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Toledo minister coaches Walleye on life skills


Tom Fraser, a discipleship pastor at Hope Lutheran Church in Toledo has been a hockey team chaplain since the 1980s when be began the role with the New York Rangers. He also works with the Detroit Red Wings.

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Pastor Tom Fraser is as comfortable in a hockey arena as he is in a church.

He appreciates a big hit nearly as much as an insightful sermon.

Fraser, who serves as the team chaplain for the Walleye, has made part of his life's mission to bring out the best in players off the ice.

"I love hockey. I love the speed, the skill -- just the beauty of the game," Fraser said. "I love everything about it. I like physical hockey. That is the way it is supposed to be played.

"Coaches exist to help the team become winners on the ice. I try to get them to be able to relate to the God that gave the gifts they have. It's all about building character, becoming better men."

Fraser, who is the discipleship pastor at Hope Lutheran Church in Toledo, has been a hockey team chaplain since the early 1980s.

He meets with the Walleye players on a weekly basis during the season.

"We talk about topics of life that they can relate to hockey," Fraser said.

He said it is a nondenominational setting.

"It's like taking an unconventional church to the players. I strip away all the religious, 'churchy' language. I try to make it a talk," he said.

Walleye 2011-12 Season Preview

Fraser said he doesn't call them chapel meetings because it can scare some players away.

"They think I'm going to hit them over the head with a Bible," he said.

Defenseman Scott Fletcher attended all the meetings last season.

"I look at him as a leader and someone I can talk to," Fletcher said. "It's a real pleasure to have him around. It's always nice to have someone besides the coach to rely on. Fraz does a really good job with that. But he doesn't preach. He gives you an opinion and lets you take it from there."

Evan Rankin, a forward who played in 62 games last season, said the meetings focus on themes.

"Like respect," Rankin said. "Then we try to work our lifestyles around that word that week. The next week we add another. I've gone to lunch with him, and we just talk about life. He's just a real nice guy."

Fraser said he has players call him with issues day and night. Some are quite unusual.

"One player last year struggled with ghosts in his apartment. I wasn't sure if he was for real," Fraser said. "But it was a legitimate fear. I went over to his apartment and kind of blessed it. He's been fine ever since."

Fraser said he took the fear seriously because the player, who he opted not to name, took it seriously.

"He said a door would open and close. A breeze blew through the apartment when no fan was on," Fraser said.

The player said he would wake up at 3 every morning on the dot.

"Normally he'd sleep through the night," Fraser said.

The story became well known among the team.

"[Walleye general manager] Joe Napoli came up to me after a game and said, 'Hey I heard you're doing exorcisms now.' It was common knowledge. That probably was the strangest thing."

He said sometimes players call him up in a panic. Years ago he fielded a call in the middle of the night from a player who was upset that he had been traded.

"He was freaked out. He was shocked. At first he said he wanted to kill himself," Fraser said. "I went running over to his apartment. Turned out he'd been drinking a little bit. I realized what else was going on, and I calmed him down. But you just never know. I'm kind of on call."

Most of his duties are routine, including trips to children's hospitals for player autograph signings.

Fraser, who lives in South Toledo, worked 13 years with the Toledo Storm. He also has worked with Bowling Green State University's hockey team.

Last season, Fraser started a chapel program with the Detroit Red Wings, Toledo's NHL parent club.

He said goalie Chris Osgood had promised to come to one of the sessions all season long.

"He finally came to the very last one. When it was over he said it wasn't anything at all what he thought it'd be like. He said he thought I'd be hitting him over the head with a Bible," Fraser said. "He said it was great. He and I have developed a good relationship."

Fraser attends nearly every Walleye home game. He does round table sessions with the Red Wings every two weeks.

About 12 NHL teams and 15 ECHL teams have the programs. They've gained wider acceptance for what Fraser called "a collision sport."

"It's part of the game," he said. "It can be part of the psychological edge some teams can develop."

He also said brawls are part of the game's fabric.

"Fights are inevitable. I don't necessarily enjoy them," Fraser said. "I don't have trouble watching it. Basically I just say a short prayer asking to keep them from injury. I've been in the locker room shortly after someone has been clobbered and the results are no fun."

Fraser's role is a volunteer position.

"I do it because it gives me a lot of opportunity to nurture that faith in them," he said. "Years later I will get a call from players asking to marry them. To get a call later of thanks gives me satisfaction."

Fraser has performed services at the weddings of eight former players.

Walleye coach Nick Vitucci first met Fraser when he was a goalie with the Storm. Fraser later was the minister at the wedding for Vitucci and his wife, Dawn.

"Fraz is such a nice guy that players just enjoy his company. They go to dinner with him. He is just a real nice guy," Vitucci said. "If players have serious issues he is there as a sounding board."

Fraser first started mentoring hockey players in the 1980s when he connected with a New York Rangers player named Dean Talafous.

"The next thing you know we were meeting in a Bible study," he said.

He said the study groups evolved, and he became the Rangers' team chaplain. He credited former coach Roger Neilson for encouraging the program.

"He and I developed a good bond," Fraser said.

Neilson, who coached nine NHL teams, is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. When Neilson died in 2003, Fraser gave the homily at his funeral in Peterborough, Ont.

"He asked me to do it, and it was a huge honor because there were 1,400 people there from the who's who of hockey," Fraser said.

Fraser, who is certified through an organization called Hockey Ministries International, said his title has evolved into "life coach" as well.

Fraser gives the players a handout each week and gives a 10-minute prepared talk. About 10 to 12 players regularly attended last season.

He said he seeks out players that don't consider themselves religious.

"Some guys disqualify themselves. I make a point to tell them they won't feel out of place," he said.

He said he considers himself a friend and confidant.

"You have to earn their trust," he said.

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