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Former hockey star’s ministry reaches international audience


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Paul Kobylarz grew up in Detroit, a hockey hotbed. He laced up his first pair of skates at age 3.

At 4, he played in his first hockey league. Within four years, the fun left the sport as he tried to please a father who couldn’t be pleased.

“From the time I was 8 until about 16, I hated hockey,” said Koylarz, who now lives in Indianapolis.

But driven by an intense desire to succeed and pushed by a father who sometimes went over the edge, Kobylarz became a very good player.

Inspired by what is known as the “Miracle on Ice” — when the USA defeated the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics — Kobylarz signed with the nearby University of Michigan in 1981 and immediately began to produce results.

“I had a really, really good year my freshman year,” he said, “and I was being looked at by some NHL teams.”

He played in every game as a freshman and was so good that he was asked to try out for the 1984 Olympic team.

“I trained very hard for the Olympic tryouts, and it didn’t turn out to be as good as I had hoped,” he remembered. “I didn’t play well. I didn’t make the team. Then, when I went home, the first thing I heard when I walked in the door was that my parents were getting a divorce.”

With his life unraveling around him, Kobylarz returned to the team at the University of Michigan but had a disappointing year. On top of his emotional woes, he developed a case of mononucleosis.

“I had a horrible year my sophomore year,” he said, “but it turned out to be the best year of my life because a basketball player named Tim McCormick and a wrestler named Tim Fagan invited me to an FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) Bible study, and it was there that I found the Lord personally in my life.

“And it gave me new motivation to play.”

It wasn’t until his senior year that Kobylarz returned to form, but when he did, NHL teams took notice. In 1985, he was signed by the New Jersey Devils and sent to their farm team, the Fort Wayne Komets. When asked about minor-league hockey, he said that, especially back in the ’80s it was a wild lifestyle, on and off the ice.

Lots of violence, drinking and unfaithfulness. As a young Christian, Kobylarz was sometimes conflicted. He was a hitter, and he wasn’t afraid to fight, but he also was a goal scorer and a hard worker.

“I found that the best way to minister to my teammates was to be the first guy to practice and the last one to leave,” he said.

He also found a unique way to minister.

“Sometimes on the long, five-hour bus rides home, guys would start drinking beer then come sit by me and open up about their marital problems,” he said.

He was good enough to move up in the hockey world. In 1986, the Devils signed him to a new contract and assigned him to their farm team in Portland, Maine. But there was a restlessness within.

“I had a lot of unanswered questions,” he said, “and though I was ministering, there was no one there to minister to me.”

Kobylarz walked away from hockey to take a position in the business world, a decision he said he later regretted because he knew he still could play. But God had a bigger plan, he said.

In 1989, he traveled with a Christian hockey team to Sweden on a mission trip. Only 2 percent of the Swedish population is evangelical Christian. Kobylarz was asked to stay, and during the next 21 years, he formed a sports ministry called Sports Life, which reached out to young athletes through sports.

During that time, thousands accepted Christ as their savior through camps and events. Ironically, Paul also was asked to be a part of the Winter Olympics, the very event that once had sent him into despair.

For the past five Winter Olympics, he has been the lead chaplain, ministering to thousands of athletes from many countries. His services were especially important in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics when a bobsledder from the Republic of Georgia was killed.

“A lot of people asked a lot of questions,” he said. “It was a great opportunity to share. “

Today, Kobylarz is the sports pastor at Traders Point Christian Church on the northwest side of Indianapolis. At 49, he is newly married for the first time and a first-time father.

And his rather bookish appearance doesn’t give a clue of his background and his experiences. But he is a minister and a man with a lot of unique gifts.

“Colossians 3:23 says it all for me,” he said. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.”

Columbus’ Tom Rust is founder of the national Face to Face sports ministry, a local radio broadcaster and pastor of Sardinia Baptist Church. He can be reached at faceit@face-2-face.org.

Columbus’ Tom Rust is founder of the national Face to Face sports ministry, a local radio broadcaster and pastor of Sardinia Baptist Church. He can be reached at faceit@face-2-face.org.

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