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Hannons left troubled past, took divergent paths to Liberty

This article was written for Liberty University Club Sports. The published version (abridged for site use) can be found here, along with a sweet accompanying video piece by my talented friend Pat Strawn. The following is the full version of the story — enjoy!

Skate and Shoot from 1-4 p.m., weekdays at the local rink in Buffalo.

It’s where Jake and Luke Hannon spent nearly every afternoon growing up. The brothers shared school, karate and piano lessons, too; but their hours together on the ice stand out as crisply as a well-oiled wrist shot.

Two years younger, Luke spent most days scrambling to keep up with Jake and his friends. They logged hours of pickup hockey games, and later suited up for the same teams. They were family, of course, but their sport also helped Jake and Luke bond as friends.

“We’ve always been good buddies — especially when we were younger,” Jake grinned.

As the saying goes, though, all good things must come to an end. The duo’s endless hours together dwindled when 15-year-old Jake headed to prep school: living away from 12-year-old Luke and the rest of their family nine months out of the year. Self-proclaimed vagabonds, and both heavily involved in junior hockey, it wasn’t long before Luke followed suit.

“We both shipped out early, and we’d keep in touch,” Jake continued, “but as we got older, obviously we were going our different ways and doing our own things.”

For Luke, that meant sticking with juniors; playing until he was 20 for various high-level teams. Jake, meanwhile, moved on to college hockey — first at Army, for one year, then Amherst College for two.

The roads were different, but the stories much the same.

Far from home and family, Jake drifted from his faith as well.

“I pretty much just went after everything that my heart longed for,” he relayed. “Growing up, I was kind of the quiet, nice boy and sometimes an outsider. I always wanted to be cool and in the popular crowd — somebody that had value because of their social status.

“In college, I did pretty much whatever I could to be popular, and that involved hurting a lot of people and doing a lot of drugs and drinking a lot of beer and trying really, really hard at everything I did… I just wanted people to like me.”

At Amherst, Jake finally hit the pinnacle of popularity — the place, people and parties he had strived after so long — only to find that the means and end alike left him miserable.

“Sometimes God lets us have what we really want so we can see how empty it is,” Jake said. “I was a walking zombie in terms of real life. I thought I had life, and I really had death.”

Desperate for change and disillusioned with his dreams, Jake turned back to life in Christ.

“I believe I was a Christian since I was a kid, but I didn’t really know Jesus or understand God,” he explained. “To me, Jesus was just a perfect guy whose expectations I couldn’t live up to and probably hated me. Once I really met Jesus — and realized that he loved me and just wanted to hang out with me and forgave me and was so gentle and kind — that’s when my heart really changed. I started to be propelled toward Christ and living for the gospel.

“I realized that I didn’t have to be alive to the world anymore, but alive to Christ and the kingdom of God and, well, love, really. I was free to do God’s work and didn’t have to be bound by what society makes us feel like we have to be bound by… I realized I could do this thing for Jesus.”

With the change of heart came the desire for a change of environment. With the 2011 hockey season approaching, Jake thought of family friend Jeff Boettger, an assistant coach with Liberty University’s hockey program.

On a whim, Jake called the rink and explained his situation. It wasn’t long before he was lacing up his skates for the Flames, thriving on the blue line and eventually being named Defenseman of the Year.

As good as the hockey was, it was Jake’s off-ice experiences that he treasured the most. His new teammates shared his newfound faith. Christian music played in the locker room after games and post-practice church was a team affair. Handy and Boettger were not just coaches, but mentors.

“It was unbelievable, just unheard of in the hockey world,” he said. “I was like a sponge, especially having lived on the other side of the tracks for so long. Coming to Liberty and seeing what life was like with Christians, church, sermons, worship music and pastors… I literally ate it all up. I couldn’t get enough of it… I had so many unanswered questions and so many battles I had been fighting for so long, and there were so many answers in the gospel and what everybody taught me during that year.”

While everything came together for Jake at Liberty, that same 2011 season saw Luke’s dreams unravel.

The dynamic forward saw such success in his junior career as 27 goals and 32 assists in 43 games with the Ajax Attack in 2008-09. He notched another 20 goals and 24 assists the season after that with the Jersey Hitmen of the Eastern Junior Hockey League. The upward trajectory of his hockey career continued when he landed with the Waterloo (Iowa) Black Hawks of the United States Hockey League (USHL); his on-ice future increasingly bright.

One broken femur later, though, Luke found himself sidelined indefinitely.

Hockey on hold, he headed back to Buffalo, where he took up coaching a high school team and running a local youth hockey program of 300 kids.

Luke wasn’t in school, but his extracurricular activities (and spiritual life) paralleled Jake’s college years all the same.

“I was working full time, but my second occupation was the casino,” Luke said. “I was spending more days there than I wasn’t. I had a lot of fun doing it at the time, and I had a lot of success.”

Jake and the Flames coaching staff attempted to recruit Luke to Liberty; but between logistical struggles in the application process and self-admitted pride, it didn’t work out.

“It took me achieving all the things that I wanted financially and realizing that it wasn’t satisfying getting everything you wanted,” Luke relayed. “There’s more to it than that, but it took me a while to realize. I had to dive a little deeper into the ocean before I wanted to come back up for air.”

Until then, back to Buffalo and the casino it was.

566 miles away, Jake continued to build a life in Lynchburg. He married girlfriend Rebecca after graduation, working for Liberty’s online admissions department and staying involved with the Flames as team chaplain.

Before the 2013 season, Handy called up Jake to ask if he would consider rejoining the team — this time, behind the bench. Smarts his strength on the ice and coaching a long-time interest, it didn’t take him long to say yes.

“I honestly never envisioned myself getting the opportunity to coach, but it’s really fun,” Jake said. “I love coaching, love being around hockey everyday.”

The start of this season found Jake, with Rebecca and their two children, rooted and established lightyears away from any place — physical, spiritual or otherwise — he might have imagined himself years before.

Like karate lessons or afternoons at the rink, the inspiration and stability Jake found at Liberty were things he deeply desired to share with Luke. With prayer and open arms, he waited on God’s timing for his little brother.

Two weeks before the start of the Fall 2014 semester, a dissatisfied Luke visited Jake and his family. They played golf. Luke played with his niece and nephew. Both caught each other up on their respective lives, and neither expected to be back together anytime soon.

Then Luke went home and hit rock bottom.

“Through the next week I had some hardships. I lost a lot of money at the casino… things fell apart in my life financially, with relationships and friendships, and I didn’t have anywhere to turn,” Luke recalled. “I didn’t see a very good future for myself in Buffalo. I didn’t really see a future at all in my life, or know if I wanted to continue with it.”

On Wednesday, August 13, the start of Liberty’s fall semester five days away and his visit still fresh on his mind and heart, Luke picked up the phone as a last-ditch effort and called Jake.

“He called me on Wednesday morning and said, ‘Hey, what are the chances that I could get in [at Liberty] and play?’ And I was like—” Jake stopped short, then burst out laughing, still in disbelief months after the fact. “I was like, are you serious? He said, yeah; and I was like, no, are you serious? Because if you’re serious, we can make it happen.”

Serious was an understatement at that point.

Jake immediately went to work. He called his younger brother back that night with a 10 a.m. Thursday flight booked and a place for him at Liberty with the Flames. Luke had 15 hours to consider.

At the end of his rope and Jake a plane ride away, he packed his bags and went.

“On the flight here, I was a little reluctant still,” he admitted. “I knew that it was all I had — either here or maybe rehab — so it was tough for me, mentally, that first day coming down here.”

It didn’t help that 15 minutes in, the plane was forced to return to the Buffalo airport for a mechanical issue; reinforcing Luke’s second thoughts. He battled them out, got on the next flight, passed on the free alcoholic beverages offered to passengers for their inconvenience and tried praying instead.

“I needed to do this with a clear mind and an open heart, and I didn’t want anything to prohibit me from seeing the light in the situation,” Luke stated. “I sat back and said, ‘Hey, if there’s a God, just please reveal yourself.’”

And so God did.

The timely provision of a meal during an unexpected layover. A text from Handy asking if Luke would wear No. 14 during the season, a number of personal significance. The unusual ease of class registration and financial aid. One thing after another, until it was clear: Luke was right where he was supposed to be.

Sunday, he attended church with linemate Luke Simon and Division II (DII) goalie Connor Carew. Between the week’s experiences, his friends’ influence and a compelling message, everything finally clicked. Luke stumbled to the altar and gave his life to Christ.

He has since soaked up life at Liberty like a sponge.

“It feels like I’ve been here for a couple years,” he said. “I’ve learned more in the past few months than I ever would have imagined; and mentally, physically, emotionally I think I’m at a place where I’m able to rest and just be thankful for everything… [Liberty] is a very nurturing place to be.”

No one better understands — or is more thankful for — Luke’s transformation than Jake.

“Luke and I were always really tight… but how close can you be when, you know, you’re basically living in pure evil? And both of us were,” Jake said with a laugh and a grimace. “There were rifts because of that, obviously, and we both got confused, but God saved us and brought us back together.”

Back from the brink and together at the rink — familiar territory for the brothers, albeit with a new dynamic. The two played together growing up, after all, but never before had one coached the other.

“I don’t know that it’s easier or harder. It’s just different,” Jake said of coaching Luke. “I try to remove myself as much as possible when I coach him — I mean, it’s my brother, I love him, but we both know we have roles and a job to do.”

“It’s a winning tradition here,” Luke added. “Having Jake as my coach — especially with him over the forwards this year — has been super fun, but he’s gotta treat everybody the same and makes me work hard for ice time.”

It helps, of course, that Luke happens to be pretty good at hockey.

No one watching him anchor the Flames top line would guess Luke was three years out from his last competitive game. He’d kept up with his skating and handling, developed an X’s and O’s knowledge coaching and maintained toughness playing pickup hockey and the occasional professional roller hockey tournament. He shines on the ACHA DI level.

“He’s obviously a smart player. He’s got a really good shot, good hands and a knack for scoring goals,” Jake said. “He plays with a lot of intensity, too. He hits and he’s not afraid to go in the corners… he’s a good, all-around player.”

After one semester with the Flames, Luke leads the league with 56 points in 24 games. He was named an alternate captain and recently became the first-ever Liberty hockey player selected to represent Team USA in the Winter World University Games this February.

Asked about his achievements so far, Luke is quick to point to all his coaches, crediting their hockey knowledge for putting him in position to succeed. There’s no denying the especial love for his big brother, though.

“I know he gets excited when I score, but he doesn’t even have to say anything,” Luke grinned. “I can just look at him and know he’s excited or he’s proud of me.”

But just in case, Jake says it anyway.

“Yeah, I’m definitely proud of how he’s doing,” he beamed.

Of all that the two have shared over the years, their redemption stories and the mutual affection grown from (or despite) them is their favorite.

“I think I was avoiding making a change in my own life for a few years, and I just couldn’t give up the things I was surrounding myself with every day,” Luke said. “Seeing Jake transform his life pretty radically was really inspirational, and being able to grow as a player and a person here with him as my role model has been the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

“I couldn’t be more thankful for such a good brother. We’ve been through a lot together. For us to reconnect and him to help me through the most pivotal transition in my life has been very humbling.”

“We had to wait a while for God’s timing to kick in, but the work he’s been doing in Luke’s life and our family’s as a whole has been amazing,” Jake added.

Both brothers have come a long way since their childhood afternoons at the rink, but they’re thankful to be back sharing what they love most: God, their friendship and the game of hockey.

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