Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cheering for God's team

Chaplain provides spiritual coaching to Jets, Bombers and Goldeyes

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Whether it's football, hockey or baseball, Lorne Korol cheers for God's team.

Although he's a big sports fan, as chaplain to the city's three professional sports teams, Korol's primary position is spiritual coach, mentor and most of all, friend, to players, coaches and team personnel.

"What happens in sports is that players don't want to tell their private issues to coaches, and frankly, coaches don't want to hear them," says Korol, 49, who was drafted into sports ministry by Athletes in Action when he became the chaplain of the Winnipeg Goldeyes in 1999.

"I'm here to be a sounding board, not only to the players, but to the (whole) organization, in those delicate situations."

Korol is one of 15 professional sports chaplains in Canada associated with Athletes in Action (http://athletesinaction.com), a non-denominational Christian organization that has been involved with the Canadian Football League since 1974, and with the National Hockey League for the past three or four seasons.

"It's a privileged position we don't take lightly. We're placed there by God," explains Dave Klassen, the organization's national director of pro ministry, based in Abbotsford, B.C.

"The chaplain is someone who is neutral, who doesn't work for the team, but can come alongside the player."

All the chaplains raise their own funding, soliciting donations from families, friends and supporters.

Team chaplains offer players everything from casual conversation, regular chapel services and support during major life events, such as weddings, births, family illness, death or season-ending injuries, says Klassen, chaplain for the B.C. Lions and the Vancouver Canucks.

"If someone gets injured in the field, we walk off the field with the player," explains Klassen, who was born in Morris but grew up in Kelowna, B.C.

"We offer mercy, love, and compassion."

Chaplains also recognize that sports and faith often go head to head, especially when practices and games are scheduled for Sundays, says Korol, the former technical director for Baseball Canada.

"Our main goal is to provide spiritual care," says the Elmwood native.

"We're spiritual coaches to the players, helping them grow spiritually if they're Christians."

Korol leads interested players in short weekly chapel services and Bible studies, as well as just being around for a friendly chat or cup of coffee.

"We're here to serve and love the entire organization, so I have some great relationships with people who are not Christian, or maybe of a different faith," says Korol, who provides referrals to other faith communities if asked.

Korol's easy-going and friendly style is a big hit with the players, whether or not they attend services, explains punter Mike Renaud of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

"Everyone is receptive to him. He's not viewed solely as a spiritual guy," says Renaud, the chapel rep for the football team.

"He's not going to preach to you. He just wants to get to know you."

With a background in sports and non-profit organizations, Korol never dreamed of becoming a chaplain. Baptized and raised in the Ukrainian Catholic church, Korol left faith and church attendance behind as a teenager, returning to the fold in 1998. He now attends the Meeting Place, a downtown church affiliated with the Mennonite Brethren denomination. Describing himself as "on fire for God," Korol stumbled upon a display by Athletes in Action at a Manitoba Moose game that same year. By the next summer, he was serving as the volunteer chaplain for the Winnipeg Goldeyes.

Ten years later, Korol jumped into full-time sports ministry, mentored by more experienced chaplains from his organization, as well as taking short courses in counselling and ministry through Athletes in Action. He joined the Blue Bombers in 2008 and added the Winnipeg Jets to his roster when the NHL team returned to Winnipeg for the 2011-12 season.

Now recovering from knee surgery to repair a decades-old sports injury, Korol admits to enjoying the perks that come with his job.

"One of my guys is going to train me," he says of his post-surgical regime to get back on his feet.

And about those prayers just before the team goes on the field or ice? They're about being on God's team, pleading for a good game for everyone, not just the home team, says Korol.

"We pray for a spirit of competition, we pray for safety for everyone, on and off the field, and that they play for an audience of one, being God, and they would leave everything on the field."

brenda@suderman.com

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 23, 2013 J13

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Updated on Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 11:22 AM CST: Add photo credit.

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