TORONTO - Christmas is often a busy, stressful time, especially for hockey players who have to balance family and professional obligations.
But for James Reimer and David Booth of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Christmas brings perspective and an opportunity to reflect and appreciate on how fortunate they are to play professional hockey while observing their faith.
"Whether you're a carpenter, or a plumber, a hockey player or an airline pilot, your life's going to get crazy no matter what," said Reimer, while still in his goalie pads after practice on Friday. "Things are going to happen and stuff. When you have something like Christ to lean on, it just adds a peace that surpasses all understanding.
"It's such a gift to be able to have that perspective, especially when things are going rough."
Although the NHL's collective bargaining agreement guarantees that players get Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day off, there's still a lot of travel over the holidays for hockey teams. The Maple Leafs, for example, played in Chicago on Sunday, played in Dallas on Tuesday night and will continue a seven-game road trip in Florida on Dec. 28.
The American Hockey League has an even tighter holiday window, with a full slate of games scheduled for Dec. 26. Major junior hockey players have 10 days off, but the world's top prospects will be busy when the world junior championship begins in Toronto and Montreal on Boxing Day.
That travel schedule can be daunting for some, but Booth doesn't mind.
"I think there's always time to get in to the Bible," said the Maple Leafs left-winger. "I think that's the biggest thing when you're on the road, is having your quiet time, being able to sit down, to read, to reflect, to pray. Those are things that you can do anywhere and I think that's one of the beautiful things about our job: the ability that we have to continue to worship while on the road."
Laurie Boschman understands the challenges facing Christian hockey players. He was an NHLer for 14 years and has worked with Hockey Ministries International for 21 years, helping the faith-based Christian organization in its many camps and chapel programs.
Based in Ottawa, Boschman leads players from the Senators in regular chapel programs and also helps co-ordinate chapel programs around the NHL.
In his view, many players find themselves dissatisfied with their lives despite the money and prestige that comes with the NHL lifestyle. They may also be bothered by issues outside of the arena like relationship problems or the failing health of loved ones.
"For example, since we're talking here before Christmas, we can talk about what the Bible says about the holiday," said Boschman in a phone interview with The Canadian Press. "Is it about presents? Is it about something more than that? And if it is, does the Bible address that? Players are interested in that because I think sometimes there's a perspective that players have about faith and it's not based in fact.
"It's based in 'I thought it was this,' or 'I thought it was that.' We get to point them to the Scriptures and say 'This is what the Bible teaches and this is what it's about.'"
Booth agrees with Boschman that chapel gives players a chance to realize that they're more than just their profession.
"I think when you get away from defining yourself by a sport it opens up your ability to make an impact away from the rink or have a greater purpose in life," said Booth. "I don't think we're put on this Earth just to play a sport. I think this sport is giving me such a huge advantage to reach the community, a platform to share things that matter.
"We're given so much. People look at us, 'wow the coolest job' and it is a cool job and a great salary that comes with it. But those things all fade. Those things never satisfy."
There's no lack of demand for HMI's chapel programs. The non-denominational ministry works with more than 270 teams in over 30 leagues to provide chapel and counselling services for hockey players, coaches and other support staff. HMI also has hockey camps for children in Canada, the United States, Sweden, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Both Reimer and Booth point to regular chapel services as a resource that helps them bring balance to their lives on and off the ice.
"Obviously, being on the road and sometimes playing on Sundays or practising on Sundays, you don't get to go to church very often," said Reimer. "Maybe once a month, if you're lucky. So to have that chapel ??? usually it's once every two weeks, something you can go to with a couple of your teammates and the chaplain, just make sure you're staying focused and your eyes are on the right prize ??? it's good to have that because it helps to keep you calm."
Booth also feels that attending chapel and being a devout Christian helps him relate to his teammates, especially those who don't share his faith, because it fosters a sense of respect and tolerance in the locker-room.
"Love your teammates even though you guys share different beliefs," said Booth. "You guys might have different lifestyles. You might not agree with everything they do but you always respect them, you love them, you get along with them, you're a good teammate. You do things with them. The biggest thing is not to judge. They're accepting of my beliefs and I accept their beliefs.
"I think that's where tolerance comes in and that's what makes humanity function: being able to tolerate other people with so many differences amongst us."