Two people circle the track at the Jamestown Savings Bank Arena on Thursday, their walk an obvious effort to get in a nice, cool workout on a summer morning.
As they do so, 15 young men are taking turns skating up and down the ice below in a competitive game of 4-on-4 hockey.
What the walkers likely don't know is that the guys stick-handling, shooting and making glove saves are more than just some friends enjoying a pickup game. The reality is they are very, very skilled.
Players from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes Hockey fight for possession of the puck during an FCA-sponsored pro and college developmental camp at Jamestown Savings Bank Arena.
P-J photo by Scott Kindberg
"In that group,'' says Rick Randazzo, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes national director of ice hockey, "there's some high-end talent.''
How high end?
Some are professionals from the American Hockey League and the East Coast Hockey League. Others are collegiate All-Americans and NCAA champions.
All have NHL aspirations.
Many of them have an even higher calling.
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Bryan Muecke, his wife, Erika, and their three children moved to Chautauqua County 18 months ago when he took over as the executive director at Mission Meadows. The lakeside camp, located on East Lake Road in Dewittville, is owned and operated by the Great Lakes Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church.
A Minnesota native and a passionate hockey fan, Muecke worked a couple summers at Mission Meadows in the 1990s while an undergraduate at North Park University. Furthermore, the camp is where he met Erika and the place he ultimately proposed to her.
"It's a pretty special place for us,'' Muecke said. "To be back and be director out there, to be able to impact those lives, those kids, those families, it's a blessing. It's a blessing to be here.''
Not long after his arrival at Mission Meadows, Muecke was surfing the Internet for hockey clinics for his son, Tommy, and came across a website for FCA Hockey.
"I filled out an on-line form just asking for information, told them where we had come from and our involvement in hockey,'' Muecke said. "Ten minutes later, I had a phone call.''
The mission statement for FCA Hockey reads: "Igniting the hockey world for Jesus Christ."
That was right up Muecke's alley.
''I grew up in Duluth, so hockey was our life,'' he recalled. ''I loved it from the day I learned how to skate at 3. My dad taught me how to skate, and when you come to the rink it's kind of a spiritual experience. It's a way to re-connect with my past and some of my heritage growing up. It's also a great way to spend time with my son.''
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Randazzo, a Buffalo native, was impressed with Muecke's inquiry and by last summer a plan was put into place to bring FCA's week-long pro and college development camp to the JSBA and the lodging for its players to Mission Meadows.
"This is our third camp stay this summer,'' said Randazzo, who played his college hockey at the United States Military Academy and later was the head coach at the U.S. Naval Academy, "and they've all been great, but, by far, this one has had the best facilities, a great staff and the food has been wonderful. Everything has been top-notch.''
Noted Muecke: "This is the first time FCA has done a pro and college development camp like this. It's been a good start. We had about 15 athletes and, with staff, we had 20-21 people. All of these guys know players playing pro hockey and playing college hockey that would like to be here. So, we see this growing over the next few years.
"We're honored to be able to host it and help them pull this off."
In addition to faith-based activities at Mission Meadows in the evening, the hockey players took part in power skating sessions, skill development and games during the day.
"For some of them this has been their first experience with FCA ever,'' Randazzo said. ''Some of them (received) their first Bible. We use it as an outreach. First and foremost, it's for guys who are believers to come and strengthen their faith and they reach out to their friends. We give them an opportunity to understand, to talk to other guys and just open the Bible for the first time."
The hockey is pretty good, too.
"Some of these guys are pro players at the AHL level and the ECHL level, and some may be in the NHL this year,'' Randazzo said. "There are NCAA champions, All-Americans and, in that group, there is some high-end talent. Then there are younger guys who are moving (up), playing college hockey, so it's a good mix.''
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Gary Steffes is a FCA national representative for ice hockey and has been part of the organization for four years. He was also a four-year forward on the Miami (Ohio) University hockey team; a two-time participant in the NCAA Division I Frozen Four, including an appearance in the championship game; has played professionally in the Central Hockey League and the AHL; and is signed to play in the ECHL this season.
''When I was growing up,'' the Grand Blanc, Mich, native said, ''hockey was my life. If I did good, I was happy. If I didn't, I was miserable. My significance, my worth, my value, everything was tied to how I did in hockey and what the hockey world thought of me. As a result, when hockey wouldn't go well, I would do ungodly things.''
Some poor decisions, in fact, resulted him being a healthy scratch for a game his sophomore year at Miami.
''I became bottom of the depth chart,'' he said. ''It took my heart out of it. I felt like an absolute zero.''
In the midst of his despair, someone shared the Bible with him.
''It changed my life,'' said Steffes, 26. ''I fell in love with Jesus that day and, ever since, I've been blessed to walk with the Lord and I got involved with FCA. Four years later, I'm in Jamestown, New York, and living it out with guys who have similar stories.''
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For the last two years, Randazzo, his wife, Shannan, and their five children have taken part in FCA's Hockey Across America. A five-year mission, they spend 30 days in each of the 50 states. Their goal, according to the FCA website, is to help establish FCA Hockey and strengthen FCA overall in key cities as they expand the four-ministry focus of FCA: coaches, campus, camp and community.
''We sold our home and our vehicles and everything we own and we're traveling the country,'' said Randazzo, who has visited 18 states so far. '' ... We homeschool our kids. The Lord has asked us to give up everything and follow Him.''
It's that kind of faith that Muecke has seen develop this week among the players before camp broke at noon Thursday.
''It's been all about the relationships that are being built,'' he said. ''You see these guys connecting not only on the ice, but off the ice as well. To watch them pray together, watch them talk about their story, what God has been doing in their life and how their story and God's is starting to line up and going in the same direction is really exciting stuff.''