Obedience to God is in Mike Kehler’s DNA. So is authentic relationship. His humble demeaner and openness draw people in, they often feel like they’ve known him for years within a few minutes of meeting.
Kehler lives in the southern part of Manitoba, near the U.S. border of Minnesota and North Dakota. Other than when he played junior hockey in British Columbia and when he got his Master’s in youth ministry in Saskatchewan, he and his wife Cheryl have lived in the southern part of the province. It’s where he’s lived for most of his life.
Growing up in the town of Altona, Kehler played multiple sports but had an opportunity to play Juniors in British Columbia and following that, in Manitoba. Kehler committed his life to the Lord at age 14 but didn’t really live it out. After a few close friends died when Kehler was a young adult, he began to think more deeply about life, faith and his passion for sports. Do they all intersect? What was truly important? What would be left when sports stopped, or when life gets cut short?
While playing Juniors (a level of competitive ice hockey for players between ages 16-20), Kehler stayed with his head coach who often asked him questions about faith and life over games of chess. This led him to a head on collision with Christ. From that point on, a passion grew inside Kehler to make space for the same kinds of discussions. He had begun coaching high school hockey and wanted to invest in his athletes. But what would that look like?
Kehler poked around for answers and came across FCA. Living so close to the U.S. border, he had heard of Huddles and the ministry on school campuses in the U.S. Why not bring it to his area of Canada? Kehler started a Huddle that drew 20 young men. Most of them were hockey players, but other attendees played other sports and some were not athletic, but they loved sports and were friends with the guys. He took a group to FCA Camp in Marshall, Indiana, one year and another group to a camp in Minneapolis, Minn.
Kehler moved to Steinbach after receiving his Master’s degree in youth ministry, and he formed a Huddle in his new community. Ever since then, his life has been focused on ministry, serving as both a youth and small group pastor for nearly 30 years at three different churches, and as a hockey chaplain for 27 years.
“He and his wife have just been investing in countless lives coming to know Jesus and being changed and empowered,” said Executive Director for Canada Hans Ostrem.
In 2013, Kehler felt the tug to work more closely with youth in sports, and he was invited to come on staff with Youth for Christ (YFC). As he became chaplain with the Steinbach Pistons Junior A team and served at the Rink Hockey Academy in Winnipeg, building relationships in the community, Kehler and Youth for Christ took notice of a passion that continued to grow inside of him. They worked out a way for him to utilize sport ministry and connect with FCA for Huddles and camps. At age 55, most people have settled a routine of life and even begin to think about retirement. But Kehler pressed the accelerator.
Already with YFC, working with local schools and as a chaplain for the area’s junior hockey team, Kehler started his third Huddle, latching on to the FCA small group mentality. A few years later, Kehler opened it up as a community Huddle on Wednesday nights for hockey players. The Huddle has now grown to include multiple sports.
Through his chaplaincy role with the Junior A hockey team and the Rink Hockey Academy, he’s known for his care and desire to connect.
“These young men are trying to move up in their athletic careers—college, Juniors, we’ve even had seven guys go to NHL development camps this last year,” Kehler said. “But they have things that could happen in their lives—injury, bad decisions, personal life problems. I ask them, ‘Who do you have in your life that can help you when you get derailed?’”
Kehler loves meeting with current and former athletes and will send text messages of encouragement every couple of weeks to check in and see how he can be praying. For him, it’s all about reaching out and sharing the love of Jesus.
He leans on words in 2 Corinthians that embody his life’s message of living for Christ and introducing others to Him.
“Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us. We plead on Christ’s behalf, ‘Be reconciled to God.’” – 2 Corinthians 5:20
“I just try to be faithful,” he said. “If God is bringing somebody to my mind, whether it's from this year or four years ago, I just shoot them a text or give them a call and touch base. I had one guy I was at lunch with the other day, and he shared his home life wasn’t so great. He remembered that I had said five years ago that it is important to talk about things that aren’t going well. Five years ago!”
Ostrem and his team in Canada have taken notice of the outpouring of heart, time and presence Kehler has given to hundreds of athletes over the years. As FCA Canada developed an award recognizing an exceptional volunteer, Kehler immediately rose to the top of potential recipients. Earlier this summer, Ostrem notified him that he was chosen to receive the inaugural Keith and Marlys Allen Award, given to a coach or volunteer who has demonstrated five or more consecutive years of faithful service to FCA in Canada made a significant impact in Canada for the Kingdom. The individual also embodies 1 Thessalonians 2:8:
“We cared so much for you that we were pleased to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us.”
"I just try to be faithful."
The Keith and Marlys Allen Award is named after two FCA Canada pioneers who moved from Iowa to British Columbia to follow God’s call and start Huddles for hundreds of students who went through their living room over decades.
“Mike is a really cool example of humility,” Ostrem said. “He didn't start Huddles for any other reason than, ‘Hey, this is a way we can make a big impact in a young athlete’s life.’”
Kehler will be honored in November at one of FCA Canada’s major vision events.
“I’m very honored, but taken aback [by the award],” he shared, “because it’s not about me, it’s about the ministry.”
It’s always been about ministry for Kehler, and he doesn’t see any other way.
Cheryl recently retired and the two of them spend much of their time pouring into their children and grandchildren, and Kehler continues his work with YFC, hockey chaplaincy and leading his Huddle with other men. At an age that many consider retirement, Kehler has no intention of slowing down.
“I have no need to retire,” Kehler said. “I love what I'm doing. I’m still walking alongside the guys, and I keep talking about the things that I went through, injuries and all that still happens now with these young men. My experiences still reflect what they're going through.”
Kehler knows every minute is accounted for in the life of a young athlete, and he knows to encourage them on how to really spend their time well. From his first Huddle 45 years ago in Altona to now, young athletes need to know where to turn for guidance and grace.
“When it comes to faith and God, I'm just trying to get these guys to take 10 minutes to think about growing their relationship with God. You have time for what you want to have time for. If your faith is going be important to you, then you need to develop that relationship.”
It hasn’t been all smooth skating, but Kehler has lived in the faithfulness of God, which he’ll continue to do while trusting God is always at work.
“We can never underestimate the difference God can make when we pour into young lives.”
Photos courtesy of Mike Kehler and Youth for Christ