Lady Flames DI hockey team returned from Finland trip on a spiritual high
Members of Liberty University’s ACHA Division I women’s hockey team expanded their horizons and explored their faith on a 10-day sports outreach to Hämeenlinna, Finland, spanning the New Year. They returned to Lynchburg, Va., with transformed hearts and minds as well as practical experience in taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
“I had never gone on a mission trip before, so it was super eye-opening just to see how many people are unreached,” Lady Flames sophomore forward Brielle Fussy said. “It was a good test for all of us to just do mission work and reach out of our comfort zones, which is a big part of Christianity. It was really cool to see Jesus working in everything we were doing. I knew Christ would move in the girls’ lives, but it was a little unexpected just how fast (the Holy Spirit) was working and clicking for girls and I think it’s just going to continue to move through our team (this spring).”
Club Sports Associate Athletic Director for Sports Medicine and new Senior Women’s Administrator Angie Witt said the team worked together in harmony and with open hearts and hands, willing and eager to serve, both the community and one another. Highlights of the trip included seeing two of Liberty’s players give their lives to Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.
The trip was organized by LU Send through Operation Mobilization, the ministry Liberty’s ACHA DI men’s hockey team coordinated its mission trip to Helsinki, Finland, through in January 2020. Dave Pike, a church planter from England who hosted the men’s team that year, welcomed the 22 Lady Flames players and eight support staff into his new church, International Christian Fellowship (ICF), and the Hämeenlinna community.
“It was fantastic, and it was great to have the same people who were over there (in 2020), with Dave Pike and OM missions,” said DI men’s hockey Head Coach and Club Sports Vice President and Athletic Director Kirk Handy, who was on both trips and spent much of his time making connections for the Flames to return to the area over Christmas break next year. “We had a great time with the women’s team in Finland, and it’s exciting to see what God is doing over there, but I’m always amazed at what it does in the lives of our student-athletes. I just feel it’s such a blessing to our student-athletes and to our coaches and to our staff … and it just creates more energy and more excitement around not only spreading the Gospel, but also discipleship of our student-athletes.”
Witt, who also went on the 2020 trip, said this outreach went even more smoothly and was at least as impactful, both on the community where the Lady Flames served and internally within the team.
“Seeing the girls bond together … there were very few cliques, there was good unity, good morale,” Witt said. “Some kids were battling sickness, but they didn’t let that stop them. They were ready to do whatever God asked them to do while we were there, and whatever we asked them to do, so it was just a good trip all around. It was just a group that was really on mission for Jesus and to have two of our own get saved, that was worth the whole trip.”
“It was cool to experience that, especially with our team,” Fussy added. “It was good bonding for all of us, and it wasn’t even reaching people over there, it was reaching people on our own team and just to have them experience new things like that. The most important thing is just to keep reaching people for Christ, so I think I’m going to continue on with that theme for the rest of the semester and to just use that trip as a motivating factor.”
Junior goalie Amanda Storey said the Finnish people, including many unchurched players on a few youth to professional hockey teams Liberty played with and against, were very accepting of the Lady Flames, who hail from both the United States and Canada, and were open to hearing the Gospel.
“It was super fun to just interact with a whole bunch of different people of different ages, who are at different places in their lives,” she said. “They all really embraced us being there, which was really awesome. They made us feel super welcome.”
With Christmas in Finland celebrated through Jan. 6, the day the Lady Flames returned, the team experienced plenty of festivities and signs of the season, including fireworks on their New Year’s Eve lake cruise, two snowfalls that inspired residents to break out their cross-country skies and snowmobiles, a two-and-a-half-mile hike up a mountain, and visits to the Hämeenlinna Castle and a natural sauna.
“It was a good blend of ministry versus culture,” Witt said. “We got to eat cultural food, visit coffee shops and markets in downtown Helsinki, and participate in plenty of hockey games.”
The first of the three games the Lady Flames played in was a combined scrimmage with the HPK Akatemia U18 team.
“That was fun,” said Lady Flames Head Coach Chris Lowes, who coached the winning team from Finland. “We split up our staff and the players and that was a good way to have them connect, be in the locker rooms, having them try to navigate the language barrier, although many, many people over there speak good English.”
Liberty also faced Finland’s top female pro team.
“That was just an incredible challenge, a great game,” Lowes said. “Hockey was secondary, but it was still a great experience and our girls showed that we could play with girls at that level. And then the final game was against that U-18 team and we got the win there and it was a good way to cap it off. The last day we did a big kids event and went to a men’s pro game.”
He said the Finnish people’s passion for hockey rivals that of residents of Canada and Minnesota, Fussy’s home state.
“It was cool to be in a hockey town,” Lowes said. “There was no doubt they are crazy about the sport and support the local teams. The final day we went to that pro game and they had all of their participants come out onto the ice, and they’ve got 700 in their youth program.”
Besides Handy, Witt, and Lowes, the staff included Club Sports Director of Sports Performance Chris Kerr, DIII men’s hockey Head Coach and Club Sports Spiritual Development Coordinator Josh Graham, Assistant Athletic Director for Spiritual Development Reese Braband, and former DI men’s hockey player and DII Assistant Coach Mike Morrison.
“Our team just did a really good job at connecting with everybody spiritually while we were over there,” Fussy said. “Having (Graham and Braband) was a huge help and (Witt) was phenomenal at just making connections, and (Morrison) was a great conversation guy.”
“Dave Pike and his church did a really good job of setting us up to interact with as many people as possible over there, and so many different groups,” Storey added. “We worked and played with younger kids and kids our age and then some older and we even played floor ball with a team made up of boys who had difficulty integrating into their communities. It was a trip full of new experiences for all of us.”
Witt said although the team members brought their phones and a few even had service, there wasn’t a lot of time to spend on them.
“We were busy,” she said.
“It felt like we were there for a month because it was 10 days of 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., and they were full days,” Lowes added. “It really was put together in a good way, all of the kids events and clinics, we worked at a Christian school, and it all led up to inviting them back to the big church event, and that’s where they got the Gospel.”
Graham gave sermons at both Sunday services on New Year’s Day, one in English and one translated into Finnish. Then, after leading a kids ministry with several team members, Witt shared an inviting message with the U18 team the Lady Flames had played with and against all week.
“On the final night after we played them, I just really felt the Holy Spirit telling me to just do a corporate Gospel presentation,” she said, noting that she kept it simple and introduced the concept of Jesus being Friend to a fallen world. “I told them ‘We just spent a week with you here and we call you friend now, and I wouldn’t be a very good friend if I didn’t tell you about our best Friend, Jesus.’ We then invited them to attend Dave’s church and we gave them Bibles. We introduced them to who Jesus is and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.”
Witt is excited to see the future harvest from soil that was plowed and seeds planted on this particular trip when the men’s team returns in early 2024 and the women go back in 2026.
“I don’t know what the Lord’s going to bring out of this, and some of it we may not know until eternity, but without a doubt, lives were changed,” she said. “They were engulfed in the Gospel for eight days.”
“I know a lot of us were kind of discouraged that we had to come back during the break, especially so close to Christmas and the New Year, but I’m so glad that we went,” added Storey, who made the trip back to Lynchburg from Toronto on Dec. 27 before the team flew out of Dulles (Va.) International the next day. “If it makes me more bold in my faith and reaching people who are lost, even here in America or Canada … it was the most beneficial break we could have.”
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer; Video by Kylee Lilge/Club Sports Video & Media Associate