NEW YORK – Is God a hockey fan?
It seemed like the obvious question to ask on a day when Pat Lafontaine, Hockey Hall of Famer and NHL vice president of hockey development, read a letter from Pope Francis endorsing “The Declaration of Principles,” an ambitious (if loosely defined) doctrine co-signed by 17 different hockey organizations in North America and internationally. (The “internationally” was the IIHF, in this case.)
So is God a hockey fan?
“Let me say this,” said Lafontaine. “We were on ‘The TODAY Show.’ It was supposed to rain. Heavily.”
Yet for that brief moment when Connor McDavid and other NHL players appeared on NBC to promote this project and take part in an outdoor skills competition, the clouds parted and thine weather doth cleared up.
“I figure after the letter last night, we have a direct line [to Him],” said Lafontaine.
Meteorological miracles aside, the Pope’s letter was a surprise addition to Wednesday’s announcement of the Declaration if Principles. Not only because it arrived on Tuesday night, but because it added a secular coda to what had been an agnostic hour-long press conference. It was like attending a neighborhood children’s fair and discovering all the activities tents are Bible themed.
The letter read, in part:
“His Holiness, Pope Francis, was pleased to learn that an international group of hockey organizations has chosen formally to adopt the declaration of principles that emerged from last year’s global conference. His Holiness trusts that this this significant gesture will inspire greater appreciation for the pivotal role that’s played by sports and sportsmanship in training future generations to pursue personal excellence and to promote the spiritual values of teamwork, solidarity and mutual respect that are so necessary.”
It was an endorsement a long time in the making. Lafontaine, fellow Hall of Famer Luc Robitaille and Omar Mitchell, the NHL’s vice president of corporate social responsibility went on a sojourn to The Vatican for a three-day conference on Sports for the Service to Humanity. “It was all about sports transcending the game. About being all-inclusive. The fact that sports brings people together,” said Lafontaine.
“We had a big gala in which he spoke, for about 250 people in the room. Then we had a private tour of the Vatican, and a private tour of the Sistine Chapel. One of my favorite pictures ever: There were eight religious leaders from around the world standing in the chapel. And they were inspiring deeper thinking for the sports delegates in the world. The Kennedys were there for the Special Olympics. Athletes, owners, everyone, trying to figure out how to make sports a service to humanity,” he said.
“To get a letter from The Pope last night, endorsing what we’re doing … it’s icing on the cake.”
So what are they doing?
The blending of Christian ideals and hockey dogma isn’t exactly palatable to many skeptics – those cynical about the NHL’s dedication to making the game more inclusive to women and people of color and different sexual orientations; those cynical about the Catholic Church, for many of the same reasons; and those cynical of both.
When news of the Pope’s letter hit on Wednesday, it was met with a lot of that skepticism. The NHL doesn’t have a sterling reputation for inclusion, despite all the “hockey is for everyone!” proselytizing. Having the Catholic Church inspire the ideals that were agreed upon by 17 hockey organizations will undoubtedly leave some feeling … well, not included.
Hockey’s “Declaration of Principles,” ICYMI pic.twitter.com/AGm4OGHg7p
— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) September 6, 2017
I asked Lafontaine if the NHL should align itself more to the faith-based community. After all, there have been players, like the recently retired Shane Doan, who were open about their religious tenets. Are they leaning into that with these “principles?”
He said it’s not necessarily about a particular faith, but rather the shared life lessons and virtue one finds in sport and in faith.
“People love the artistry, the speed, but they also loves what it means to them. When you get leadership and discipline and sacrifice, you learn a bigger picture. That it’s about service and it’s about purpose and I think it brings everyone to a place … I always say that hockey was a stepping stone to where I am now, giving back,” he said.
“If you learn those core values, it leads to a more meaningful life, and sports is a vehicle to give you that. To encourage kids to play not only for the excitement and fun and the physicality, but also those values that are so important in your life long after you’re done playing sports.”
That said, hockey does have its divine side.
“I think there’s a spiritual part of the game. There’s a mystical side of the game. There’s the passionate side of the game. There’s a consistent feeling in how we feel about the sport,” said Lafontaine. “Today, it’s about coming together to supporting what the declaration means. The Pope and religious leaders speaking up, and hoping hockey is following what all sports do, this is something way bigger than all of us. To be a small part of it is overwhelming.
“I think we have a fan in the world’s religious leaders and Pope Francis,” he said. “This transcends the game.”