It came as a question somewhere on a stretch of highway leading to Fargo, North Dakota.
“Do you believe in Jesus?”
Van Hall was a new bus driver. Normally, Sioux City Musketeers associate head coach Mark Abalan knew the three or four drivers who rotated taking his junior hockey team to games. But this time, in January 2020, Hill was at the helm and took the hours of drive time as opportunity to direct the conversation.
Abalan, who grew up with a Catholic background but didn’t quite understand true faith in Christ, casually answered back that he did.
Hall moved in with another question. “Are you going to heaven?”
Abalan couldn’t answer.
Caught in a dark period of his life, Abalan struggled with a heaviness that took hold of his heart. On the outside, it looked like he had it all: a great job coaching some of the best upcoming hockey players in the country and as a coach on the junior national team, as well as a supportive family in his wife Missy and three children. But he was hollow inside, and Abalan sensed something was missing.
Hall’s question and assessment caught him off guard, but the two kept talking throughout the weekend, scattered between treks to the rink and hotel. Hill’s words wouldn’t leave, and Abalan leaned in. Towards the end of the weekend, a vision came to Abalan that spread open the skies of heaven and Abalan’s heart recognized eternity. Instantly drawn to God, he surrendered his life to Jesus Christ.
Abalan’s life launched into a discovery of faith through a growing relationship with God. “It was a relatively instant change, but also a gradual change as God opened my eyes to so many things,” he said. “I understood the depths of God’s life and grace. His Word became alive.”
Diving into Scripture, Abalan couldn’t get enough time with the Lord, which translated back home in Sioux City, Iowa to his family, as well.
“I understood the depths of God’s life and grace. His Word became alive.”
-Sioux City Musketeers Coach Mark AbalanHe also connected with Rick Randazzo, the director of FCA Hockey. Randazzo had reached out to Abalan a few years prior with no true traction. When a couple of Abalan’s players went to Minnesota for camps and free skate with FCA Hockey over the summer, Abalan shared about his new faith journey with Randazzo and drove north multiple times to participate in camps and glean spiritual insight through his growing friendship with the hockey director.
Questions and desire led to deeper study, which circled back to paying attention to where God had him: as a coach in the United States Hockey League (USHL), the top junior hockey league in the U.S. for athletes transitioning between high school and college or the professional level.
The heightened level of the league—playing in front of crowds of thousands, pro scouts in the stands, and the temptations to live the cultural lifestyle—can put pressure on these young men who are already trying to form an identity for themselves.
“These are high-end players, but there’s a lot of insecurity with their futures. They’re searching,” said Randazzo. “They hear talk about God and start to think, ‘Maybe I should check out God.’”
What began as casual conversation about spiritual matters with a few players developed into a weekly Bible study where 10-12 players gathered for hours at a time each week in Abalan’s home for food, community and biblical conversation.
“It’s such a blessing to have fellowship and discipleship time,” said the Musketeers coach, “I love to teach. I have so many rich conversations daily with players—it’s now more of a significant part of who I am as a coach.”
Abalan has expanded his love of teaching to co-lead a Zoom study for junior hockey players with Randazzo.
“Mark is a transformational coach. It’s exciting to see somebody make a decision to go all in and then does,” Randazzo said. “He’s growing spiritually and wants to be discipled, as well. That’s what we like to see in FCA.”
From one question on a coach bus one wintery afternoon, Abalan’s life has catapulted in a trajectory directed by God.
“All my life I’ve been a teacher and coach and had influential roles—God is using all that for good,” he surmised. “It’s been an amazing transition, and it reminds me to just be available and have a willingness to move and act where God places opening and opportunities.”
Added Randazzo, “His is a true conversion and a story of transformation and discipleship.”
Hall and Abalan still keep in touch on a weekly basis, and Abalan has no hesitation with the question once posed. He now uses his coaching platform to bring others to a swift answer with their own faith.
“At one point, hockey was my god. I was obsessed with it and being a coach, and it was my identity,” he said. “Everything’s changed. I work hard, but I’m aware of everything that comes out of my mouth. What’s important is to work for the Lord, to be a godly teacher, coach and man.”
Inspired by Abalan's journey?
Learn more about what God is doing in the hockey world through FCA Hockey and pray for coaches and hockey players to desire a growing relationship with Jesus. To get involved in FCA, click here.