A child growing up in today’s turbulent society can sometimes feel lost and not know where to turn. If he or she is an athlete, particularly at the competitive level, there can be the additional pressure to perform at a high standard.
A positive role model outside the family, someone who can not only relate to the player athletically, but also be a comforting presence away from the game, can help a lot. To the players of Belle Tire Hockey Club, Pastor Andrew Pronsati is one such person.
Pronsati is an associate pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Trenton, Michigan. He was also a former hockey goalie who played at the high school level in Woodbury, Minnesota.
Born in Philadelphia, Pronsati and his parents moved to Louisiana to be closer to his mother’s family. It was there that he first became interested in hockey. After participating in a goalie camp one summer, a coach encouraged him to attend a similar camp in Minneapolis-St. Paul the following summer.
“When I was in fifth or sixth grade, my family sent me, on my own, to go there for two weeks,” Pronsati recalled. “The next year, my family decided to move there so I could play hockey on a more regular basis.”
After graduating from high school, Pronsati considered playing club hockey in college. When it became clear to him the NHL wouldn’t be a part of his future, he considered becoming a sportswriter. But, as he was soon to discover, God had other plans.
Through prayer and conversations with trusted friends, it became clear to him the ministry was where he belonged. After transferring to Concordia Lutheran in St. Paul, Minnesota, Pronsati attended seminary, where he graduated last May. His first church calling led him to St. Paul Lutheran in Trenton, where he has served for the past eight months.
Hockey, however, was never far from Pronsati’s mind. He played occasionally in men’s leagues, but believed he could do more to give back to the game he’d loved since childhood.
“Even before high school, I’ve had a number of goalie coaches who [invested] in me, not just how to play the game and help me with technical stuff, but also poured into me as a person,” Pronsati said. “I’ve always looked back on that and realized there’s been a lot of stuff they did for me, and helped me be a better person in life, and grow in responsibility and maturity.”
When St. Paul Lutheran Senior Pastor Rick Blythe heard of Pronsati’s hockey background, he placed a call to Rob Smith, a director with the Belle Tire youth hockey program in Detroit. Smith, a member of the church, met with Pronsati and Blythe last December.
“We had an unbelievable discussion about hockey in general,” Smith recalled. “Andy said, ‘Listen, I want to get involved in youth hockey.’”
Smith, a former deputy police chief in Trenton, remembered a police chaplain program run by a former pastor at St. Paul. During his meeting with the two pastors, Smith brought up the idea of having Pronsati serve as both a volunteer coach and chaplain for the program. Pronsati enthusiastically agreed.
Along with his responsibilities as associate pastor, Pronsati and his wife, Katie, are expecting their first child in April. Belle Tire has a total of 29 boys and girls teams at all age levels, so the three men discussed the best possible fit for his busy schedule. It was decided Pronsati would work with the 10U teams as a goalie coach once or twice a month, but be available to players of all ages as a listening ear off the ice.
“I’m not a professional counselor or anything like that, but they can know that I’m a pastor/chaplain, for anybody who wants to talk through things,” explained Pronsati, known as “Pastor Andy” to the Belle Tire players and coaches. “The hope is if there’s at least one or two families impacted by that in a positive way, it’s worth it.”
While it’s still too early to tell how much of a difference he can make, Pronsati is quick to emphasize his role is not to recruit families into the church, or preach religion.
“A lot of kids are dealing with depression, or an incredibly high level of anxiety,” he said. “There’s pressure from school, pressure from friends, and trying to make it as a hockey player. What I hope I can do in conversations I have with these kids is to let them know that I care for them as people. It’s [about] trying to lead and coach in such a way so they know their value isn’t dependent on how good they are as a hockey player. That alone can help shape them. I want them to know they are created by God, a child of God. I want to give them that dignity and help them strive to be the best they can be as a hockey player, but also as a person.”
“We’re not pushing anything down their throats,” Smith added. “We are all about helping kids. We want to develop good boys and girls, and that’s what we’re doing.”