As a professional hockey player, Mark Van Guilder wears a lot of gear. Yet, it is not the skates, nor the Milwaukee Admirals jersey that define him – not even the “A” on the jersey that signifies his role as alternate team captain. What might best define him is the bracelet he wears with Philippians 4:13 imprinted on it: “I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me.”
“I love the apostle Paul. Awesome. Just a genius,” he said. “A lot of stuff goes over my head still, but I love reading Paul. I love Philippians.”
Family of faith, hockey – in that order
Like his three siblings, the second son of Mark and Elizabeth Van Guilder was raised in a faith-filled environment.
“Since they were very little, if it wasn’t a Christian story, it was Christian music, or Christian-based story on tape,” Elizabeth said of the children’s media consumption.
While all of the Van Guilder children played traveling hockey, that did not interfere with their faith formation.
“We never missed Mass. It was never an excuse – ‘Oh, we’re too tired,’ ‘Oh, we have practice,’ ‘We were up late.’ It was a priority. We worked around it,” Elizabeth said, adding that the children rarely missed Wednesday night religion classes because of hockey. The family belongs to St. Odilia Parish, Shoreview, Minn.
Today, Van Guilder, 29 and single, not only reads Scripture, but reads Christian literature and listens to CDs recommended by his mother, whom he terms his “spiritual leader.”
“I want to learn as much as I possibly can. And I think you’ll find that the more you learn and the deeper you get into it, the more you hunger for it and the more you want to learn – the more you want to share it with the people in your life,” he said.
Sharing the faith didn’t end when Mark left his Roseville, Minn., home after graduating from high school in 2002 to play junior league hockey for the Tri-City Storm of Kearney, Neb.
And neither did his family’s support.
“My family is unbelievable, just unconditional support, not only from my parents, but from my brother and sisters. They’ve been great siblings and great friends of mine, too.”
Admitting that she “cried for a year” when Mark moved, Elizabeth began texting him before every game – and has been doing so, almost without fail, for 11 years.
“’God bless your game.’ ‘God bless your game.’ Well, this is boring, so I started texting him Bible verses based on how I thought he felt – if they won, if he was injured,” she said. “(I’d choose it) based on how he is feeling, what he needs. I don’t know if it’s impacted him or not, but it’s impacted me.”
Parents taught by example
Van Guilder, who attributes his commitment to community service to his parents’ example, considers himself “fortunate” that his profession affords him “so much free time” – time he uses to visit schools and to speak to Catholic groups.
“We have an obligation as pro athletes that have these unbelievable lives and so much extra time on our hands, it’s our obligation to help out when we can,” he said. “We’ve been put in such a great situation, a situation most people will never get to experience so it’s up to us to give back and to set a good example for kids.”
On Feb. 26, he visited St. Charles Borromeo School, Milwaukee, where he spoke to 120 third-eighth graders who, according to their principal, Ellen Knippel, “were intrigued” by what he said.
“He spoke about sportsmanship and that faith comes first,” Knippel said. “He told them about the need for education before sports.”
She added that Van Guilder stressed “the importance of going to Mass,” and how, no matter where he was playing, he always made a point of getting to Mass.
“That was important for our middle school students to hear,” Knippel said.
Prior to joining Lumen Christi Parish, Mequon, last year, Van Guilder belonged to the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist for three years.
Fr. Jeff Haines, cathedral rector, said Van Guilder, whom he termed a “remarkable young guy who takes his faith seriously, was “faithful to the Mass,” and that he didn’t always attend by himself.”
“He often brought teammates with him,” the priest said. “There were more than a few occasions when he had a player in tow.”
Mass and much more
For Van Guilder, living his faith extends beyond the celebration of Mass.
“It’s a lot more than just showing up for me, that’s for sure, more than just going to Mass. It’s taking what you learn there, what you’ve learned at home, and putting it into practice in your life,” he said. “The most important thing is do your decisions, do your actions, do your words follow your faith?”
His mom’s version is similar.
“Your actions are the Bible that some people read. Kids watch whatever you do. We’ve always used good manners. If they said something bad about somebody, they had to say five good things,” she said. “We prayed together – the rosary. We discussed things.”
Van Guilder has fans, and is a fan, too.
“I’m a big fan of the Virgin Mary – her incredible humility: ‘Let it be done to me according to your word.’ That is one of the most unbelievable lines in the entire Bible. How hard is that? How scared she must have been?” Van Guilder said. “And then you think about the tiny, insignificant obstacles in our life when we want everything to go our way. Mary’s a great example of letting go and letting God’s will take over.”
Earlier this month, for the fourth consecutive year, Van Guilder was named the Admirals’ IOA/American Specialty American Hockey League Man of the Year for “outstanding contributions to the Milwaukee community during the 2012-2013 season.”
He recently completed his most successful regular season with the Admirals, playing in 73 games, scoring 14 goals and assisting on 18 others. He had the winning goal in Milwaukee’s 2-0 victory over Chicago Wolves on Saturday, April 20. The win kept the Admirals in contention for a Calder Cup playoff berth, which they clinched the next day in Peoria. Milwaukee opens Calder Cup play against the Texas Stars, Friday, April 26, 7 p.m., at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
The NHL – if it’s in God’s plan
After spending two seasons in Kearney, Van Guilder went to the University of Notre Dame. Upon graduating in 2008, he joined the Cincinnati Cyclones of the East Coast Hockey League, eventually moving up to the Admirals where he has played steadily since 2010.
“Things just happened real quickly. For someone like me, it was God leading you where you should be … I knew about Notre Dame, but I didn’t even know what state it was in,” he said with a laugh. “I didn’t know anything about it. It just kind of happened.”
Van Guilder admitted that he, like all players in the AHL, thinks about playing with a National Hockey League team, but he is cautious not to look too far ahead.
“As my faith has grown, I’ve found more peace with my life,” he said. “Instead of worrying about the future, I’m taking it in stride, taking it one day at a time.”
Elizabeth recalled a conversation with a couple of people who knew Mark. One of them said, “I bet he’s jealous” of those making large amounts of money in the NHL.
“’No, that’s not Mark,’ I told them. ‘Because we know whatever God’s plan for him is that is what’s happening,’” she said. “I don’t ever feel he is jealous of anybody because he is so secure in who he is, and he wants to please God and wants to do what God wants him to do.”
One of the reasons Van Guilder doesn’t think too much about his future is that he’s “having so much fun the way my life is right now.”
“My faith is the most important thing in my life,” he said. “Hockey is my next biggest passion. I can’t imagine myself not being involved in hockey in some way after I’m done playing.”
According to Fr. Haines, coaching could be in Van Guilder’s future.
“If you’re a parent looking for a guy to coach your kids, you’d want Mark to be that guy,” the priest said.
Van Cuilder didn’t expect to play junior hockey in Nebraska, go to Notre Dame or play for Milwaukee, which is why he’s leaving his future to God.
“It’s been a great ride. I‘ve learned to let go and let things happen,” he said.