The hockey priests
A Pillar reading (and watching) list
With the Colorado Avalanche set to clinch Lord Stanley’s Cup on Friday night, The Pillar brings you some very cool stories of priests - and a bishop - playing hockey.
“Check” them out:
The real deal — Fr. Les Costello
Fr. Les Costello was born to do two things: play hockey, and be a priest.
Born in 1928 in South Porcupine, Ontario, Costello played hockey growing up alongside his brother Murray, who would eventually make it to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
In his late teens, Les joined Toronto’s St. Michael’s Majors, a “major junior” hockey team that became a feeder for the NHL. Playing at the highest level of amateur hockey, Costello won two Canadian Hockey League championships with the Majors, hoisting the Memorial Cup in 1945 and 1947 - and narrowly losing in the finals of the 1946 season.
In 1947, Costello turned pro, suiting up for the Toronto Maple Leafs of the National Hockey League during their run to winning the Stanley Cup in 1948 - and scoring a pair of playoff goals in the process.
He played only 15 games with Maple Leafs the next season, spending most of the season, and the 1949-1950 season, with the Pittsburgh Hornets of the minor league AHL.
But while his career still looked promising, Costello retired from hockey after the 1949 season. He was ready to apply for the seminary. When his brother Murray headed for training camp in 1950, Les headed to Toronto for priestly formation.
Les was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Timmins, Ontario, and soon became a pastor. But he wasn’t done with hockey — Costello played exhibition hockey with the Flying Fathers, a team of priests, for almost all his priesthood.
The priest died in December 2002, at age 74, after he fell onto the ice while skating at an exhibition hockey game. Hitting his head, Costello went into a coma and died a few days later.
Thousands attended his funeral, remembering him as a friend of the poor, generous to a fault, and a tireless pastor.
The Flying Fathers
In 1963, Fr. Costello organized a group of priests to play a charity hockey game, aiming to raise money for a local boy who had expensive medical bills.
The priests raised a lot of money in their game, and Costello realized that if he took the show on the road, the men could do some good in other Canadian communities.
With Costello and another hockey-loving priest, Fr. Brian McKee, the “Flying Fathers” began to play exhibition games across Ontario, raising money for local parishes or families in need.
Soon they began playing in the U.S., and then made a tour of Europe. They eventually played about 25 games a year — and by 1987, the team estimated that at least 100 priests had suited up for the Flying Fathers.
The group had raised more than $3 million for charities and parishes by 1987, with an exhibition performance that combined hockey with hijinks — think of them as the Harlem Globetrotters on ice, but ordained.
From the beginning, the games were humorous.
In the very first Flying Fathers game, played against local policemen, Costello borrowed a set of handcuffs from the police chief, and handcuffed the police goalie to a goal post — after which, the priests scored a lot of goals.
But the priests slowed it down in 1987 — they were having trouble recruiting new players, and the players found their schedules full with pastoral duties. The team went from 25 games each year to 14. But they kept playing.
It was at a 2002 Flying Fathers game that Fr. Costello fell, with a puck stuck in his skate. The priest hit his head, and died soon after. He was the heart of the Flying Father — and in 2008, the team disbanded.
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Flying Fathers 2.0
In 2018, another Ontario priest, Fr. John Perdue, decided to bring the Flying Fathers back together.
He organized 14 priests and a religious sister - his own sister - from across Ontario, and they formed the new Flying Fathers.
The team did not play as many games as the original Flying Fathers — Perdue is now assigned to studies in Rome — but they aimed to emulate the “praying and playing” approach of the original Flying Fathers, during games in 2018 and 2019, which raised money for the vocations office in the Diocese of Peterborough.
Father David Bauer
David Bauer was a hockey prospect at 16, with an offer in 1940 to join a farm team for the Boston Bruins. He turned it down, convinced God was calling him to become a priest. He didn’t know he’d become a hockey legend anyway.
But after Bauer was ordained a priest of the Basilian Fathers in 1953, he became a coach of the St. Michael’s Majors. From there, he went on to coach at the University of British Columbia, where the Basilians had a presence, winning the college national championship in 1963.
Shortly after that victory, Canada’s hockey federation asked Bauer to put together an all-star national team of amateurs for the 1964 Olympics; before that the reigning champion amateur team represented Canada in international competition.
Fr. Bauer scouted the country for great players, putting a focus on character and discipline.
His team started practicing in September 1963, more than a year before the Olympics. While the team didn’t medal at the ‘64 games, Bauer’s place in Canadian national hockey was set. The priest managed the national teams for several world championships, and for the 1968 and 1980 Winter Olympics.
He often celebrated Mass in his players’ homes, and hr arranged for the Canadian national team to meet Pope Paul VI after the 1968 Olympics.
Canada withdrew from international ice hockey competition in the 1970s, because of a dispute about whether professionals should be allowed to play. So Bauer coached the Austrian national team and at hockey schools in Japan that decade, while continuing to teach at Catholic schools and universities in Canada.
The priest managed the 1980 national team, and put together the 1984 roster, while becoming a vice-president of Hockey Canada.
All the while, Bauer aimed to use hockey to form young men for character and virtue. He often told coaches that: “If you improve the boy as a person, he will improve as a hockey player.”
The priest died of pancreatic cancer in 1988.
Bauer is widely considered the father of the Canadian national hockey team program, and is a hockey legend in Canada.
The ‘holy goalie’ of Springfield
Bishop Tom Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, started suiting up as a goaltender in eighth grade. At 69, today, the bishop still takes to the ice regularly.
Check out the “holy goalie,” as he’s called, who has practiced with the Chicago Blackhawks, and spends a lot of time making saves — on the ice, and in the confessional —
[Editor’s note: That “making saves” joke was pretty corny. Really just terrible. But we couldn’t help it. Sorry.]
The St. Louis pontiff
Pope St. John Paul II was a great athlete — an outdoorsman who loved kayaking, hiking, and skiing.
He played a little bit of hockey in his native Poland, and enjoyed ice skating even in his priesthood.
So in a visit to St. Louis in 1999, the pope received a St. Louis Blues jersey and a hockey stick.
“So I am prepared to return once more to play hockey,” the pope told a crowd of 20,000 St. Louis Catholics, as he admired his hockey stick.