Hearts Hockey Club has a winning strategy that you will not find in any sports manual: they put people first and unconditionally accept anybody who wants to join the club.
The result? They are competitive on the field, they have great fun, and relationships with God are started and grown.
For Hearts chairlady, Rachel Niewoudt, joining the club six years ago was more life-changing than she could have imagined. She was introduced to Hearts by her younger brother, David Gibson, who was one of a group of friends from Harvest Christian Church, Port Elizabeth, who decided to start a hockey club that would play league hockey, and reach out to people who did not want to be in the “drinking scene” and who were not necessarily interested in Christianity.
“I was not following the Lord when I joined Hearts. I had been hurt by Christians who I felt had been hypocritical. I had come out of a relationship and I had nothing better to do. I hadn’t played hockey for at least six years — since school days.
“I just found that the people in the club were not concerned about my hangups or anything like that. They welcomed me into their space. I was included from day one in braais and fancy dressups and play games over the weekends. They brought me into their culture and before I knew it I was going to Hillsong concerts or whatever, and my love relationship with the Lord was rekindled.”
Rachel also met and fell in love with one of the club’s men players, Karl Niewoudt, and within three years they were married. Karl is not playing hockey currently but participates in the active social life of the club and has built friendships with the men members.
Rachel acknowledges that the club’s ethos of not turning down anybody who wants to join goes against the natural desire to win and recruit the strongest players. “We do play to win. But we have decided that we will not sacrifice a person for a player. And that is the most important thing and it is what keeps players coming back.”
In fact Heart has enjoyed success in competition. After its launch the club’s teams advanced rapidly through the leagues and the women have won their league three times. In the second year the club fielded three men’s sides and two women’s sides. Currently, after only six weeks of the season, there are 23 players, including a mom and her daughter. The youngest player joined last year at 14: she lacked confidence and was tearful in the beginning but she ended last season with the “most improved player of the year” award. The oldest player who has played for the club was in his 60s.
The club does not have a clubhouse, so socials take place at members’ homes. Social interaction is also encouraged at hockey practice, during which the men and women play together in mixed sides during the second half. Rachel said they needed about 30 members this year and she was sure that God would be faithful to provide them. She said Hearts had a good relationship with other clubs and that some members of other clubs had joined Hearts because they were attracted by its happy atmosphere and lack of internal divisions and striving.
Some of the current new members were not Christians but they were made welcome and were included in everything, and their families were invited to join in socials. Over the years a number of players had started attending churches and been exposed to Christian life.
“We know that through relationship and through conduct we make a difference and that people notice. Even other clubs notice there is something different about us. I think it is such a testimony,” said Rachel.