The rest have players who meet off-site without management’s involvement.
The Bruins are among the clubs that do not sponsor a chapel. General manager Peter Chiarelli said that under his watch, no player has ever asked to have a program.
“I go to church on Sundays. Guys find a way to practice their faith,” said Chiarelli, who is Catholic. He believes the Bruins fall somewhere in the middle of those organizations that openly embrace religion and those that shun it.
“If anyone asks, we would accommodate them,” Chiarelli said. “My personal philosophy is I respect everyone’s faith and their right to practice it, just like mine. If I’m on the road, sometimes I try and find a church. Maybe that’s old school, but that’s where we stand on it.”
Boston, like most NHL clubs, has a program at the AHL level, which McQuaid frequented during his time in Providence. He and former teammate Jarome Iginla talked about starting one with the Bruins last season but never approached management, believing they would be better served broaching the subject at the start of a season. It did not happen this year.
Typically, chapel services occur on non-game days and vary depending on the size of the group and the chaplain. As Dan Edwards, the former chaplain for the Philadelphia Flyers’ AHL affiliate, described it, “We don’t solicit. We’re just available for the guys who want to get together.”
Edwards said his services lasted approximately five minutes, with words about faith and selections from the Bible. “Everybody loves playing for a great coach because a great coach will make you better, and God’s a great coach that will make you better at life — simple, simple, simple stuff,” Edwards said, though other chapel leaders use services to discuss heavier topics.
While the number of chapel programs across the NHL has risen, several players said they doubt it will ever encompass every team. There are some still wary of religion’s effects.
“It seems so archaic that we’re actually having this conversation?” asks Hall of Famer Mike Gartner. “No kidding.”
. . .
When Gartner played in the NHL from 1979-98, any sign of religion raised eyebrows and hackles in equal measure. Gartner said he never really felt the effects, courtesy of having enough skill to score 708 career goals. But many others did.
“There was a thinking that maybe if Laurie Boschman is a Christian, he might be soft and maybe he wouldn’t want to go in the corner and battle and maybe he wouldn’t battle for his teammates,” Boschman said.
That wasn’t all. Boschman, who played 14 seasons with five NHL clubs, said that when he was with Toronto, then-Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard accused his faith of being “a divisive thing in the dressing room.”
“And I think those kind of attitudes are still there — hockey is a physical sport, there’s no place for religion in hockey, those kinds of things,” said Boschman, who is now the NHL chapel coordinator for Hockey Ministries International, which aims to impart a “Christian message of hope” and support spiritual needs in the worldwide hockey community.
“I think they’re changing dramatically and have changed, the attitudes of, say, the younger general managers,” he said. “Yet I still find there is resistance by some executives to embrace that on behalf of their players because maybe they feel threatened.”
When there is interest and players ask — not always easy for younger players or those with precarious contract situations — some teams provide space, usually an unused room. But it is only in the last 15 years, Boschman said, that teams have allowed chapel programs within their spaces, and some teams are still reluctant. In contrast, all major league baseball teams had a chapel program by 1975, according to Baseball Chapel.
“Some teams will see it as advantageous as opposed to being confrontational,” Boschman said. “But there are some teams that don’t think that there’s a place for that in hockey.”
There is in Dallas, where Stars general manager Jim Nill, a former Bruin, begins the year with a meeting in which he brings in the chaplains and introduces them. He explains his faith. He shares with his team, something that leaves players around the league shaking their heads in wonder.
“I think it’s getting a little more open-minded,” said Nill, a nondenominational Christian. “You see it in college, they’re doing it more with hockey teams. It’s getting there.
“I think eventually everybody is going to have it. I’m lucky I’ve been exposed to it now and have a strong faith, so it’s easy for me to say, ‘Why not have it?’ But I understand some people don’t [believe that]. Everybody is on a different journey.”
. . .
It is not hard to find an NHL player for whom religion is barely a thought, the antithesis of Doan or Hamhuis or McQuaid. The words of one NHL veteran, who asked to remain anonymous in discussing such a sensitive topic, are tinged with distaste, not for religion itself but for those in other sports who wear theirs on their sleeves. And he’s not alone in his beliefs.
The perception, from him and others, is that it can be self-serving, and that those who are the most vocal can sometimes be the least godly. There can be a look-at-me nature to religion in other sports, something that is generally anathema to the typical hockey player.
Still, among the religious there is the hint of envy at those in other sports, with their freedom to proclaim their faith. McQuaid mentions that he has read three of former NFL coach Tony Dungy’s books and calls them “a big eye-opener for me.” Next will come Los Angeles pitcher Clayton Kershaw’s “Arise,” about living out dreams while living within his faith. McQuaid wants to see how they approach life and their sports from the foundation that informs them.
McQuaid has read former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow’s “Through My Eyes,” a book by an athlete who inspires praise from several hockey players for the way he carries himself, and his beliefs.
“I recognize that there aren’t a lot of people that are like him, and a disingenuous kind of feel sometimes comes across [with others],” Doan said of Tebow. “I’d prefer a much more genuine feel, of I’m not just going to say it, I’m going to walk it and I’m going to talk it. There’s got to be a genuine kind of feel about it.”
Plus there’s this dimension, posited by Doan, who is so involved that he runs the Coyotes’ chapel services himself: “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.”
. . .
As soon as his alarm rings in the morning, McQuaid grabs his iPhone and scrolls through his apps. He clicks on a black square with a fish icon detailed in sky blue and finds the morning’s devotional waiting for him.
There is not always time for church, given the NHL’s demands. But this app, “Daily Bible Devotion,” with its new prayer each morning and night, is always at hand. He repeats the ritual before bed.
“It brings me a lot of comfort in a world of a lot of uncertainty,” McQuaid said. “In general, but especially in hockey, there’s so many variables that can happen, with injuries — you’re here one day, you hope you’re here tomorrow.
“Things like that could weigh on you if you wanted that to be the case. I think I had said to you something about that everything happens for a reason, something along those lines. I try and take that out of every situation.”
This is how he survived his last few seasons, the blood clot near his collarbone, the quadriceps and ankle injuries, the broken thumb. McQuaid’s hockey life is one that seems perpetually interrupted, his body betraying him at the most inopportune times.
He rededicated himself in the fog of doctor appointments and rehab, with pains and aches dragging on his mind and his career. This, he thought, maybe this is the reason I’ve had to go through all of this. Maybe it was to bring me closer to my faith.
He had been raised in the Catholic Church, his mother gathering her children in the mornings to pray in a circle over a test, a worry, a niggling fear. She would say a prayer for each one of them, for McQuaid, his brother, and his sister. There was comfort in her words. There still is.
. . .
It is a few minutes past 11 a.m. on Jan. 18, when McQuaid climbs the stairs to the gallery at the suburban church he began attending more than a year ago. Before that, he had bounced around — St. Stephen’s in the North End, St. Joseph’s in the West End.
But this nondenominational church fit him. It seemed “like what I needed at that time when I was going through what I was going through,” when injuries had crushed him yet again and cost him most of the 2013-14 season.
At the start of the service, the congregation is encouraged to greet those in the seats near, to shake a hand or two. The man sitting one row behind McQuaid reaches out, looks in McQuaid’s eyes. “Basketball? Take an elbow to the face?” he asks, noting the blackened left eye and the stitches on the cheekbone.
McQuaid shakes the man’s hand. “Something like that,” he says.
More Sunday features: