‘Something more’: One man’s journey from hockey prospect to Catholic seminarian

Josh French walks into Cottage Grove Ice Arena, a black and purple Minnesota State hockey bag slung over his shoulder. It’s one of the many Twin Cities rinks the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis seminarian frequented while he grew up. Today, the former Division I hockey player and professional prospect is meeting his older brother for an early-afternoon skate and a trip back — and forward — in time.

It’s mid-February, and the first time in a year French has laced up his skates.

Instead, he’s been spending each morning in front of the Eucharist for an hour, attending daily Mass and pouring himself into philosophy studies and his relationship with Jesus Christ, whom French believes called him to discern the priesthood. He recently returned from a trip to Rome with members of his class, and earlier in January he went on a mission trip to Cambodia.

“God truly does everything for the good,” French says. “It’s been such a blessing to kind of receive all these things in my life and have God just bring so much fruit from them.”


French, his parents, his two older brothers and younger sister lived in St. Cloud until Josh was 12. His earliest memories involve him pushing an orange skating trainer around the ice, grinding his wooden stick down to almost nothing on roller skates during the summer in the family’s cul-de-sac, and learning breakaway moves from his father, Monte, at an outdoor rink every winter.

“God truly does everything for the good. It’s been such a blessing to kind of receive all these things in my life and have God just bring so much fruit from them.” — Josh French, seminarian, Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis

The elder French played collegiately for legendary coach Herb Brooks at St. Cloud State and later Ferris State. When he wasn’t visiting local golf retailers as a sales rep for Titleist, Monte was teaching his sons the Catholic family’s favorite pastime.

Josh was rarely the biggest or fastest player on any of his youth teams. But Monte taught him how to think the game, not just play it.

josh french carrying the puck up the ice for minnesota state hockey
Seminarian Josh French played for Minnesota State from 2016-2020. Courtesy Minnesota State athletics

Josh French didn’t even make varsity until his junior year at Hill-Murray High School. But the countless hours of ice time and early-morning practices since he began playing the sport as a toddler began to pay off.

After a game in South St. Paul, a Minnesota State assistant coach offered him a scholarship. “That was a huge gift,” French said.

It’s common for Division I hockey players to spend a year or two at the junior level, and Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings — a college teammate and longtime friend of Monte’s — made clear this would be the expectation for French. He spent two years living with a host family and playing for the United States Hockey League’s Omaha Lancers.

“I missed my high school graduation to try out for the Lancers,” French says with a laugh now.

josh french with omaha lancers hockey teammates
French led the Omaha Lancers USHL junior hockey team in points and assists in 2015-16.

After leading Omaha in points and assists in 2015- 16, French debuted for Minnesota State — a public university with an enrollment of about 15,000 in Mankato. The Mavericks finished first in the West Coast Hockey Association regular-season standings in 2017-18 and 2018-19, with a conference tournament title in 2019 and a pair of NCAA tournament berths.

That set up the makings of a spectacular senior season for French and a team that brought back a glut of talent. Minnesota State lost only four games in regulation all season, claimed its third consecutive regular-season conference crown, and had its sites firmly set on making it past the first round of the national tournament for the first time since the program joined Division I in 1996.

At the same time, French had signed a tender to join the East Coast Hockey League’s Adirondack Thunder — a minor league affiliate of the New Jersey Devils — when his collegiate season ended. He’d been dating the same girl for a couple of years and saw a future with marriage and the chance to climb the professional hockey ranks.

“My life was going one way,” French said. Then COVID-19 happened.


Part of the beauty of hockey is the sounds of it: skate edges scratching the ice, stick blades cracking against frozen rubber pucks, each team’s unique goal horn when the red light goes on indicating a score.

In March of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic smashed the mute button.

The WCHA and NCAA didn’t survive a near virtual shutdown of sports in North America that spring. The ECHL canceled the rest of its season, as well, and French’s contract was negated.

“It was actually a huge blessing,” French said.

The time in limbo allowed him to undergo a long-delayed back surgery. More importantly, though, it gave him a lot of time to be with his family and reflect on the future now that his hockey career hung in the balance. Something else had been nagging French besides the fractured transverse processes in his spine.

seminarian josh french sitting in bleachers at cottage grove ice hockey arena
“[God’s] plan for my life is so much better than anything that I’ve ever thought of for myself,” French said.
During juniors and his first year of college, French admits, he succumbed to the many temptations that come with being a high-level athlete. Booze. Girls. An inflated sense of self.

Born and raised Catholic, French stopped going to Mass.

“I relate to the prodigal son a lot,” French said. “I found I didn’t want anything to do with God the Father.”

Then Minnesota State’s third-string goalie, Aaron Nelson, invited his teammate to a Bible study. Diving into Scripture opened French’s heart. He returned to Mass. He went to confession for the first time in seven years.

And during a mission trip his sophomore year, he felt like God might be calling him to become a priest.

“It was very confusing,” French said. “I just kind of recently returned to the faith. I didn’t know what to do with that.”

The thought sat in his heart for about two years. The quiet during shutdown brought clarity.

“It allowed God’s voice to enter back in,” French said. “I’d kind of been ignoring it and [dealing with] a lot of noise. And so during that time, where things slowed down, where there was silence, more time for prayer, God made it very clear that He was calling me to something more — to the seminary.

“I just could never have imagined that, but it’s such a blessing.”

There would be much more silence.


In 2021, French was one of the seminarians in The Saint Paul Seminary’s first “propaedeutic” year — a new stage of formation required by the Church that calls for a vigorous focus on one’s human formation. Tangibly, this means a fast from all tech and media for most of the week, lengthy small group and one-on-one counseling discussion, and hours and hours of silent prayer.

There was a time when French wanted to leave his former life completely behind. But careful prayer, reflection and work with the seminary’s priest and lay staff have shown him every experience he’s had is part of the journey, whether it ends with ordination or not.

“God made it very clear that He was calling me to something more.” — French

“All the natural virtue that you kind of learn from being with your teammates, discipline and hard work and being on a team, all the hard things that you go through, all the suffering, having God use all of that for the good,” French said. “He’s used me to connect with people in other sports or kids going through similar things. It’s been such a blessing for me just for God to use my story in some sort of way to help others.”

The story is far from over. French still has at least four more years before he’d be ordained a priest.

But whatever the future holds, French is confident he’ll be where God wants him.

“His plan for my life is so much better than anything that I’ve ever thought of for myself,” French said.

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