RALEIGH, NC – Colorado College assistant coach R.J. Enga settled into his office chair, ready to take on everything a typical Tuesday afternoon in the life demands.
For a popular guy at the helm of a team forcing itself back into relevancy, that means phone calls. Entirely too many phone calls.
One of those calls, outgoing and headed 1,671 miles east, just wouldn’t go through. He tried it on his office landline four times before he walked out of the building, turned a corner and attempted a Hail Mary from his personal cell.
“Hello? Is this a prank?,” he asked when he finally got through.
“I thought maybe the boys were pranking me,” he explained to the confused stranger on the other line. “But I wanted to make sure, if there’s a story about Jaccob, that we could talk.”
As busy as the sacred month of October is in the hockey world — as busy as everyone, everywhere seems to be at all times these days — Enga lit up when he realized someone was really calling to talk about his former standout defenseman.
“He can shoot it, he can move it, whatever you need him to do” Enga started, “He’s mobile, he’s a big guy, he’s poised but he works so hard. He’s really good at reacquiring pucks — a play like that is a great example of what you end up getting with him. It’s just that next level.”
Before Enga, who coached Slavin in junior with the USHL’s Chicago Steel and reunited at Colorado College, could even catch his breath, a text popped up from a more word-economic scout with a similar sentiment.
“There’s just no one better,” it read. “Look who left, and he stayed.”
The thing about Jaccob Slavin is a message like that could mean a few different things to a few different people.
Was it about how he really starting turning heads his second full season playing for the USHL’s Chicago Steel with 5-28—33 in 62 GP? He was fielding a few different recruitment offers, but he stuck with the hometown team that got to him first. Sure, Colorado College was going through a brutal stretch and was about to join the newest, toughest college hockey conference. But the Tigers believed in him before the others started paying attention, so he stayed for two seasons.
Or was it about the summer of 2017, when the then-23-year-old signed a seven-year extension with the Carolina Hurricanes, the team that drafted him 120th overall in 2012? The Canes had certainly seen better days, in the midst of their league-longest playoff drought. Still, they were the first NHL team to put their faith in Slavin. He returned the favor. According to a source, he had so much faith that when he signed the cost-effective $5.3 million AAV, he urged the Hurricanes to leave some for the rest of the team.
“He’s always been very loyal,” younger brother Josiah offered. “It doesn’t matter the situation. He’ll be loyal.”
The concept of loyalty has become something of a hot-button issue in the realm of professional sports. The NHL, traditionally a team-first league, has started to shift in favor of its players. Research on the lifelong ramifications of CTE, the looming possibility of another lockout, social media and more have created a climate closer to the superstar-laden NFL and NBA. Take Drew Doughty’s self-negotiated contract and William Nylander’s contract stalemate for fascinating example. You can’t blame them for getting what’s theirs.
Slavin’s situation-transcendent loyalty just runs deeper than any which way the league is trending because it’s not about the league. It’s not even about himself, his career or the teams he’s stuck with as a byproduct of this loyalty.
It’s a lifelong journey that’s difficult to capture out loud, but the hashtag he created — #AGTG — is a start.
“It stands for ‘All Glory To God,’” he elaborated on the tweet pinned to his Twitter page. “Win? Lose? Play well? Play bad? I still give all my glory to God. To play AGTG hockey is to play with confidence, a confidence that can’t be broken because I know my identity is not found in my performance on the ice. My identity is found in who God thinks I am. My worth is not defined by what anyone thinks of me. I’m not defined by the game of hockey. This life is not about me or my success, it’s all about God and bringing glory to His name.”
Though his worth isn’t defined by his reputation, those who’ve passed through his career at every level can’t help but gush.
“You never had to tell the guy something twice,” Enga said. “Never. In every way, he’s just tremendous.”
If you tried to pinpoint everything Slavin the hockey player does right, you’d be sitting here all day. On and off the ice, he carries himself with all the broad-shouldered confidence you’d expect of a 6-foot-3, 205-pound man. But he plays the game with a conviction and calmness that clearly comes from something greater than his size.
“The abilities I have in this game aren’t from myself,” he said. “They’re from the Lord. I am just trying to use them to the best of my ability, so that I can spread the gospel. My wife and I try to be really active with it because God’s given us a platform.”
He’s firm and proud when he talks about his faith, he’s just a bit taken aback that it came up in a hockey locker room of all places.
In MLB, home runs are followed up with nods to the man upstairs.
In the NFL, a Super Bowl-bound player will typically acknowledge a higher power in the “We’re going to Disneyland” speech.
NBA superstar Steph Curry immediately thanked God after leading the Warriors to their fourth consecutive NBA Finals appearance last season.
NHL traditions revolve around the team. Maybe the goal-scorer will get creative with a solo bow-and-arrow or Evgeny Kuznetsov-style bird celebration, but it always ends in teammate hugs and goalie head pats.
“I would say out of the four major sports, NHL is definitely the least faith-oriented league,” Slavin said. “I don’t think there’s a lot of Christian believers in the league. I’m just trying to make God’s name known. It’s tough — it has its challenges.”
Among active NHL players, 43.8 percent are Canadian; the rest of the league is split almost evenly between Americans and Europeans. Even among religious Canadians like Adam McQuaid, open faith is much less ingrained in their culture than in the U.S., and that culture inevitably permeates the NHL. The Slavins and McQuaids must navigate the challenges of playing in the least faith-oriented league.
For some, that means a quick trip to church after a Sunday morning skate on the road. For others, it’s a “Hey, you too?” upon noticing a tiny cross in someone else’s stall. For all, what used to be hush-hush is slowly growing into a small-but-proud community that Slavin has had a hand in cultivating.
“There are a couple (believers) on the team here, and a couple throughout the league that I’ve connected with,” Slavin said. “Next summer we’re actually having a getaway weekend called The Gathering for Christian couples throughout the league to get to know everybody else and start to build that community. That’s the first time the NHL is going to have that — I know the NFL has had that, I know the MLB has had that, so now to have it for the NHL is going to be awesome.”
Until then and beyond, Slavin has relied on family to keep the faith.
The Slavin kids had just crossed a steppingstone essential to the millennial childhood experience. They’d just watched Mighty Ducks for the first time.
The eldest, Justin, had dabbled in roller hockey, but that was it. Huddled around their hometown Colorado TV, they decided they were all going to play.
Just like that, Justin, Jordan, Jaccob, Josiah and Jeremiah became a hockey family. But as their biblical names suggest, they’d always been a family of faith first. That didn’t come from a Disney movie about a lawyer with a DUI, and though their faith would be tested, nothing could take it away.
“Our parents grew us up in the faith,” Slavin said. “Born and raised. That’s the most important thing to me, on and off the ice.”
Don’t let this emphasis on what’s most important to the Slavins take away from how hard they’ve worked at their legit hockey careers. Jordan, 26, had four successful seasons as a defensewoman at the storied University of North Dakota. Josiah, 19, is a Colorado College commit, currently captaining the USHL’s Lincoln Stars. Jeremiah, 14, is following in the footsteps of Jaccob and Josiah, playing bantam with the Colorado Thunderbirds.
“Our faith is kind of what drives us in the hockey world,” Josiah said. “We do everything we do to glorify God. That’s our main motivation.”
They were all competitive growing up, but Jaccob became a real role model for Josiah when he chose to stay close to home for college.
Not only was Slavin thrust onto a mediocre Colorado College team, but it was the inaugural season of a conference that would become an absolute force — the NCHC. The level of competition was too much and the Tigers went 7-24-6 in 2013-14. But in 32 games, Slavin went 5-20—25. That’s especially impressive for a defenseman whose moments of Zen never make it onto a scoresheet.
“He’s such a consummate worker on his craft,” Enga said. “He seems to always want to have perfection. He was a sponge when we watched video, always able to translate it to the game very easily. Very driven, that’s how I’d describe Jaccob. He ran the power play here and he was top notch.”
Slavin’s most valuable asset is up for debate, but his rare eye for the game akin to a quarterback’s might be it. In situations other in-zone defensemen would just clear it and call it a day, he’ll either clear it and actually connect for a pass, or “run it in” himself.
“It’s really hard to put into numbers,” Rod Brind’Amour said. “He’s an elite defenseman in this league, for sure. I think that goes without saying. The value (he adds) to our group — I don’t know that any kind of numbers do it justice. Jaccob logs a lot of minutes against the best players.”
That’s the thing — he’s making these unheard of plays look easy on a first pairing, against the NHL’s best.
“He’s just really steady,” Enga described his demeanor on and off the ice. “You just kinda know what you’re gonna get from him.”
So even if Slavin is criminally underrated, rest assured he doesn’t care. He doesn’t even care about his reputation among his closest friends. He’ll just keep seeking perfection, and he’ll keep providing all the steadiness a heart attack-inducing team doesn’t even know it needs. He’ll do it all with something much more important in mind.