TWU hockey players share life-changing stories at My Story event

2016-01-15-09 - Lucas Hildebrand and Dawson Sawatzky with head coach Barret Kropf

The Trinity Western University atrium was lit by strings of white Christmas lights and lamps with bare bulbs, blinding in their intensity. A time of worship led off the third “My Story” evening held by TWU in Langley, B.C., providing an opportunity for student-athletes to share their testimonies.

Barret Kropf, former chaplain with the Saskatchewan Roughriders and head coach of the TWU hockey team, introduced two of his players, Dawson and Lucas. Trying circumstances in both their lives brought them to God in very different ways. For Dawson, a devastating injury forced him to reevaluate his priorities, while Lucas found faith to fill the void after a difficult summer.

Dawson Sawatzky

2014-10-31-15 - Dawson Sawatzky 01Dawson, a sophomore forward, grew up in the church, the son of a missionary with Athletes in Action. He would travel with his dad on missions trips, playing basketball in countries like Sudan, India, and the Philippines.

His dad then became the chaplain of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, then moved to Calgary and became the chaplain for the Flames and Stampeders. As a result, Dawson was regularly in the company of professional athletes.

“I got to see it firsthand,” said Dawson, “From little kids in Sudan and the Dominican Republic to NHL players and Stampeders players coming into our house, I got to see how he works with them.”

The presence of professional athletes in his day-to-day life helped inspire him to pursue his own dreams, playing both basketball and hockey at a high level. But in grade 9, he badly injured his knee and a piece of bone on his femur died. With it went basketball and any chance at playing Major Junior hockey.

“I was hurt most of my high school hockey career,” he said, “Most of the guys that I played with went on and are playing in the WHL, NCAA, or NHL. My grade 10 and 11 year, where you develop a lot as a player and get looks from scouts were pretty much shot, as I was playing at about 80%.”

A surgery in grade 11 left him bedridden for three months and recuperating for nine total. Another surgery took him out of action for three months. For a young athlete who had sunk so much of his identity into sports, it was devastating, but it resulted in a sea change. The injuries and long recuperation forced him to put his faith first so that he could find his identity in God.

Wanting to combine his faith, sports, and academic goals, he applied to TWU without an athletic scholarship and was prepared to redshirt with the hockey team for his first year—practice with the team, but not play. It was a step of faith, as there were no guarantees he would ever make the starting roster and the financial burdens of going to university were considerable.

“I’m not supposed to be here as a missionary’s kid,” he said. “School’s very expensive, but God came through in a big way financially. God opened a lot of doors.”

Another door opened up a few games into the season, as a series of injuries throughout the TWU lineup left Barret Kropf with eight players out of the lineup. His only option was the, as he put it, “skinny, injury-prone, 18-year-old.” But stepping on the ice for even one game would burn a year of college eligibility.

“I wanted to play right away,” he recalls, “But I had to pray about it and talk to my parents.”

He decided to play and he made the most of it, racking up points in his first few games, making it impossible to take him out of the lineup.

But what ended up more important for Dawson was a missions trip to Smithers, BC, where he got the chance to play hockey and share his faith with First Nations kids.

“It gives my hockey some value, where I can pour into kids and just like my father with basketball, I can use hockey to influence them positively,” he said. “Christ is definitely the centre of who we are.”

Lucas Hildebrand

2016-01-15-22 - Lucas Hildebrand 01Lucas, a towering defenceman, did not have the same background in faith as Dawson, but he came to TWU with some pedigree in hockey, having won three championships with the Spartans’ rivals, Selkirk College. But while he saw success on the ice and had the support of the community off the ice, it always ended up feeling empty.

“I went through my life always having this emptiness, this hole in my heart,” he said. “It was like a void. I didn’t know what to do about it. I would turn to things to try and fill that void, to satisfy that need.”

Playing hockey and winning championships filled that void temporarily, but it never lasted long, he added. “Reality would hit and I would just be back to my regular self: lonely, alone and looking for that next urge to fill that void.”

“I ended up getting a girlfriend in my first year,” he said, “I poured my heart and soul into that relationship and for two-and-a-half years I actually felt satisfied. I felt like I had truly found that missing piece of the puzzle to fit into my heart. Obviously that wasn’t the case.”

This past summer, that relationship ended, resulting in a lot of pain and confusion.

“I had poured everything into that relationship,” he said, “and now that it was gone, I felt lifeless and useless in this world. I didn’t know what to do anymore.”

He felt the need to get away from Selkirk and applied to Capilano University, but difficulties with the application process and a stressful first week made him certain that he was in the wrong place. The problem was that the school year had already started and thought that it would be impossible to get into another school.

TWU, however, was still taking applications and, within an hour of talking to an admissions counselor, he was accepted.

“It was a total shock for me,” he said, “because I thought I wouldn’t even have a chance to get in, it was so late in the year. It was crazy to see how willing and helpful she was to make the process go really smoothly.”

Lucas thought that his hockey career was over, but he reached out to Barret just in case there was a possibility of getting on the Spartans roster.

“I knew it was a longshot, I actually hadn’t been on the ice or done any sort of training during the summer because I thought my hockey was over. I reached out to Barret, let him know my situation and within half an hour, he called back and wanted to meet me.”

By the time he was signing up for classes, Barret let him know he was on the team.

His first practice with the team was grueling, a bag skate with no pucks on the ice. It turned out to be Dawson’s fault: he had slept in and missed a practice and, as is usually the case in hockey, the whole team had to suffer the consequences. The following day was a hard battle practice, which was tough to take after a summer with no training.

When Lucas asked to meet Barret in his office the next day, the coach was certain he was going to complain about the brutal first week and quit.

Instead, he said that he wanted to give his life to Jesus.

“I thought of quitting, hanging it up,” he said, “But there was something and someone pushing me to move on and battle through. I had that feeling inside of me every day. That morning, before I talked to Barret, I was walking back to my car and thinking about all the things that happened to me during the summer and all of a sudden it just hit me.”

“I could feel God coming inside of me and filling me up with His spirit. It’s a hard thing to talk about, but I definitely feel like he was there that day. I didn’t really know what to do about it. The first person I reached out to was Barret.”

A legacy of mentoring

Lucas may be one of the oldest players on the team, but has a young faith. Dawson, meanwhile, is one of the youngest players, but growing up seeing his dad mentoring professional athletes gave him a passion for helping Lucas.

“The first thing I thought about,” said Dawson, “was that I needed to talk to him right away, because that had been my whole life, people breaking down and my dad, not by his power but God’s truth, would share the gospel and encourage them.”

“I knew he had a lot of questions,” he continued, “and I wanted to provide him with answers that I knew God had.”

Dawson could see that Lucas had truly changed, and his friendship and the team around him made a real impact in Lucas’s life.

“I’ve been on teams where guys have been really tight,” Lucas says, “but here it’s definitely something different, something really special. You can see just how God is working in our team’s lives and they bring that into the dressing room. It’s really cool to see.”