Hockey Ministries International strives to keep players on a straight and narrow path.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Being a professional hockey player is not the easiest way to make a living. Beyond the physical wear and tear on the body, there are mental challenges as well. Certainly it helps to know you have someone on your side.
As a representative of Hockey Ministries International (HMI) working with the Grand Rapids Griffins, Tom Mellema sees himself as a “life coach,” a spokesman in solid servitude for all that is good. Considering the sport, he is not so much an advocate for saintly behavior as he is for playing the game – on and off the ice – the right way.
“I try to be a help to the team whenever I can,” said Mellema, who has been the Griffins’ spiritual advisor for the past 12 years. “I’m not a hockey coach. That’s not my role.”
Mellema is not an ordained minister. He did not attend seminary nor did he study theology. But he comes from a Christian family and attended Christian schools his whole life, so he was immersed in the Bible. And, most significantly, he loves the sport of hockey.
“I’ve been around hockey for 40 years,” he said. “I love the smell of the rink, the sound of the puck hitting the boards. I even played a little recreational hockey myself, although I was never any good.”
Mellema is, in fact, a former school teacher. He taught science in Fruitport Community Schools for 30 years until he retired in 2000. His focus was earth science, drawing on his studies at Michigan State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in conservation education and a master’s degree in fisheries biology.
So how did a middle school teacher get started in hockey ministries?
He began working part-time at the L.C. Walker Arena in 1965 while he was attending Muskegon Community College. “I learned how to swing a mop, set up and take down chairs and tables,” he said. “I did that for about two years, then they told me I had to learn how to drive the Zamboni.”
For the next 10 years, Mellema did the ice for hockey games on Friday and Saturday nights. “Even after I went off to Michigan State, I’d come home on the weekends to work,” he said. “Over time, I got to know some of the players.”
One of the players was goaltender Glenn “Chico” Resch, who played for the Muskegon Mohawks in 1971-72 and spent one season in the AHL and another in the CHL before a 13-year NHL career that saw his name etched on the Stanley Cup twice as a member of the New York Islanders.
“I got to know Chico and we maintained a friendship,” Mellema said. “I even went to the Olympia one year, paid $9 for a ticket to sit behind the Islanders’ bench. There was no glass separating the bench from the stands in those days, so he brought out the mat and sat next to me the whole game.”
Resch became a Christian, got involved in Hockey Ministries and began running the organization’s camp in the Czech Republic. “Several years passed by and he called me and asked if I could look after a Czech player by the name of Tomas Kapusta, who was going to play one year for the Muskegon Fury,” he said.
Mellema connected with Kapusta, who came with a five-year-old daughter and a wife who was expecting. The men became so close that Mellema was chosen to be the godfather to Kapusta’s son, Sammy, when he was born. “He later invited me to visit him in the Czech Republic, which I did.”
That put Mellema back in touch with Resch, along with Don Liesemer Sr., one of Resch’s Mohawk teammates, who started HMI in 1977. They encouraged Mellema to become involved with the organization, and Mellema started assisting Bill Houston, who was working with the Griffins at the time.
Eventually Mellema took over the chaplain duties.
When the team’s schedule permits, Mellema holds weekly non-denominational chapels for interested players. The interactive sessions provide players with a message, prayer time and an opportunity to talk about things that matter to them.
“My kids run the gamut from ones who are really solid (in the faith) to others who are curious – and that’s great. I’d love to have them all in chapel,” he said. “We laugh a lot. It’s not fire and brimstone. We’re not being sacrilegious, but we enjoy ourselves. I try to weave my message into how they can be better people while becoming better hockey players.”
Mellema often refers to the players as “kids.” “I love them like they’re my nephews,” he said. “If I ever saw a problem, I would take them aside and talk to them. I would rather have a player be angry at me than have God be angry at me for not doing my job.”
He uses Biblical principles to help players deal with challenges on and off the ice. Chapels are typically brief, practical and centered on a particular topic like attitude, balance or motivation. Recently, when the Griffins were struggling through a protracted losing streak, he brought up the subject of adversity.
“We talked about how to handle it when things don’t go our way in life,” he said. “You could see how some of them were struggling. I told them to think about it like a charge card. ‘Just hand it to God and you go play,’ and that seemed to make sense to some of the guys.”
The emphasis is on sharing, not proselytizing. “We talk,” Mellema said. “Guys have opinions and we welcome that. I take questions and prayer requests. They’ll ask for prayer for safe travel for their parents who are coming to visit. Or their grandmother who had a stroke, or an aunt with cancer, or a teammate who is undergoing surgery.
“I’ve even had a player one year ask if it was OK to pray for a sick dog and my response was, absolutely. They’re one of God’s creatures, too.”
When HMI started, the idea of bringing the gospel to rinks was rather novel. “In those days, hockey chapels were virtually unheard of,” he said. “Now the Professional Hockey Players Association has it written in their agreement that they’re allowed to have chapels. Even so, some teams still make it difficult.”
That is not the case in Grand Rapids.
“I know we’re not supposed to boast, but I talk about the Griffins whenever I attend chaplain conferences,” Mellema said. “I get phenomenal support here, from the owner on down to the guy who cleans the rink. I’m amazed at how good they are to me.”
He is also thankful for the support of his family. His wife Maryann has long given her blessing to his work. They have two children. Their daughter, Elizabeth, is a counselor at Centennial Christian Counseling and their son, John, has taken over the operation of the family farm in Nunica. “We grow produce and sell it in our market,” he said.
His ministry is done on a volunteer basis. “I receive absolutely no pay and I tell the guys I’m worth it,” he chuckles. “It’s a labor of love and I feel very blessed to do this. Are there guys who could do this better than me? I’m sure there are a hundred of them, but I love what I do.”
Mellema said a growing number of hockey organizations have come to see the benefits of chapel because the program keeps the players on the straight and narrow. “We talk about their bodies being a temple of God,” he said. “So we tell them not to abuse it, whether it’s excess alcohol, steroids or other drugs. Teams like that players are hearing that message from us.”
He believes that the notion that a Christian message softens a player has been debunked over the years. The worry that a message of faith might reduce a player’s aggressive nature has been replaced with the belief that the players actually become more competitive in their desire to use their God-given talents to the best of their ability.
“The lesson in chapel is if you’re playing within the rules, you’re good to go,” Mellema said. “If you lose your temper and smack somebody over the head with your stick, I’ll have a problem with that. But it’s your job to separate that guy from the puck. If you lay a check on him, that’s you doing your job. That’s what you get paid for. Your opponent went on the ice, knowing it was a possibility, so it’s not a surprise.”
Life, Mellema suggests, is not always about winning or losing. In the end, it’s how you play the game that matters most.
“When life ends, what happens next?” Mellema said. “I tell the players that I can offer them a one-way contract. Guys think about that. You can be the best player in the NHL, but what happens later when you don’t have that one-way?”