By Don Liesemer
March 7, 1983 12:00 noon, St. Louis Blues NHL General Manager, Emile Francis, informed his Salt Lake City Golden Eagles farm team that he was recalling Ed Kea from the minors. He would return to the NHL immediately following their game that night verses the Tulsa Oilers. Unfortunately the 35 year old Holland- born player would never return to the Blues line-up in St. Louis. As the 6 foot 3 inch, 14 year pro hockey veteran jammed his 193 finely cut pounds into his minor league uniform he had no idea that this would be his last game ever.
It's amazing that Ed kea had a pro hockey career at all. Born in Weesp, Holland, his family moved to Canada when he was 4 years of age. They were dairy farmers and lived near Collingwood, Ontario. The huge defenseman grew up milking cows not shooting pucks. But it was those long hours of cow duty, herding cattle, stacking hay, cleaning out barns under the care and tutelage of a wonderful Christian family that helped to define the physical, spiritual, social and mental qualities of a future NHL standout and Christian leader.
Until he was 18 the only hockey he played was on frozen ponds. However, he developed a love for the game, joined a junior C team and through sheer determination battled his way up through the minors until finally making it to the NHL’s Atlanta Flames in 1974.
One Sunday shortly after arriving in Atlanta Ed and his lovely wife, Jennifer, sat quietly and comfortably in their church pew. Just another ordinary Sunday service for them. However, in the space of 10 short words, Dr. Charles Stanley fired a hard slap shot from his pulpit which caught the couple right between the eyes: "How many people will be in heaven because of you?". One piercing blast and their soft Christianity crashed and burned. They left church that Sunday with a single goal embedded deep in their souls, "we will 'give 'em heaven'... on ice, in the locker room, in Bible Studies, personal witness, community events...wherever, whenever, however, Jesus' light will shine through our lives". Aflame for Christ and deeply passionate for the cause, they helped to inspire a Christian movement in hockey. Big Eddie, the rugged Dutch defenseman dedicated his career to Jesus. When you were with him you could feel the excitement and sense the urgency "I will play hockey as long as the game can be a pulpit for me to tell others about Jesus." That was it. A Simple Game Plan. Play for Jesus. Live for Him. Tell everyone about Him.
It was as if the Apostle Paul had tapped him on the shoulder and said go out there and show them what I meant when I wrote: “ Be on guard, stand true to what you believe. Be courageous. Be strong. And everything you do must be done in love." (1 Corinthians 16:13,14 NLV)
The former dairy farmer unashamedly lived out his faith. "My teammates would pull me aside and ask questions about my faith. They really respected me because of my stand. A lot wanted to be in my position but they are afraid to take that initial step. Afraid because they thought they would lose everything and gain nothing. I knew in my heart that I'd gained everything and lost nothing. I've got something in my heart that's permanent and that's the love of Jesus Christ."
Team captain Jean Pronovost felt the impact: "While the players teased big Ed, there was a deep respect. I was impressed from the very first time I met him. We were in the same business. He was at peace. I wasn’t. He had something I wanted and needed in my life".
Significant numbers of teammates and their wives and families, including Jean and Diane Pronovost accepted the challenge and turned to Christ. The hockey world was beginning to experience Christ. Like ripples on a pristine lake, Ed and Jennifer's witness spread to players, wives and fans and today is spreading across the world of hockey.
In an interview at that time the big burly defenseman, gave some insights about the change in his life: "This was a total turn around and commitment to Christ; a complete choice. I have a solid rock to cling to now and that rock is Christ...I think it's just as important to grow spiritually as it is physically and I find that now I've been growing with Christ and that it's just been fulfilling my life each day and every day. I am thankful that I am able to come apart and do what the Lord wants me to do and I just try to make myself available to the needs of those I come in contact with...and I just pray that He will continue to use me as long as He sees fit. I just thank God for the ability that He's given me and an opportunity to play in the NHL. So I go out there with the intention of just glorifying God through my game. I can really talk to God before each and every game and just ask Him to guide me through the game. I just offer the game up to Him. I am going to have some bad games but I am going to be out there trying my best because I am working to please and glorify God and with Him at my side I feel that I can only give my best."
Ed was a team player. He always put the team first. Blocking shots was his expertise. He slid in the path of the big shooters of those days with perfect timing, taking away scoring opportunities. He sacrificed and stuck up for his teammates and breathed courage into them. He was not easily provoked, but when one of his teammates was in trouble he put those “ huge mitts” to work.
Atlanta Flame star goaltender during those years, Dan Bouchard, gives an inside the room perspective: "Eddie was a walking sermon. He lived His faith every day. He played the game the way he lived his life with full integrity. Even when he dropped his gloves, he had a smile on his face". Billy Butters isn't sure whether or not the friendly giant had a smile on his face when big Ed pounded him to a pulp in a Central Hockey League scrap in Oklahoma City but he does claim credit for Kea's jump to the NHL which occurred immediately after the game in which he was hammered by the big defenseman from Collingwood.
Eddie loved working with young players at HMI Christian Hockey Camps, "I never had so much fun with a bunch of guys and I just felt like I was one of them. We do love them and we are going to be praying for these boys in the weeks and months to come and I know they will be praying for us when we start our hockey season. We can really help prepare them for what the world has to offer. We are just trying to set an example and one day when they are confronted with a choice maybe they will remember something we said here to guide them on the right path". He would tell them: "With Christ in your life you're going to find obstacles that you run into much easier to handle because you know you have the answer, the Bible has the answer."
Big Ed was traded to St. Louis in 1979. In his 4th year with the Blues and 583 NHL games under his belt, his playing time began to decrease. His request to Blues' G.M. Emile Francis to play or be traded resulted in a trip to the Blues minor League team in Salt Lake City...where sadly, very sadly, his career and nearly his life would come to an end March 7, 1983. His defense partner that night was Gord Donnelly. The CHL opponents were the Tulsa Oilers. Tough and rugged Big Man Ed, never wore a helmet. Crashed into the boards by a clean check, nose broken, knocked unconscious, he fell face first, full body weight, onto the ice. The father of four young children (Holly, Wendy, Gabriel and Heather) was in deep trouble. Carried helplessly from the ice, unconscious, bleeding inside and out, he hovered between life and death for days. With a 50-50 chance of survival, emergency surgery was performed to relieve swelling and hemorrhaging in his brain. He remained in a coma for 10 days with dear wife Jennifer at his side reading Bible verses and singing hymns.
Ed Kea came through. Persevering prayer, the healing hand of God, great medical care, the ever present love of his wife and family and big Ed was eventually on his way home to St. Louis where he and Jennifer would raise their four children. He struggled to do life. On the outside he seemed a perfectly fit athlete still looking the part of an intimidating force but internally things were different. Trying to be positive he would say: "I am fine, but I could be doing better...its slow and I have to keep working. I'm just thankful that I'm not dead, or in a hospital, and I have what I have." (N.Y. Times 1983/11/16)
Receiving phone calls from Eddie in the middle of the night was not uncommon. He would jump right into a joke or a story. He loved to laugh as he recounted the occasion in Montreal when after he played a game against the Canadiens we went for a meal. As I was dropping him off at his hotel we took a few minutes to pray. During our prayer, two police officers pulled up and asked what we were doing. Eddie shouted, "we're praying". With weird looks on their faces they asked, "who are you praying for?" His immediate response, "my teammates". After a few seconds the policemen hollered, "Say one for us," and then sped off into the bright lights of the city. And Eddy and I had a great laugh.
While he was never quite the same, his love for Jesus, his wonderful wife and his precious children remained constant and strong for the next 16 years. Finally in late August, 1999, at his cottage in Ontario, he died and is now in the loving arms of His Savior. I just happened to be in Salt Lake City when I heard the news. It occurred to me that Eddie was now at peace, whole again, free, in the presence of the Lord whom he loved so dearly. And those Bible verses he had once memorized but had struggled to remember were once again, all clear in his mind.
Of the many difficulties and disappointments I have encountered throughout my years in hockey ministry none has been so heart breaking. But I rest in the faith that Eddie so beautifully lived out. He expressed it so clearly in a letter from salt Lake City written just 3 days prior to his tragic accident. "I am content now with the situation because I feel I am in His will. Our main concern is that we remain obedient to Him. Whatever happens, we need to be content. Wherever we can serve Him best, that is where we want to be. Because He lives."
It is with Eddy-like faith that I sign off with his life verse: "Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself" Jesus (Luke 10:27)