Growing up, playing hockey was my life. There was something about the game that I just loved. Maybe, it was that I started watching it at a young age. Or, the opportunity to be part of a team, working toward a common goal – working for each other. Whatever it was, I was passionate about it.

I started playing hockey when I was five years old. I’ve always been a pretty good player, but I was on the smaller side, which made me feel like I’ve always had to work harder. But, I was willing to put in the work.

I went to a small Catholic high-school in Michigan, where I grew up. My freshman year, I was placed on the prep team, which is one step below the junior varsity team. It really bothered me. I guess I expected the be placed on varsity immediately. Getting placed on the prep team was humbling, and honestly, it caused me to doubt my ability. After tryouts, I remember thinking that I would never make the varsity team.

Those doubts were flamed my sophomore season. Unfortunately, after tryouts, I fell short of making varsity, again. The coaches placed me on the junior varsity team, and although it was a step up from the prep team, I really started to internalize those doubts. I started to believe I wasn’t good enough. Nothing seemed to be happening in my timing. My whole high school career I’d been waiting for an opportunity, but I was forced to wait even longer.

Thankfully, I stuck with it, and with a few games left in my sophomore season, I got called up to the varsity team. I did great. In fact, our team won the state championship, and things really seemed to be looking up. Going into my junior year, I was playing great at the varsity level and was a member of one of our team’s top lines. But, in my fifth game, everything changed.

Mike Smatzula taking a shot.

Our team was down, and about halfway through the game I remember yelling that I needed to step it up. So, my next shift I went out and skated as hard as I could on the forecheck. The puck got shot around the boards and into the neutral zone. I started skating after the puck and it was poked out to me, so I took it and began skating full speed into the offensive zone. As I turned and looked up, I saw an opposing player skating full speed at me. I tried to move out of the way, but couldn’t. My right leg took the full force of the hit, fracturing my femur bone from the top of my knee all the way to my hip. I don’t remember anything after that, until I found myself in the locker room. The next few months brought me to rock bottom.

Everything I had worked my whole life to achieve was stripped from me in an instant. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my priorities weren’t in order. Coming from a Christian home, I knew the importance of having a relationship with God, but I wasn’t living it. When hockey was taken from me, it caused me to fall into a deep depression. Without hockey, I felt like my life had fallen apart.

I remember it vividly, one day, while I was walking to class, I broke down. I sat on a bench outside of my high school’s church and just cried. I began asking God, why is this happening? What did I do? If I’m being honest, I was angry with God. I was angry that after I everything I persevered, it was over. In hockey, your junior and senior seasons are the years you have the opportunity to get noticed by junior teams and colleges, and doctors told me I had a long recovery in front of me.

Yet, in that moment, while I was sitting on that bench, I felt something drawing me toward the church. That feeling lead me to get up and crutch inside. I can’t explain it, but immediately, I felt a sense of relief. It felt like someone took all the weight off of my shoulders and everything was going to be okay. In that moment, I realized God was telling me to believe in Him. Today, I believe it was the Holy Spirit. I decided that day that I would never doubt God and always believe in Him and His plan for me.

After a six-month long recovery, I was cleared to play. My parents always told me that if you have a dream, you have to go for it. So, after high school I decided to pursue junior hockey. It was still a long road, which lead me to play for three different teams, in three different leagues. Again, I was never looked at by any colleges. Things were starting to look bleak, until my last year of junior eligibility when I got an incredible opportunity to play in the USHL, which opened the door for me to play Division I college hockey.

The path I took was God’s path for me. He has shown me time and time again that He is faithful and anything is possible if you place your trust in Him. No matter what’s going on in your life, good or bad, it is in His control. I believe God has blessed everyone with a special talent to glorify Him, but the biggest advantage is knowing there’s nothing to worry about because He lives, and He has a plan for each and every one of us.

– Mike Szmatula

Mike Szmatula was the assistant captain of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers men’s hockey team. He is currently playing in the ECHL for the Adirondack Thunder.

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