Former hockey star who founded Woodbury church dies at age 62
A renowned Minnesota hockey player and the founder of a Woodbury congregation died last month after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
The Rev. Frank Sanders Jr. died Feb. 17 at the age of 62.
Sanders, who later became a Woodbury resident, left a budding professional hockey career in the 1970s to pursue the ministry. He would later found the Woodbury-based Spirit of Life Bible Church.
The choice to leave hockey to pursue the ministry was pivotal, said Tony Ducklow, a Spirit of Life parishioner who co-authored Sanders' biography.
"He never looked back," Ducklow said.
Sanders began turning heads on the ice rink while attending North St. Paul High School.
"It was evident right away that he was such a big, natural athlete," Ducklow said.
A defenseman, Sanders went on to play for the University of Minnesota. He captained the Gophers to a WCHA title and led them to a second-place finish for the NCAA national championship.
Sanders had been offered a contract to play with the Boston Bruins, but turned it down to play in the 1972 Olympics. An enforcer on the ice, Sanders made Team USA, which won the silver medal at the Olympics.
"He said that was the best decision he ever made," Ducklow said.
After playing in the Olympics, Sanders signed with the Minnesota Fighting Saints in the WHA - a team that was eager to showcase the hometown star.
"Frank obviously was a star locally," Ducklow said.
He played one season with the Saints, where he competed against such hockey legends as Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe.
After that lone season, however, Sanders became conflicted. He felt a calling to the ministry - one that Ducklow said he'd felt since childhood.
"He said, 'I had no idea I'd become a hockey star,'" Ducklow recalled.
Sapped by feelings of misery over the conflict, he finally turned away from hockey after the one season with the Saints.
"He shocked everyone," Ducklow said.
Sanders attended seminary school and became a youth minister for several years. He also experienced failure in his new quest, Ducklow said - an attempt to start a church in Albert Lea, Minn., was unsuccessful, as was an effort to become an evangelist.
But about 10 years ago, the struggles paid off, Ducklow said. That was when Sanders opened Spirit of Life.
The church began with Sanders as the preacher and about 15 congregants. Today the congregation numbers about 250, Ducklow said.
"He did a really remarkable job," he said of Sanders' work at the church.
Ducklow said he'll remember Sanders as a man "with enthusiasm for everything" and a willingness to pour his heart into a commitment.
"There wasn't a fake bone in his body," Ducklow said. "What you saw with Frank was what you got. And it was awfully good."