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Hockey: master or slave

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*This article is from the MB Herald archives, originally published January 28, 1966. Author Walter Unger (1936–2018) went on to serve the church as a teacher, administrator, and board member.*

It was in the fall of 1953 that this question came to a head in my life. I was in the position where continued participation in organized hockey could lead to a career in the game.

My brother, a youthful idol of mine, had gone all the way. At the age of seventeen he had had a tryout with the Toronto Maple Leafs! Subsequent years of professional hockey had won him much fame in the American, United States, and Western hockey leagues. He had been captain of the Vancouver Canucks in the Western Hockey League for some time.

Some of my team mates in minor hockey went on to great things. Four or five of them had some good years in Junior A hockey. Ed Hoekstra had an excellent season with the Quebec Aces of the American Hockey League last year. Pat Kelly is playing-coach in the Eastern Hockey League. Why should I not have gone on to the glory and fame of a hockey career?

Those two months in the fall of ‘53 were exciting even though I had only a few good games, point-wise, with the TP Bisons, a St. Catharines, Ontario, Junior A farm team. Goals came a lot harder in this league than the previous year in Juvenile C hockey. One of my biggest thrills was a practice session with Brian Cullen, the hottest junior star in Canada at that time. Brian led the St. Catharines TPs to the Memorial Cup that year and played with Toronto and New York in the NHL in the years that followed. You can imagine how elated I was when this great star complimented me on a good play that I had made!

But I was a Christian and a church member. My team mates knew there was something different about me, although I’m not sure they chalked it up to Christianity. I don’t think I won much respect on that count. The quickest way to win respect among your team mates is to play the game well, and score goals – lots of them.

Those were days of decision for me. I was beginning to see who would become my master. It seemed I could not calm my conscience when I secretly slipped out of the house for 6:00 p.m. Sunday practice, leaving church and Christian friends far out of my thoughts. Whenever a game conflicted with a church, school, or Christian service appointment, my loyalty was a pre-determined fact: either I appeared at the game, or lost my spot on the team.

Two calls beckoned: the call of Christ, and the call of Hockey. I realized that before autumn became winter I would answer to one or the other as my master.

With other demands upon my time and energy, the conflict became more and more intense. The priority choice had to be made soon. I was completely miserable.

The climate of the dressing room was becoming more and more repugnant to me. Subtly I was being brainwashed and educated in the finer points of profanity and immorality.

Why was I there? “What concord hath Christ with Belial? Or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?” The solution to my problem was unmistakably clear: “Wherefore come out from among them … “ I did!

I have since discovered that God asks us to surrender nothing but that which, to keep is loss, and to lose is gain. The moment we surrender that idol which holds us back spiritually, a multitude of new and exciting blessings can begin in our lives. God is no man’s debtor.

What I have since gained does not compare with what I gave up. Had I not yielded to the Lord in this matter, I would never have received the secular and Christian education, the call to Christian service, the wonderful Chris- tian wife and family, and the untold blessings of walking with Christ, which I now enjoy.

My brother chose the other way when he was confronted with the claims of Christ during his early hockey-playing days. Those days are now over for him and he is in spiritual, marital, and vocational turmoil. I do think he believed it possible to take Christ with him down that road that led to goals and glory. He had experienced a meeting with Christ. Professional hockey, however, would not be his servant; it had to be lord of all or not at all.

I still play hockey today. I engage in other sports as well – mainly with the church young people. I do not believe that Jesus Christ came to take the fun out of life. As a means of recreation and enjoyment, hockey is a fine activity. God’s word says that “bodily training is of some value . . .” (1 Timothy 4:7) godliness being of supreme value. I merely had to adjust my priorities into proper order.

Sports was becoming an end, not a means to an end-to recreate for something higher. To invest the best years of my life serving this master when I had given my allegiance to another just didn’t add up any way I looked at it.

As a committed Christian I could not pursue a hockey career in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. I know what is involved, for I have come close to the first rung on the ladder and have seen how crowded it is, how tough the way up, and what casualties the climb produces. I found I could not make this ascent in Christ’s name or for his cause since this entire sphere was inconsistent with his character and his higher purposes for my life.

I do not judge others who honestly feel that this is where God would have them be. For example, Bobby Richardson, second baseman far the New York Yankees, who writes: “I realize simply that it is God who has given me the ability, the opportunity and· certainly any earthly glory that might come through playing ball. I enjoy the sport I am in, but only because I feel this is where God would have me serve him.”

For me such a pathway was strewn with too many factors which forbade the investment of my life in a sport’s vocation. There are always exceptions to the rule, and I do not doubt that Bobby Richardson is one of them and that God is using this exceptional athlete in professional sport.

However, let a young person be ruthlessly honest with himself regarding motive, priority, and Lordship, before endangering his spiritual birthright in such a career.

Earthly fame is nothing in comparison to the eternal weight of glory God now gives, and is preparing, for those who put him first. My greatest thrill now is the joy of sharing with others the blessing of being in what Walt Huntly calls GOD’S HALL OF FAME:

Your name may not appear down here
In this world’s Hall of Fame,
In fact, you may be so unknown
That no one knows your name;
The oscars and the praise of men
May never come your way,
But don’t forget God has rewards
That he’ll hand out some day.
This Hall of Fame is only good
As long as time shall be;
But keep in mind, God ‘s Hall of Fame
Is for eternity;
To have your name inscribed up there
Is greater more by far
Than all the fame and all the praise
Of ev’ry man-made star.
This crowd on earth they soon forget
When you’re not on the top;
They’ll cheer like mad until you fall
And then their praise will stop;
Not God, he never does forget,
And in his Hall of Fame;
By just believing on his son,
Forever-there’s your name!

—Walter Unger

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