Brad Mills knew he was ruining his hockey career.
His pattern of late-night partying typically left him dehydrated the next day and translated into injuries and poor performances. As a result, the center/wingman was struggling in his role as a “depth” player for the Lowell Devils, an American Hockey League affiliate for the New Jersey Devils. It was like he was living in a dark cloud, he said.
“I was getting injured a lot because my drinking was getting bad,” Mills said. “Then it started to click for me, 'OK, this is connected; I'm partying and then I'm getting hurt. Time to cut that out.' Once I did that, the path became a lot clearer.”
Mills’ decision to quit drinking sparked his rise to the NHL and also sent him down a path of spiritual fulfillment and conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That path has since guided him to the Utah Grizzlies, where he’s thriving as one of the team’s co-captains this season.
“Everyone’s situation is different. I’ve seen profound blessings, but I’ve also seen the consequences of making wrong choices. The Lord chastises us because he loves us and wants us to turn toward him,” Mills said. “The big lesson I’ve learned is how to submit to Heavenly Father’s will instead of imposing my own.”
Pregame: A father’s conversion
A key event in Mills’ life-changing journey occurred a year before he was born.
In 1980, Craig Mills, Brad’s father, was taking an accounting class at the University of Alberta when he met Bruce Hudson, a fellow student who had served a Mormon mission in Italy.
“We struck up a friendship,” Craig Mills said. “He was constantly trying to invite me to meet the missionaries and take the discussions, but there was no way I was interested.”
Mills graduated in 1981 and accepted an accounting position in Terrace, British Colombia. Before he and his wife left, Hudson gave him a Book of Mormon with his testimony and family photo inside.
About nine months later, missionaries found the Mills family by knocking doors. When invited in, one elder felt impressed to talk about the plan of salvation and answered many questions Mills had pondered his entire life. The visit ended with an invitation to read the Book of Mormon and Mills remembered Hudson's gift. He began reading and stayed up all night. He finished the entire book in four days.
Mills and his wife continued to meet with the missionaries for several months, with Craig being more interested than his wife. He scrutinized everything the elders taught.
“I debated hard. I’m a thinker and I had a lot of questions. I needed proof and they asked me to pray,” Craig Mills said. “I may have prayed casually, but without sincerity.”
He continued to meet with the missionaries but any prayers felt unanswered. Then in March 1982, something happened while he was driving alone in his car.
“I began to pray vocally. Is the book true? Is Joseph Smith a Prophet?” Craig Mills said. “The Holy Ghost hit me extremely hard. It was a powerful experience. I was unable to drive and pulled over. For about an hour, I experienced an emotional outpouring of the Spirit.”
While Mills told the missionaries he wanted to be baptized, his wife thought he’d had an emotional breakdown. He waited another three months while she continued with the missionaries, but by June he could wait no longer.
“I felt that if I didn’t get baptized, my witness would dissipate,” Craig Mills said. “I made the decision to be baptized without my wife. It was difficult for both of us.”
Hudson attended the service and confirmed Mills a member of the church. During the blessing, Mills felt another powerful outpouring of the Spirit.
“The Holy Ghost confirmed to me that it was not a fluke,” Craig Mills said. “That has given me the strength to endure the challenges of the past 30 years.”
First period: Family, faith and hockey
About a year later in 1983, Brad Mills was born. The family moved to Olds, Alberta, a city north of Calgary, where Brad grew up as the third of five children in a home where his father was a Mormon and his mother was a Catholic. Craig Mills worked more than 70 hours per weeks while faithfully serving in the local LDS branch. His wife took the children to the Catholic Church. She allowed her husband to hold informal family nights as long as he excluded Mormonism. As the years passed, branch members tried unsuccessfully to fellowship her and missionaries eventually wore out their welcome.
“The missionaries used to come for dinner every week for a long time,” Craig Mills said. “As the kids got older, they would ask questions and some of the missionaries were a little bold in challenging her. One day she said, ‘That’s it. They aren’t coming to my house anymore.’”
Brad Mills vividly recalls the family going to the Catholic Church across the street while his father walked to the LDS Church across a field from their house. As he became a teenager, he wondered why his parents went to different churches.
More pressing, however, was his obsession with hockey.
“In Canada, hockey is considered a birthright,” Brad Mills said.
He grew up skating and swinging a hockey stick before leaving home at age 17 to play for a team in Northern Alberta. From there he was recruited to play at Yale University. Four years after that he signed with the New Jersey Devils organization.
But it didn’t bring him the happiness he had expected. Despite his success on the ice, Mills describes the decade of his life spanning 2000 to 2010 as a dark time.
“During that time, spirituality was an afterthought,” he said, “something I took for granted.”
Second period: Becoming clean
In January 2010, Brad Mills found the courage to attend Alcoholics Anonymous and started to change his life. He began to take care of his body. To his amazement, the decision produced immediate results.
“When I quit drinking I saw this massive improvement in my performance,” Brad Mills said. “I went from kind of floundering and being a depth guy in the American League to being one of the best players each night. I actually felt like I had a legitimate shot at playing at the next level.”
While saving his hockey career was his original motivation, going sober and attending AA meetings also triggered a spiritual awakening. He thought of his father, a man he greatly respected, and resolved to investigate the LDS Church. He located a young single adult ward in Lowell, Mass., and showed up one Sunday morning in late March.
“The Spirit was really strong as soon as I walked into the building,” Brad Mills said. “I didn’t really have the knowledge or experience to understand what I was experiencing, but it was like a spiritual wave washed over me.”
He was welcomed by members and found a seat. As he listened to the speakers he felt at peace. The room seemed brighter than usual. If he had a question, he sent a text to his father Craig, who also happened to be sitting in sacrament meeting in Canada.
“It was the one time I felt like texting in sacrament meeting was allowed,” Craig Mills said.
Brad Mills enjoyed the first meeting so much that he stayed for Sunday School and priesthood meeting, both of which shared lessons that provided answers to questions he’d been pondering. When it was over, he was still skeptical, but knew he had felt something special, he said.
“I knew I had to go deeper,” Brad Mills said.
When the hockey season was over, Mills started meeting with the missionaries. After awhile he returned home to finish taking the discussions with his father, the ward mission leader, in Alberta.
The decision to get baptized didn’t come right away. He was learning bits and pieces, but half expected a lightning bolt to confirm the truth, he said.
But he soon realized he didn’t need a bright flash to realize he had a testimony of the gospel. One day while reading his scriptures, Mills felt the same powerful spirit he had felt when first went to church in Massachusetts. It reminded him of happy memories in his life and it was enough. He decided to get baptized.
Brad’s mother worried that he was moving too fast, but ultimately supported his decision. With many ward members and friends looking on, Craig Mills baptized and confirmed his son a member of the LDS Church on May 28, 2010. As Brad came up out of the water, he told his father he felt a profound sense of internal cleanliness. It was a special moment between father and son.
“He looked at me with this strange look and said, ‘That’s exactly what I said to the missionary that baptized me when I came up out of the water,’” Brad Mills said. “I had to let that sink in for a little while.”
While Craig Mills delighted in his son’s decision, he didn’t openly celebrate out of respect for his wife and other children.
“It was definitely a tender mercy — there is no other way to describe that — but I did not jump up and down too much,” Craig Mills said. “I’m pleased he (Brad) has made some positive changes in his life to align himself with the Lord.”
Brad Mills is grateful for his father’s stalwart example.
“I think my dad had been active in the church, praying and fasting for more than 25 years for this,” Brad Mills said of his father. “My whole life he has been a tremendous example.”
Third period: A Devil comes to Utah
The following season, Mills was called up to the New Jersey Devils for four games. He scored his first NHL goal against Chicago Blackhawks goalie Marty Turco in a 5-3 Devils’ victory on Nov. 3, 2010. The arena was silent except for the rowdy cheers of Mills’ little brother, Glen, who endured a nightlong bus ride from Toronto to Chicago to be at the game.
Mills split time between the Devils and their American Hockey League affiliate in Albany last year, playing in 27 NHL games. When a lockout postponed the beginning of the 2012-2013 NHL season, Mills was grateful for the opportunity to come to Utah.
So far this season, Mills has scored 11 goals and recorded 10 assists while helping Utah to a 9-10 record in the ECHL standings. In the process, the 6-foot, 195-pound forward has earned the respect of his coaches and teammates.
“He’s a guy who has played at the highest level, and you don’t get to the highest level by accident,” said Kevin Colley, the Grizzlies’ director of hockey operations and head coach. “He’s a true leader. His off-ice habits are a ’10.’ Guys need to look at him and see what he’s done and how he prepares to play at the highest level. He’s been remarkable on and off the ice.”
Riley Armstrong, Utah’s other captain, said he and Mills were hated rivals on previous teams, but now are good friends. Armstrong even accompanied Mills to an LDS young single adult dance once.
What sets Mills apart, Armstrong said, is his competitive drive in hockey and his commitment to his church.
“He’s a true professional on the ice. Off the ice, he takes care of his body and is dedicated to his faith,” Armstrong said. “For him to be able to do that shows a lot of character.”
When asked why few Mormons play professional hockey, Mills replied that it might have something to do with the violent nature of the game, expensive equipment and reluctance by church members to practice and play on Sundays.
Although his conversion has mellowed him out a little, Mills maintains a competitive edge and still drops his gloves for an occasional fight.
“Tempers flare in a physical game like hockey, but my approach has changed a little bit,” he said. “I realized my purpose in life is not to be a pugilist. I will stand up for myself and my teammates but I’m not out there looking for a fight like I used to be.”
When he isn’t playing hockey, Mills enjoys visiting Temple Square, attending institute devotionals and going to church meetings. He has even met the missionary that baptized his father. Mills has set a goal to receive his temple endowment this summer.
At last Mills feels like he is on the right path.
“When I look back, it's like your entire life the Lord is reaching out to you, guiding and steering you, and it's a matter of how well can you follow directions,” Mills said. “I look back over my life and it's been little moments and big moments and they all seem to be fitting together and steering me to where I am now.”
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