At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, Frank Sanders was a giant of a hockey player, a bruising defenseman who protected his teammates with his muscle and his might.

But off the ice, the puck star turned preacher was well known as a softie.

"His teammates always teased him," said his daughter, Jennifer Mains. "He was this big tough guy on the exterior, but he was always mush on the inside."

Sanders, a former local high school, college and professional hockey player and longtime minister in Woodbury, died Feb. 17 after a year-long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 62.

Sanders enjoyed success at nearly every level of hockey, playing in the state high school tournament, the national college championship game and the 1972 Winter Olympics before turning professional with the Minnesota Fighting Saints.

But for all of his athletic accomplishments, it was his work in the pulpit that brought him his greatest joy.

"People didn't really understand when he walked away from playing, but he just felt like that was the right thing for him to do," Mains said.

Growing up in Oakdale, Sanders dreamed of becoming a minister and often preached to his sisters and their dolls after returning from church.

He also spent long hours in winter honing his skating and puckhandling skills in pickup games on nearby Tanners Lake. He didn't play organized hockey until eighth grade, but by high school, he and longtime friend Craig Sarner led their North St. Paul Polars to the 1967 state high school hockey tournament.

"If we were behind going into the third period, I'd just catch his eye and he'd give me a small nod like he was saying, 'Now we've got to turn it up,' " Sarner said. "And he always had the ability to do it."

Sanders' athletic prowess led to a scholarship at the University of Minnesota, where, as a senior, he was the most valuable player and captain of the Gophers team that advanced to the national championship before losing to Boston University. His play impressed the National Hockey League's Boston Bruins, who offered him a professional contract. Instead, Sanders joined the U.S. team that won a silver medal at the 1972 Olympic Games in Sapporo, Japan.

Months later, Sanders signed professionally with the Fighting Saints of the upstart World Hockey Association. A hard-nosed defenseman, he was one of the team's enforcers.

"He was like a safety blanket," said Sarner, who also played with Sanders on the Gopher and Olympic teams. "You knew if he was on the ice, he would protect you."

One Saints promotional poster from that era shows Sanders "pounding the snot out of another guy in the middle of the ice," Mains said. Yet if he fought in a game, Sanders often would seek out his opponent afterward and apologize.

"He would never want to hurt anybody," said Tony Ducklow, a family friend.

After a year with the Saints, Sanders surprised his teammates and coaches by quitting the game to pursue the ministry. He told Ducklow years later that despite his athletic success, he wasn't happy.

"In the middle of the night he'd crawl out of his bed, go into another room and just cry like a baby, because deep down in his soul, he wasn't doing what he thought he should be doing," Ducklow said.

Sarner said that he never saw Sanders "more animated and more passionate" than when he was ordained in 1978. "I totally understood then why he did it."

After graduating from the Apostolic Bible Institute, Sanders worked as a youth minister while employed fulltime as a service manager for AmeriPride Services. In 2001, he was one of 15 people who started the Spirit of Life Bible Church in Woodbury. Today, it serves 225 members.

"He said, 'There are a lot of hurting people,' " Ducklow said. "He wanted a place where people could get a second chance. He said 'Our job is to love them, to love everybody who is coming in.' "

Despite his illness, Sanders worked with Ducklow to complete a book about his life titled "From Silver to Gold." And he continued to work at the church until his final weeks, sometimes showing up in a wheelchair, his daughter said.

Several weeks before Sanders died, he told Sarner that he wasn't afraid of death, but would greatly miss working to help so many.

"That's a total fulfillment for him," Sarner said. "I remember after the [Olympic] medal ceremony, he was happy, but the biggest part of his happiness was for everybody else in the room, not for Frank Sanders. That's how he got his kick."

Sanders was preceded in death by an infant son. In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife, Kathy, sons Timothy and Jeremy, 10 grandchildren and four siblings.

Services have been held.

Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425