Bishop Paprocki joins practice, shares message of faith with St. Norbert hockey team
DE PERE — St. Norbert All-American defenseman Nick Tabisz gathered the puck at center ice and skated on goal. He faked a slap shot, moved left and attempted a wrist shot to the goalie's stick side, but was denied. The goalie's save brought a roar from Tabisz's teammates.
The goaltender in net on the play was Bishop Thomas Paprocki, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Bishop Paprocki joined the Green Knights men's hockey team for practice Nov. 5 at the Cornerstone Community Center. Prior to taking the ice, he addressed the team in the locker room.
Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Chicago watches the St. Norbert College hockey team practice at the Cornerstone Community Center Nov. 5. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)
"I tried to tell them a little bit about the connection between sports and faith," he said. "Prayer is an important part of what we do, and it's not just reading prayers out of books. Prayer is a conversation with God."
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Bishop Paprocki, 57, a marathon runner in addition to being a hockey player, shared with the players how he engages in conversations with God while competing.
"When I'm running, I'm constantly saying a prayer," he said. "I say Hail Marys. I have a little finger rosary and I'm praying Hail Marys while I'm running. When I'm out there on the ice, if somebody's coming at me on a breakaway, I say, ‘Oh my God, Jesus help me.' Then if I make the save, I say, ‘Thank you Jesus, thank you Mary, thank you Joseph, thank you guardian angel. I say all these little prayers while I'm out there."
Bishop Paprocki, a native of Chicago's South Side, grew up playing floor hockey because there were no rinks in his neighborhood. He moved on to roller hockey before learning how to ice skate. He has been playing ice hockey ever since, including the past 12 years in the Master's Hockey League in Chicago, an over 30, no-check league.
So how did he become a netminder?
"When I was in eighth grade, we were playing at the Boys Club and they needed a goalie," he explained. "I said I'd try it out and I liked it. It's a very unique position, and they told me you have to have a certain personality to play goalie and I guess it fit my personality. I enjoy it."
The Green Knights are not the first team that has invited the bishop to practice. Four years ago, USA Hockey Magazine ran a story about him entitled "Holy Goalie, Bishop Tom Paprocki Saves Goals and Souls." A member of the Chicago Blackhawks organization saw the article.
"My secretary said one day, ‘You got a message from the Blackhawks. They want you to come out and skate with them,'" said Bishop Paprocki. "I thought, ‘They are really hard up for a goalie if they are calling me.' We went out and did a little promotional thing and I skated with the Blackhawks."
He joined another NHL team, the Columbus Blue Jackets, on the ice last season.
Bishop Paprocki blocks a shot from a St. Norbert College player during practice Nov. 5. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)
"(The players) didn't know who I was," he said. "The coach knew who I was. I had my helmet on and the coach just sent me out there. I heard one of the players say, ‘Oh good, we have another goalie. They went through their regular practice, so I had NHL players shooting at me. That really got my adrenaline going. That was a lot of fun."
St. Norbert gave Bishop Paprocki a jersey from the 2008 national championship season with his name on the back. The plate on his locker read "Holy Goalie #1."
"That's all pretty cool," he said. "I feel like part of the team here."
Bishop Paprocki's skate with the Green Knights was arranged by Norbertine Fr. Jim Baraniak, pastor at St. Norbert College Parish. Fr. Baraniak sits on the board for Catholic Athletes for Christ. Bishop Paprocki serves on the organization's bishops' advisory board.
"Catholic Athletes for Christ is an outgrowth of something that was actually started at the Vatican," said Bishop Paprocki. "(Pope John Paul II) opened an office for sport, the Vatican Office for Sport. Picking up on that cue, they started an organization here in the U.S.
"What we try to do is get athletes who are Catholic to see the connection between their faith and their sports activities," he added, "and also to create an avenue for players to be able to grow in their faith, opportunities for prayer, for formation, for going to Mass, things like that. Hopefully (they) will also be an example or model. We all know that young people look up to pro athletes so if you have a pro athlete that says, ‘I'm Catholic and I practice my faith,' that has a profound impact on young people."
St. Norbert hockey coach Tim Coghlin said he was honored to host Bishop Paprocki.
"You are lucky to have a bishop come and speak to your congregation, let alone have him come to your locker room and talk about something that is so near and dear to your heart, sport and spirituality," said Coghlin. "The more times we can expose our young men to positive influences like Bishop Paprocki, like Fr. Jim Baraniak, just tremendous men, the better. Hopefully that helps engage them more in their own spiritual life."
"I'm Catholic, so it's great to see a bishop out on the ice," said St. Norbert goalie B.J. O'Brien. "He's been doing a lot of practicing. He looked good out there."
O'Brien added that he was thankful that Bishop Paprocki addressed prayer with the team because the Green Knights gather for prayer before every game. The two goaltenders conversed during practice drills.
"We talked a little hockey, a little religion and he shared some stories," said O'Brien. "It was good to have him here and to get him out on the ice to face a few shots."
Bishop Paprocki spent time with Bishop David Ricken and Fr. Dan Felton while in northeast Wisconsin. The three were classmates in Rome. He also dropped the ceremonial first puck prior to St. Norbert's 8-2 victory over Bethel University on Nov. 6.
Bishop Paprocki plans to run and play hockey as long as possible. He has run in 16 marathons, including the Twin Cities Marathon last month where he recorded his best time in 10 years.
"I'm like an old wine," he joked, "getting better with age."