Jan 8, 2018

On Tuesday's, there's more than hockey talk in the Utica Comets' room.

As a chaplain with Hockey Ministries International, Pastor Mike has time blocked off for the Comets to be someone to talk with and someone for the players to look to for wisdom. Each Tuesday, Pastor Mike excuses himself from obligations at his church, and makes the one-mile drive to the Adirondack Bank Center.

"It's an awesome experience. We (players) get wrapped up in hockey. So, when we meet on Tuesdays, we get to look at the bigger picture in life," says Comets' goalie Richard Bachman of the team's Hockey Ministries International chaplain.  "He wants to know how we're doing, and there are verses of the Bible to discuss."

Pastor Mike Ballman's "day job" has him serving as the spiritual compass at Utica's Cornerstone Community Church and Plymouth Bethesda Church. His education received at Dallas Theological Seminary brought the Speculator (NY) native back home to serve parishioners on Utica's Plant Street – and beyond.

"We meet in the film room for about 15 minutes. My presence is completely non-hockey; emotionally and spiritually," says Ballman, a volunteer with Hockey Ministries International for the team since the inaugural season.

For 40 years, Hockey Ministries International has been providing spiritual support to the hockey world of all levels.  When the AHL returned to the Mohawk Valley five years ago, the Ministries' national director contacted Ballman about the vacancy with the Comets.

Glenn "Chico" Resch, who logged 14 NHL seasons as a goalie during the 1970's and '80's, and for the last two decades has served as an analyst on MSG Networks covering New Jersey Devils games, has long been a supporter of Hockey Ministries. Like Ballman, "Chico" offers players a "judgement free" zone to find an inner peace.

"Hockey players, and athletes in general, see the world a little different than most. When I speak with the players, it's about finding out what's going on in their lives," Resch said while in Arizona this past week with the Devils.

Ballman's interaction with the Comets spans great lengths. "Religion is not the determining factor. We talk character development; being a good husband or boyfriend, and straightening out relationships."

"We meet in the rinks, and it's not a church service with me giving a sermon. What we have is a discussion about faith, and to let the guys know there's more out there than just hockey."

Pastor Mike has learned about which players are injured, and at times isolated from the daily comradery of their teammates, and road trips, are going through. That's where he can become an even more valuable outlet for the young players to gravitate to. Right after practice on Tuesday's, those players in search of an "ear", know where to go.

"They (Comets) have a really stressful job," Ballman offers. 

From his conversations with the players, Ballman hears of their knowing how important the team is to the City of Utica and surrounding area.  Building relationships with the team, and ultimately leading to players opening up and discussing what's on their minds is a job well done by Ballman.

Comets' captain Carter Bancks has been a regular attendee of Ballman's visits to team practices. Echoing Resch's sentiments on the upside of shifting time away from "hockey homework", the Comets' wing embraces conversation from a "neutral party".

This is my third year (with Ballman). I think it was Alex Biega that originally invited me. I enjoy our talks. They aren't overly religious but a nice escape", Bancks said last week.

"He (Ballman) is more of a life coach with us.  The guy has done so much. His wisdom rubs off on us."

The connection between Comets and chaplain carries over, from when they meet as in unity on Tuesdays.  Texts are exchanged regularly, and scheduled lunches and coffee get-togethers, in small groups, are maintained. 

Attendance on Tuesdays in the Comets' room are accompanied by weekly deliveries of homemade muffins by Pastor Mike's wife, Pam Ballman. The Ballman's extension of friendship and faith goes further than baked goods.

"We invite the players to our house for dinner once a year. Plus, last year our association reached out to wives and girlfriends. Our social enterprise, Oneida Square Public Art and Design, auctioned off the mosaic pieces they (players and significant others) made," Ballman states.

As a season ticket holder, Ballman offers more than just spiritual guidance to the mostly twenty-somethings on the Comets' roster.

"For sure, when I'm at the games, I'm rooting for them to succeed on the ice.  They have so many pressures to deal with," Ballman said during a recent phone conversation. "We've built a pretty good program here. A lot of the players coming (to Utica) know about hockey chaplains."

To those who may struggle for inner peace and purpose beyond hockey, as Hockey Ministries suggests, this is where their "handy work" steps into action.  The players enjoy hearing appreciation from Comets' fans, and Pastor Mike Ballman embraces that joy, and all other things, from the guys in uniform – every Tuesday.

written by Don Laible

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