By Meggie Hoegler
The Catholic Register
It does not get more Canadian, or Catholic, than a hockey team made up of priests. Throw in a good comeback story and you have the makings of a Canadian classic.
The Flying Fathers were a Canadian Catholic tradition for 45 years, dating back to 1963. What began as 12 priests playing a fundraiser game for local Catholic Youth Organization causes turned into a national showcase sometimes compared to the Harlem Globetrotters of basketball fame.
After being forced to disband in 2009 due to a lack of players, the team is making a comeback this month thanks to a chance encounter between two hockey-loving Catholics, Father John Perdue and former Flying Fathers general manager Frank Quinn.
The original cast of the Flying Fathers first took shape when Father Brian McKee, a newly ordained priest in North Bay, met a young boy whose teeth had been knocked out while playing hockey.
“It was just him and his single mother and funds were tight,” said Frank Cosentino, a former CFL quarterback. “He (Father McKee) was a noted athlete before going into the seminary so he decided to get a group of priests together to play a fundraiser game to help this little boy.”
The rest is history. Father McKee, along with former Toronto Maple Leafs player-turned-priest Father Les Costello, formed the Flying Fathers, dedicated to raising money for charity and keeping their fans laughing with as many outrageous stunts as they could get away with on ice.
They played over 900 games across the Canada and the United States and raised upwards of $4 million for various causes, including $240,000 for cancer research from one game at Maple Leaf Gardens. At their height, they even signed a contract with a Hollywood film studio to develop their story.
The story took a tragic turn in 2002 when Father Costello – whose hockey career included a Stanley Cup with the Leafs in 1948 – died at age 74, a week after hitting his head on the ice during a game.
Slowly, the team began to fizzle out. Most of the original players were in their 70s and too old to play. In March 2009, they played their last game … until Father Perdue came along.
A Peterborough, Ont., native, Father Perdue began playing hockey at age six. When he entered St. Augustine’s Seminary, he played every Friday night on a team sponsored by the St. Augustine’s Alumni Association.
“I’d heard about the Flying Fathers so I asked my fellow seminarians how to go about joining the team once I graduated,” said Father Perdue, 32. “Then I found out they had gone defunct because there were no young priests left to play.”
He put his hockey dreams on the back burner, until fate intervened.
“I met Frank Quinn while I was working at St. Peter in Chains (Cathedral) in Peterborough. He was one of the ushers there and one day we got to talking about the Flying Fathers. He told me he was their general manager. He still had the copyrights to the name, the old jerseys, and flyers. Basically, he was what was left of the Flying Fathers.”
Father Perdue and Quinn were eager to resurrect the team. Father Perdue started calling around to his friends from seminary. Before long he had put together a team of 12 priests from dioceses across Ontario, including Father Matthew McCarthy, an associate pastor at Holy Family parish in Whitby, Ont. Like Father Perdue, Father McCarthy grew up playing competitive hockey and cheering for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I’m always looking for any opportunity to play hockey and this is such a great one,” said Father McCarthy, 30. “Growing up, I never met a hockey-playing priest. Who knows, if I had I might have joined the seminary a lot sooner.”
When it comes to the Flying Fathers, it’s not just hockey, it’s a real show, from slapstick pies in the face to penalizing opponents two minutes for being a Protestant.
“The Flying Fathers were known for their on-ice antics. They once brought out a horse in goalie pads. He played net while the other team tried to score on him. There were lots of pies in the face and Sister Mary often made an appearance,” said Father Perdue, referring to Sister Mary Shooter. “One of the priests would dress in a full habit and would be the most aggressive player on the ice – crosschecking, slashing, it’s unexpected of Sister Mary, but that’s how she played.”
Father Perdue says the team is still planning the entertainment portion of the game. “We’re going to bring some things back, but we’re also going to try some new antics. Right now, we’re just trying to get everyone together for a practice before the game. It’s been tricky to coordinate with some of the priests living hours away.”
The idea of priests playing hockey is uncommon to say the least — especially when the Flying Fathers started.
“Back then, it was unheard of,” said Cosentino. “They had a parish to look after along with so many other duties. But they managed to convince Bishop Alexander Carter who dropped the ceremonial puck at the first game. They attracted a crowd of 3,500 people and raised enough money for both the Catholic Youth Organization and a charity for children with disabilities.”
It was the kind of success no one could argue with. The Flying Fathers played another game the following year in North Bay, attracting a crowd 5,000 strong. In 1964, it was the largest crowd Memorial Gardens had ever hosted.
Father Perdue says the uncommonness is what makes it so interesting – and crucial for priests to get involved.
“Hockey is such a major part of our Canadian culture. Especially here in Peterborough. For young people here to see that priests can play hockey too, it bridges the gap between us and them. It helps young people see priests as relatable. It’s patriotic absolutely, but it’s also human.”
“As priests, we do a lot of sitting,” said McCarthy. “This is a great way for us to get exercise.”