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Local priest's prayers answered with salvaged hockey season

SAN ANTONIO — Father Leonard Plazewski started tweeting on Sept. 8. Because the pope told him to.

He tweeted about a wedding at which he was officiating. He tweeted about the Pastoral Council at Christ the King Catholic Church in South Tampa, where he is pastor. He tweeted about grading religion tests, going to the dentist, getting a new iPhone.

After one week, the 47-year-old priest had posted two dozen messages.

And started pontificating about his other true passion.

"It is a sad day," he tweeted Sept. 16. "Another NHL lockout has begun."

• • •

Father Len, as everyone calls him, grew up in San Antonio in Pasco County. He and his three brothers attended Jesuit High in Tampa. Other than watching the 1980 Winter Olympics on TV, he had never seen hockey.

Ten years later, he was just finishing seminary when his younger brother asked him to come to the old Thunderdome (now Tropicana Field) to watch a game. The NHL was hosting an exhibition, thinking of adding another team.

"It was love at first sight," said Father Len.

When the Lightning landed in Tampa Bay, Father Len and his brother Will bought season tickets — and have held them ever since. They sit 10 rows from the ice, on the side with the penalty box.

The priest swears he never prays that the Lightning win. He doesn't think God cares who wins. "He's too busy worrying about our eternal salvation." But when a player is hurt, or a coach is sick, or someone in the organization is struggling, he adds them to the prayer list at his church.

All fall, he prayed that the lockout would end. That the hockey season would resume. "It wasn't just for me," he said. "It was much more altruistic. I prayed for everyone else invested in the game, too."

"Heading to the 'Sin Bin,' ... time to hear confessions," the priest posted Sept. 26.

The next day, he tweeted: "NHL cancels remainder of preseason schedule."

• • •

People ask him, all the time: How can you be a priest and like hockey? It's so violent.

"It's so much more civilized than football," Father Len replies. Really, he said, it's a release. A chance to escape for a few hours.

"Sadly all regular season NHL games canceled through Oct. 24," he tweeted the first week in October. "We need some divine intervention and soon!"

On the nights he would have been yelling at a Lightning game, the priest ate dinner at different parishioners' homes, went over budgets for the new church school building, graded middle school papers.

"Finally the NHL and the players union are talking again," he tweeted Oct. 10. "Perhaps we need to get the Pope to intervene."

Maybe it was good the hockey season got canceled, he tried to tell himself. He had to oversee the church school construction, baptize a bunch of babies, help shepherd the youth group. Maybe he needed the extra time to do God's will.

"Awful news: all NHL games canceled through November 30," he posted the last week of October, on his way to visit parishioners at the hospital.

"Come on, NHL. Solve your labor dispute and bring back hockey," he tweeted on Election Day. "It would be nice to have some good news for a change."

• • •

When workers poured cement at the new church school, the priest scrawled, "Go Lightning!!!" in the wet sidewalk.

On his birthday, Nov. 11, he blew out the candles on his cake and told everyone, "I bet you know what I wished for." But the NHL owners and players kept arguing and the fall crawled by without him ever donning his blue and silver jersey.

"Is there no end to this madness?" the priest posted Nov. 23.

Thanksgiving came and went. Without hockey.

By December, even the man of faith had all but given up hope. Negotiations were stalled.

"Ok, the world did not end last night, but more importantly, the NHL canceled another 2 weeks of the hockey season," Father Len tweeted. "Indeed the end is near!"

• • •

He had just finished the 7:30 a.m. Mass on Sunday — the 113th day of the lockout — when one of his parishioners stopped to shake his hand. Had he heard the good news? He hadn't.

In the few free minutes before the next service, the priest ducked into his office and logged onto his laptop, checked NHL.com. He texted his brother. Then he tweeted this:

"The best Epiphany present ever; there will be hockey this year!!! The NHL owners and players have reached a deal!"

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Reach Lane Degregory at degregory@tampabay.com.

Local priest's prayers answered with salvaged hockey season 01/07/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 8, 2013 7:30am]
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