Central Alabama is the home of a very unlikely professional sports franchise — the Birmingham Bulls ice hockey team, which is part of the Southern Professional Hockey League.
Hockey is not well understood in the South, where football is often the main topic of conversation. While hockey can also be known for violent hits and fights that break out during games, one of the Bulls’ goalies, Austin Lotz, shared how faith is a top priority for many of the players.
Love of the game
Born in Canada, his passion for the sport started when he was about 3 years old; his bedroom had a hockey theme. Other than school, his world was hockey, and he spent his free time practicing, learning about players and playing hockey video games.
“In Canada, hockey is the first sport you try,” he said. “In the States, it’s football, basketball, baseball; in Canada, the first sport is hockey.
“When I first started, I was good at it,” he noted. “From such a young age, that’s all I did.”
For Lotz, the idea of becoming a goalie developed early. Everyone he played with was older and bigger, so when a childhood friend, Cole, told him to play goalie, he did.
“[Being a goalie] became this thing that I liked; I was good at it, and it made the older kids happy, which made me feel good,” Lotz said. “It slowly spiraled into me actually going into organized hockey to be a goalie.”
Though some of his best memories during five years as a pro have been of bus rides that can last up to 10 hours, Lotz said the close contact also can cause conflict between the 20-plus people on board.
“Among players there can be [friction], but there’s such a respect for one another and for the game that [if] you go at each other a little bit, when it’s all said and done, you’re hugging it out. You’re loving each other more than you’re not,” Lotz said.
Because of the fighting and violence often associated with hockey — and the fact that there are far fewer evangelical churches in many hockey-loving areas in the North and countries like Canada — some may assume there aren’t many Christians in the sport. But Lotz believes that assumption would be incorrect.
“I would say that easily half [are Christian],” he stated.
Lotz grew up in a Christian family and was baptized at age 10, but his family wasn’t very involved in church. It wasn’t until he met his wife that something changed — she was a Christian, and Lotz decided he needed what she had.
Spiritual encouragement, guidance
Because it can be difficult for professional athletes to regularly attend church, some teams have chaplains who provide spiritual encouragement and guidance. Lotz and his fellow teammates love having a chaplain who always has a listening ear.
“For the most part [the chaplain] is someone to talk to about life. Knowing he’s a man of faith brings a lot of comfort,” Lotz said.
Lotz said he loves the Bulls’ “church nights.”
“I believe that hockey is a game of discipline, a game of hard work,” he said. “It’s a game that you don’t have to have a respect or understanding for going into it — you just see the effort that the guys are putting into it. You enjoy it while you’re there, and you walk away from it with a respect for it. Anytime you can get youth or church groups to our games is awesome.”
“Hockey has taught me respect,” he noted. “It’s taught me discipline. It’s shaped who I am today.”