Life as a goaltender may not seem like much fun. No matter the sport, the netminder’s job is to put himself in front of flying objects, and prepare to stop them with whatever means necessary. In hockey, a one-inch by three-inch, black rubber disc that travels upwards of 100 miles per hour is the object of focus for goaltenders across the National Hockey League.
For [former] Los Angeles Kings’ goalie, Peter Budaj, his job consists of far more than shielding the 24 square foot net on his end of the ice surface. Although stopping rubber is how he earns his paycheques, for Budaj—a devout Christian—goaltending is just a minor part of his life.
“When I was 16, I came to Canada from Slovakia to play junior hockey in the OHL [Ontario Hockey League] in Toronto, and I was on my own,” Budaj says. “But because of my upbringing I continued to read my Bible, and stayed involved at my private Catholic school. Being raised as a Christian, my parents made sure to lead me in the direction of Jesus, but parents can only show you so much. Once you become a young adult, it becomes your choice. But I am so glad I have a personal relationship with Jesus.”
By no means was Budaj’s journey to the NHL an easy undertaking— physically, emotionally or geographically.
According to Budaj, once all travel, layovers and airport tasks are complete, his hometown, Banska Bystrica, of the former Czechoslovakia, is approximately 24 hours away from his North American home. It is fair to say that he doesn’t get home too often.
“Before I met my wife I used to go back home in the off-season for the summer every year,” he says. “But right now I have a family—two healthy boys—and have a nice place here in the States. I try to bring my parents every year at least for a month or so. We went as a family to Slovakia once, and are hoping to go again soon. Obviously I would like my parents to see the kids more, but they are getting up there in age too, so the travel is not as easy for them.”
As a [former] professional hockey player, Budaj has a wealth of experience behind him, but as he says it is not all fun and games as a professional athlete.
“A year and a half ago I didn’t have a contract,” Budaj says. “I was on a professional tryout, and I was coming off of my worst season ever. I had zero wins in St. John’s, and I just couldn’t play. I mean I was playing okay, but I couldn’t get a win; I couldn’t catch a break. Nobody wanted me at all.”
But, as a the story goes, the Los Angeles Kings hockey program and affiliate teams had multiple goaltenders battling health and legal issues, and sure enough Budaj was offered a PTO with the Kings’ farm club in Ontario. Saying that he ran away with the starting job would be an understatement. Budaj then ultimately earned a call up to the big leagues when star netminder, Jonathan Quick, went down with an injury early into the 2016-17 season.
“God led me to get that PTO in LA, and somehow everything worked out,” Budaj says. “I ended up playing 62 out of 68 games and I had the best statistical season of my career last year. Obviously you never want to go in the net when somebody gets hurt, but it was just exactly what I needed. Sometimes when you’re down you think that nothing is going your way, but it is at those hard times when you just need to stay faithful. We don’t always see the final picture; we just see the work that is usually not making any results, and we don’t know what is going on. We are very shortsighted as a people. Many times I ask God, “What is going on, where are you leading me?” and he slowly shows me the way he wants me to go. It is always very humbling, and I am very thankful that he is always with me.”
In hockey—or any professional sport for that matter—there tends to be a lot of temptation for the participating athletes. But as a Christian, Peter Budaj has found a way to keep his eyes on the right track—on and off the ice.
“When you are playing at the top level, there are a lot of doors open for you,” he says. “But usually, they are not the right doors, and it is up to you to take them or not. That is why I think it is very important to have a guide. Sometimes you go through a dark tunnel and you don’t know where you are going. But if you don’t have a guide you are going to trip and fall, so you have to keep the right perspectives.”
So what is Peter Budaj’s guide? With team chapels, help from Hockey Ministries International, a solid upbringing and encouragement from friends and family, many areas stand out for the [former] goalkeeper, but right now it is a Bible verse on his goalie mask that keeps him going in the darkest of times.
“Back in my country, we have a tradition that at the start of a new year we each pick a verse out of a big box at the church,” Budaj says. “It just so happened that this verse was very relatable to me. It was at the time where Moses died and the leadership was being passed over to Joshua. He was afraid and he was worried, but as written in Joshua 1:9, God says, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” I strongly relate to that as there are so many times that I am scared and afraid, but I know that my Lord is with me.”
After [playing 386] NHL games in his career, Budaj [was] able to go from being a young rookie in a learning phase, to a veteran leader both on the ice and in the dressing room.
“I once had a very good conversation with a teammate of mine,” Budaj says. “He said to me, “You always go to chapel like you’re without sin,” but I said “No, no, I go to chapel because I need saving. I don’t go to the chapel because I think I am without fault, and everybody else is under me. I go there because I am a sinner and I want to take my sins to Jesus Christ. That is why I go there and that is why I follow that life.” It’s not easy sometimes, but guys know…teams know—and you just have to reflect Jesus’ light through you.”
After making stops in Colorado, Montreal, Winnipeg and Los Angeles in his professional career, Peter Budaj [retired in 2019]. But as the hockey business works, trades, injuries and signings happen, creating many open doors. But by grasping tightly to his guide, it won’t be hard for Budaj to choose the right door going forward.