Lady Flames will use hockey as platform to reach Finland on mission trip bridging 2022-23
For Liberty University’s 31 ACHA Division I women’s hockey players and coaches and Club Sports support staff traveling to Hämeenlinna, Finland, from Dec. 27-Jan. 6, the trip promises to be more than just exhilaratingly cold.
The experience, coordinated by LU Send in conjunction with Operation Mobilization (OM), has the potential to be life-changing — both for those that are going and those they will encounter.
“This will be our first mission trip, so it is a privilege, and to represent Liberty University, where we have the resources to be able to do that, is really special,” said Club Sports Spiritual Development Coordinator and DIII men’s hockey Head Coach Josh Graham, who previously served as an Assistant Coach for the Lady Flames and currently works with their goalies. “By sharing the Gospel, we will be able to hopefully change lives, but also I think it’s going to change a lot of lives on our end, too, so that’s really powerful.”
“I’m excited to see what God does not only through them, but in them,” Club Sports Assistant Athletic Director for Sports Medicine and Senior Women’s Administrator Angie Witt added.
Junior forward and alternate captain Brityn Fussy said though the trip — with flights departing from Dulles (Va.) International Airport on Dec. 27 and Frankfort, Germany, on Dec. 28 before arriving in Helsinki, Finland — will be costly and requires sacrifices of both time and rest, it will be worth the investment and effort if the team can maintain unity and stay mission-minded and Kingdom-focused.
“It’s a good opportunity to keep our hearts in check because I know that it cuts into our time of break, but we’re doing something that has bigger purpose — blessing other people’s lives with the things that we have to say about Jesus,” she said. “There are a few girls traveling on Christmas Day to make it back (to Lynchburg, Va.), but it’s all worth it because it’s an amazing time to serve others and this is the best way to do it, especially around the holidays, which will make it that much more special.”
Twice delayed by COVID-19, this will be the first mission trip for Liberty’s DI women’s team, after the DI men’s squad previously traveled to Helsinki in early January 2020. That was the Flames’ fifth trip overseas after previously serving and playing in Sweden over Christmas break in 2007 and on spring break journeys to Southern Russia in 2009, Latvia in 2013, and East Asia in 2016.
Club Sports Athletic Director and DI men’s hockey Head Coach Kirk Handy will be making his second trip to Finland in order to offer his insight to the women’s team while continuing to develop relationships to set the stage for the DI men to return there over the 2023-24 Christmas break.
Witt and Club Sports Assistant Athletic Director for Spiritual Development Reese Braband will also embark on their second journeys to the Nordic country, accompanied by Director of Sports Performance Chris Kerr and his wife, Chantal Kerr — who played goalie on the Lady Flames’ first ACHA DI national championship team in 2015 and first under sixth-year Head Coach Chris Lowes in 2018 — as well as former DI men’s hockey player and DII Assistant Coach Mike Morrison, who has worked with the women’s team this season.
“It’s great having those relationships built, and having Kirk (Handy) and Angie (Witt) and Reese (Braband) go, who have already been there and have met these people,” Lowes said, referring in particular to International Christian Fellowship (ICF) Hämeenlinna Pastor Dave Pike, a church planter who works with OM. “We’re actually the benefactors of the fact that it’s a repeat trip. It makes it a whole lot more seamless.”
Earlier this semester, DI men’s senior defenseman Colin Baird and forward Brett Gammer spoke to the DI women’s team about their experience in Helsinki.
“They were freshmen when they went, and it was just cool to glean what they went through and they had some tips to give us for when we go there, what to expect,” senior forward and alternate captain Yannick Truter said.
“We learned a lot last time about what not to do and what to do,” Witt added. “It will definitely be easier around this time, knowing what to expect and building upon what we did.”
Truter and her teammates, some of whom have helped raised funds for the past two to three years, are eager to immerse themselves in the Finnish culture during the 10-day stay and to form relationships through the sport of hockey that will open doors to share their faith with players from the Hämeenlinna community.
“Our focus isn’t necessarily about the hockey games, but about being able to spread the Gospel,” Truter said. “For us, it’s just about being able to go and make a real connection with those girls and ultimately be able to tell them about the Lord and make an impact in their lives. For our team personally, as well, the girls’ lives will be transformed by this trip, and we will hopefully have great testimonies to share.”
While the visit will be rather long, the days will be short, as the sun will rise just before 9 a.m. and set at about 4 p.m. Fussy, who is from Minnesota, said adjusting to the colder climate and limited daylight could be challenging, but will be part of the journey and the experience for the players.
“It’s Northern territory,” she said. “It’s all going to be super new. There are a lot of girls that haven’t traveled out of the continent, so we’re all going out of our comfort zones and are going to experience new things. Even though there might be a language barrier, it’s still super cool that we get to connect with another culture and see what’s outside of the U.S. or Canada.”
Finland is a very secularized country. However, Truter, who is from British Columbia in Western Canada, said the Finnish people may be more open to the Gospel message due to the ongoing war in Ukraine initiated by Russia, which also borders Finland.
“It’s a great opportunity because when conflicts occur and all of these crises happen, that’s when we can point people to the Lord and His provision and faithfulness in spite of the war,” she said.
During their stay, the Lady Flames will play one game against a Tier 1 professional team and two against a U-18 Hämeenlinnan Pallokerho (HPK) juniors team, with the first being a mixer with half of Liberty’s players joining forces with the HPK players and vice versa. On New Year’s Eve day, in the town of Tampere, they will play a game of floorball against an Ice Hearts U-18 boys team enrolled in that social services organization.
“It is a clearly defined mission (and) the hockey’s not the primary goal,” Lowes said. “We’ll have lots of ice time combined with our service and other opportunities off the ice. Any time you get on the ice, it’s certainly going to be a unique experience just being in Finland. But I’ve spent zero time and given very little thought about the games or what our goals are. Absolutely, the first thing there is using the sport to build relationships and share about who we are and certainly about our walks with Christ.”
“We’re going to be working with a church there, leading youth group and Sunday school, and having some of the girls speak in the adult service and talk to them a little bit, so definitely a lot of ministry-specific opportunities and also relationship-building opportunities with the girls on the other teams,” Truter added.
On New Year’s Day, Graham will deliver brief messages for both services that Liberty’s team will attend at Hämeenlinna Freechurch, the first in English in the morning and second in the evening translated into Finnish. On Jan. 3, Witt will have an opportunity to speak to a women’s group at the church while the players enjoy fellowship with their children.
“(On Dec. 30) we’re helping out one of the (HPK) junior women’s teams with a (ice disco) fundraiser,” Graham said. “Then there’s a Kids Action Day on Thursday (Jan. 5), and we’ll be doing kids ministry with them, so there’s going to be lots of different kinds of serving opportunities, which is exciting.”
The team will have time for some fun activities on their own as well, including visiting saunas and going on a lake cruise by boat on New Year’s Eve.
“I love that sort of thing, and we’re going to give the girls the full experience, which will be part of the memories, too,” said Lowes, who may take a polar lake plunge.
“We want to be a part of the culture, to experience what they experience, just really engulfing ourselves into the culture to see what they do,” Witt added. “Sometimes we get so Western-minded, like America’s the only thing out there. Part of going on a mission trip is getting the experience of sharing the Gospel, but also just learning about other cultures and the other people that God has created that are still a part of His redemption plan.”
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer