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More than a ministry: The role of chaplains in hockey

Anyone who's spent a significant amount of time away from home knows that the road can be a lonely place. Hockey players aren't exempt from that solitude, with road trips, hotel stays and unfamiliar surroundings part of the experience of making a living in sports. Unlike most working people, who can go home (or to a bar) and vent to a spouse, a pet or a friend after a long day at work, athletes sometimes don't have an easy outlet to do so.

That's where Tim Donelli and his co-workers come in. Their job title is technically chaplain, but they serve a hybrid role of equal parts spiritual advisor, guidance counselor, confidante and consistent presence for players who, when they're away from home, have few options for any of the above.

Donelli has been around hockey players for over 30 years, recently serving as the play-by-play voice of the ECHL Charlotte Checkers from 2001 to 2007. As is the case with many minor-league hockey employees, he has worn a variety of different hats, including serving as the team's chaplain beginning in 1999 under the auspices of Hockey Ministries International and moving with the Checkers to the American Hockey League in 2010.

According to Donelli, HMI has partnerships with "about 35" different professional leagues, including the NHL, the AHL, junior hockey leagues and various other professional and amateur leagues across North America and Europe, with 250 chaplains serving 1,700 players in all levels of hockey. All of HMI's services are free to the teams and the players, and most team chaplains conduct a chapel service once a week, following a practice or some other organized team activity in their home area.

"Most of the teams allow us to come in at the beginning of the season, and we tell them what the chapel program is and what it isn't," Donelli says. Participation in the chapel services is always voluntary, but Donelli says that HMI has had great success with encouraging participation among players. "We have found out that any time we can make a team presentation, there are always guys who will show up to chapel," says Donelli. "We have never had a time when a team presentation was made that nobody shows up."

But for players who deal with disappointment on a regular basis, be it injury, reduced playing time, disagreements with coaches or any other number of hockey-related issues, Donelli and his fellow chaplains serve as more than just a spiritual advisor. They are go-to guys when a player simply needs to get something off his chest.

"We tell the players that we are here for two reasons: one, to give them a chapel service; and two, [to be] a crisis manager," says Donelli. "There's the pressure to perform, there's dealing with the ups and downs [of promotions to and demotions from higher leagues], they have relatives that get sick, they have relationship or marital issues. We are around to help them with those issues." The chaplains maintain confidentiality, which allows players an outlet to vent their frustration or express concerns in a private setting with a familiar face listening.

However, the chaplains draw a line between serving as a sounding board and interfering with team operations. "We don't get involved in any of the hockey stuff," says Donelli. "We don't discuss salaries with the players, we don't discuss strategy or anything hockey related, but if they come to us and say 'you know, I'm really discouraged about my ice time,' all we try to do is encourage them from a spiritual standpoint. Hang in there, things will get better."

Former Hurricanes player and current team director of defenseman development Glen Wesley has long been involved with HMI, both during and after his playing career. Donelli says that Wesley's presence at the multiple yearly HMI camps in Raleigh is practically a given. "We just had our third camp in Raleigh a few weeks ago. Some of the NHL players that come to the camps stay for a day or two. Glen is there for the entire week, Sunday through Friday. He doesn't go home to his house and come back; he stays right there at the dorm where all the kids are. He really does do a wonderful job there."

In 1977, HMI conducted its first hockey camp, with 28 attendees and 22-year-old Montreal Canadiens defenseman Doug Jarvis serving as lead instructor. Since then, the program has grown exponentially. "We now have 30 weeks of youth camps almost serving 2,000 kids in North America and four countries in Europe," Donelli says. "How the outreach ministry has grown in those 35 years is incredible."

Donelli says that despite the official-sounding title and the locker room access, at the end of the day chaplains are fans too. "From a human point of view, the guys that come to chapel, of course we root for them. We want them to do well. I would love all the players to come to chapel, but I still try to encourage the guys that don't come to chapel. It definitely is rewarding."