With Pope St. John Paul II on one side and a picture of Our Lady on the other, Jason Muzzatti took the world stage at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin as goaltender for the Italian hockey team. His quiet life of faith was displayed prominently for all the world to see. And like the Shroud of Turin, that goalie mask garnered little more than a passing glance or comment from those who saw it. But that suits Jason Muzzatti just fine. “Nobody has ever even asked about it,” he said.
Jason Muzzatti was born and raised in Toronto, Canada, to Italian parents, eventually making his way to Michigan State University where he studied and played over 120 hockey games before being drafted into the NHL in 1988. He played 10 years in the NHL before moving to Europe, where he would play in various leagues. In 2001, he moved to Italy and played for two teams, obtaining his dual citizenship while there by merits of his parents’ Italian origins. In 2006, he took the world stage in the Winter Olympics for Italy with an opening game against his home country of Canada. Though the Italians lost or tied all of their games in those Olympics, Muzzatti garnered a lot of attention for his playing — but not for his mask.
The 2006 Winter Olympics occurred within a year of Pope John Paul II’s passing from this life and so, as Jason was playing for the Italian team in Italy, it would seem an appropriate way to honor this great man who touched and changed so many lives. But for Jason Muzzatti, his mask represented much more than that. Unique to the game of hockey, Jason tells us, “a goalie puts things that are important to him on his mask. I was proud to have [John Paul II] on it.” Muzzatti chose the late Pope and Our Lady; for Jason, this was the culmination of a life of faith.
Long before the mask, Jason was born to devout Catholic parents who made sure that all four of their children understood the importance of the faith in their lives. “My sister and my mom [and I] would go to Mass every Sunday. We’d sit in the front row and bring up the gifts. I was an altar boy.” Muzzatti credits his parents and his Catholic school formation as the foundation for his life of deep Catholicity. “I don’t know if there’s anything more important.” He also highly praises Catholic schools, saying, “[there is no] money better spent … [Catholic school] is critical.” Jason’s three children now attend parochial school in their home state of Michigan.
More than just a devout faith, the mask tells of personal struggle and triumph his family had faced in recent years.
Tragedy struck when Jason was thirteen, when his mother died from cancer. “It kind of forced a maturity into the household. That was the impactful point of my life. It forces you to either sink or swim. So I think all of us kids … became fighters. I knew my mom loved me — she told me every day — and that the faith was important, and that always stuck with me.” Jason’s dad passed several years later and before he had children of his own. “I always figured even though I lost my mom, I still had my dad, but that’s not the way it works. Now when you’re a parent, it would be awesome to have our moms and dads to help us through. People always talk about trying to cherish the moment. When you have something like that happen, it’s obviously kind of ingrained in you; you don’t need the reminder.” Passing the faith onto his own children is the main way Jason tries to honor his parents because of the deep importance and impact his parents’ faith made on him.
During their time in Europe, Jason and his family went on a tour of Rome. “We went down to Rome and asked our concierge, ‘We’d like to go to a general audience if we could get tickets.’” While the concierge worked on their request, the Muzzattis went to tour the Vatican and stumbled into a Mass. They were approached by a gentleman who asked them, “Are you here for the Mass?” Not knowing any better, they said yes and were ushered inside. “All of a sudden, Pope John Paul II walked out to the front of this Mass and he did the Mass. My wife and I had chills.”
Back at the hotel, the concierge had another surprise for them: two tickets to the Pope’s General Audience. Not ones to miss an opportunity to again see the man they so dearly loved, the Muzzattis went to the General Audience with their one-year-old son. “We were at the back … and he entered in the Popemobile. I was holding my son out and my wife had the camera and he went by us … we thought ‘maybe we aren’t close enough.’ My wife was really disappointed.”
But that disappointment would be short-lived. What happened next is nothing short of divine intervention. Jason tells us, “One of the handlers came over to us and said, ‘We missed you. Come with me.’ He brought us to the front row and said, ‘We missed you. Come up at the end … and you’ll get a blessing.’ [At the end], this guy comes up and says, ‘Solo il bambino e la mama.’ Which means “Just the baby and mom go.” So they walked up with him, they were the last ones, and she held [the baby] out. But I couldn’t see!” A group unknowingly walked right into his line of vision and he couldn’t see his family with the Pope or take any pictures. That inconvenience didn’t dampen the moment, though. “They came back and my wife was emotional, obviously, and people, strangers, were just trying to touch my son. I’d never seen that!”
A little saddened by their lack of pictures, the Muzzattis tracked down the official Vatican photographer at his shop in Rome before they had to catch their train out. “We said, ‘The Pope kissed our baby,’ and he said, ‘I don’t take pictures of that.’ I said, ‘No, it wasn’t down the aisle, it was at the end.’” The photographer told them that just didn’t happen but promised to go look anyway. “He came back with four photos of Pope John Paul II holding my son, kissing him on the forehead, my wife holding him out. Incredible photos.” They thanked the man profusely and joyously returned home with their pictures, which are now prominently displayed in their permanent Michigan dwelling.
When it came time for the 2006 Winter Olympics, there was no question how Jason Muzzatti would decorate his goalie mask. “I was inspired to do it. I was proud to do it. I’m not an in-your-face with my faith kind of guy, I was just proud to do it.” Besides a passing phrase from a commentator or a “thank you” from a priest, no one asked Jason about his very Catholic goalie mask, which he didn’t mind. The mask was his way to thank God for the blessings given to him and his family and he didn’t need the affirmation or approval of anyone else.
These days, Jason, his wife, and their three children enjoy a quiet, faith- and hockey-filled life in Michigan. At one point, another of the Muzzattis’ children was stillborn at six months’ gestation and the choice of a name was obvious: his name would be John Paul.
Jason still coaches and consults within the hockey world, and his three kids all play hockey — even his daughter. Jason and Wendy pass on the gift of the faith to their children, giving it a place of primacy in their lives even when ice times interfere. All of the Muzzatti children attend Catholic school and the couple are also active in their parish. They live a relatively quiet, stable life of faith, not being ones to parading it out for all to see.
And that’s the apex of Muzzatti’s faith: live it out in everything you do and, when the opportunity is right, let everyone know. “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you” (Matthew 6: 5-6).