by David Rak || AHL On The Beat Archive
September 11, 2001 will live in infamy for the United States of America after the terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C. and western Pennsylvania. Many believe that out of the carnage that ensued, people rose to new spiritual heights and renewed their faith in God.
While September 12, 2001 might have seemed like a “tough” day in the playing career of Rivermen enforcer Rocky Thompson, who sliced his right Achilles heel in a freak accident in training camp with the NHL’s Florida Panthers, it became a first step in his faith journey toward Jesus Christ.
Thompson’s injury was suffered when skating up the ice while trying to perform a crossover, in which you carry one skate over the other to move right or left. For Thompson, he was trying to cross his left skate over his right when his right hit a rut in the ice, causing his left to come straight down on his Achilles heel.
That rut threw him on the wrong course.
“I got into a bit of a depression after that, and I realized I was going down the wrong path,” Thompson said of his awakening at the age of 24. “I realized it was God intervening in my life, but it was two and a half years before I gave my heart to Jesus Christ and asked Him to be my savior.
“People knew I was spiritual,” Thompson continued about his searching-period after September 12, 2001. “I tried to clean up life how I thought I was supposed to, but it was difficult because I hadn’t found Christ yet. I still had a desire to do bad things.
“It was grace and I can’t explain it,” Thompson said of that bad desire withering away after finding Christ. “I’ve since realized that it was God’s plan all along, and if you try to do things on your own with the best of intentions, you’re going to fail ultimately.”
On the surface, Thompson, who has amassed 1,828 penalty minutes in 529 career AHL games, seemed to have things in order heading into the 2001-02 season with 19 games of NHL experience under his belt with the Calgary Flames and the Panthers combined over a four-year career.
“My lifestyle wasn’t in order, though,” Thompson said matter-of-factly. “I was fond of my time in the NHL but I wasn’t at the same time. It was bittersweet.
“Now, I’m on the path of the Lord,” Thompson continued. “I can’t look back with regrets because my life is now where it’s supposed to be. All the changes and blessings have come when I’ve put my faith in Him.”
Before his conversion, Thompson says others may not have had any idea what path his life was taking.
“I was a really selfish individual,” Thompson said. “I did for myself at the expense of others. I’m sure guys said, ‘Rock, he’s a nice guy, great guy,’ but inwardly I felt awful and caused a lot of hurt to a lot of people.
“Who I was on the inside wasn’t very good. That doesn’t mean we don’t do good things but there is that sinfulness in all of us.”
Thompson’s Christian faith guides him on the ice as the team’s enforcer as well.
“I’m quite passionate when I play,” Thompson said. “I have the opportunity to help look after my teammates, and I’ve been given the gifts and abilities to protect them. Everything I do on the ice is within the rules and I’m not a guy who cheap-shots other people.
“I can’t remember the last the time I acted out of anger,” Thompson continued. “I want to throw the body and finish my hits as much as anyone. Fighting is a mutual thing between two combatants, and when a man goes down, the fight is over and you pick each other up. It’s tough role to play but a necessary one.”
Thompson, who is in the second year of a two-year deal with the Rivermen, helped start a successful Chapel program last season with the help of former Rivermen Mark Bassen, who played with the Rivermen from 1991-94 and is now a pastor at Champions Church in Pekin, Ill.
“I gave my heart to the Lord at the age of six,” said Bassen, who is married to wife Laura and has four kids. “I’ve always had a sense that God was going to use me in more than just hockey. All of my years of playing professional hockey, I had a sense, but I didn’t know it was going to be starting a church two and a half years ago.”
“Mark was talking to coaching staff to see about doing it (the Rivermen Chapel program), and at the same time, I was looking into trying to do it when I walked in the office,” said Thompson, who is married to wife Liz and has three children with one on the way. “Mark and I talked for about an hour and half to two hours and then we were given the okay by Steve (Pleau, then Peoria’s head coach) and Brent (Thompson, Rivermen assistant coach).”
The Chapel program and bible studies, led by Bassen, were well-attended from the beginning and resulted in seven players giving their hearts to Jesus Christ after the first service.
“Mark gave a message of salvation that we need a redeemer and a savior,” Thompson said. “Everyone all bowed their heads and a bunch of guys made a commitment. It was so powerful and so amazing to witness this.”
“These guys stepped up and said, ‘I need it,’” Thompson said. “If Mark hadn’t proclaimed the Gospel that way, the guys may not have been willing to give into the Lord. Amazing things happened to those men last year and how He brought those guys together.”
“There were seven players who prayed for Christ to save their life that day,” Bassen continued. “The most amazing thing about it is, and I’ve been involved in chapels all my career, we had seven to eight guys come back almost every week.”
Thompson, for his part, had never seen that kind of mass conversion among players.
“All of the guys in the past were just curious,” Thompson said of the Chapel program he started with J.J. Hunter with the AHL’s Toronto and Edmonton Roadrunners. “Guys would come in and see but not really give their hearts to the Lord.”
The Rivermen Chapel program averaged once-per-week services on off days.
“God has done an amazing thing on that team and in that locker room,” Bassen said. “The guy that made it happen on that team was Rocky, and he stood up and was accounted for. If he didn’t, we wouldn’t have had the result. Rocky has so much respect in that locker room."
“Where else do you get nine guys, hockey players, singing out loud, praying to the Lord?” Thompson asked rhetorically referring to the Chapel program.