Canadian priests revive the legendary hockey team that plays for charity and good cheer
by Megan Hoegler
They were called the Harlem Globetrotters of hockey. From getting pies in the face to playing with tiny sticks as “penance” for penalties, the Flying Fathers combined crowd-pleasing antics with real skills on the ice.
Unlike the Globetrotters, however, the Flying Fathers wore a second uniform as well — the black clerics and Roman collars of Catholic priests. During their heyday in the 1960s and 70s, they played across North America and Europe, bringing communities together and raising millions of dollars for good causes.
Now, nearly a decade after the Flying Fathers left the ice, the team has been brought back to life. Led by Father John Perdue, 33, the vocation director for the Diocese of Peterborough, Ontario, a new troupe of priests have laced up their skates to fill arenas with laughter and raise funds for charity.
The roster is filled with members of the Knights of Columbus, and their games typically feature the “episcopal ordination” of the first scorer, rule-breaking shenanigans by Sister Mary Shooter, the hockey-playing nun, and other slapstick surprises.
“There’s been such a confluence of positivity in this revival,” said Father Perdue. “From the pure joy and athleticism involved, to the laity’s desire for a positive image of the priesthood, to the potential for attracting young vocations, God’s hand seems to be at play here.”
A TRADITION REBORN
Les Costello, left wing of the Stanley Cup-winning Toronto Maple Leafs, shocked the sports world in 1950 when he entered the seminary at age 22. While serving as a parish priest in northern Ontario, Father Costello cofounded the Flying Fathers Hockey Club in 1963 with Father Brian McKee, also a talented athlete, who was a member of North Bay (Ontario) Council 1007.
They started the club to raise money for a boy in North Bay who risked losing his vision if he did not receive costly eye surgery.
“The boy was being raised by a single mother, and money was tight,” recalled Frank Quinn, 73, the Flying Fathers’ longtime general manager and a member of Ernest J. Wolff Council 798 in Peterborough. “They raised $5,000, which back then was a fortune.”
The surgery was a success, but the team did not stop there. Over the next 40 years, they played more than 900 games across Canada, the United States and Europe, netting more than $4 million for local and national charities, parishes and foundations.
The Flying Fathers drew crowds wherever they went, and once enticed Peanuts creator and hockey aficionado Charles Schulz onto the ice, where he received a pie in the face. He enjoyed it so much that he asked for another.
In the 1980s, the team became such a sensation that Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios wanted to make a film out of their story. Wayne Gretzky even auditioned for a role, but the project eventually fizzled.
Father Costello continued playing into his 70s. He died tragically in 2002 at 74 after falling and hitting his head on the ice during a Flying Fathers game.
“I was devastated, but it’s a comfort knowing Father Les died doing what he loved — raising money for charity, serving the Lord and playing the game,” said Quinn. “What a way to go.” The turnout for Costello’s funeral was so large that it had to be held in a hockey arena.
With Father Costello no longer on the roster and more and more priests retiring, the Flying Fathers finally ran out of steam, playing their final game in 2008. Quinn packed up the old jerseys and memorabilia.
A retired police officer, Quinn kept busy with his K of C council and served as an usher at St. Peter in Chains Church in Peterborough. It was there that he met Father John Perdue, a young priest who shared Quinn’s passion for hockey.
“One day, Frank and I started talking about the Flying Fathers, and he mentioned he used to be their general manager,” said Father Perdue, a two-time junior hockey champion. “He still had the copyrights to the name, the old jerseys and original flyers. Basically Frank was what was left of the Flying Fathers.”
With Quinn’s blessing, Father Perdue reached out to seminary friends and soon had a dozen new priests donning the Flying Fathers jersey. Their first game, which took place January 2018, was a trial run to gauge community interest.
The Flying Fathers sold out a 600-seat arena in Ennismore, Ontario, and won the game 13-6. All proceeds went toward the vocation office of the Diocese of Peterborough.
“It ended up being a huge success,” said Father Perdue, who is a member of St. Alphonsus Council 11086 in Peterborough. “People were talking about the game for months. I had parishioners telling me how much fun their children had at the game and how cool it was to see their priest play hockey.”
The Flying Fathers continued their win streak into the 2019 season. They played three games in February — in Pembroke and Parry Sound, Ontario, and Fort-Coulonge, Québec — and won them all (thanks, in large part, to a “touchdown” they scored midway through each game when a football mysteriously materialized on the ice).
Even better, they raised more than $10,000 for local parishes, schools, and organizations such as a hospice center, a pregnancy support center, long-term care homes and Habitat for Humanity.
“We are now playing on a national level,” said Father Perdue. “We have guys on the team from Edmonton all the way to Halifax. We want to play across Canada and even internationally if we can.”
‘FOR A BETTER WORLD’
The Flying Fathers team is made up of a mix of young priests and original Flying Fathers, including Father John MacPherson, 55, who played from 1988 to 2008.
“We have a great dynamic going between the older original players and the new young guys,” said MacPherson, who serves as chaplain of Father Holden Council 5030 in Kentville, Nova Scotia.
One new player is Father Kris Schmidt, 33, a priest in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, who flew in for the games with the permission of his bishop.
“It was a great three days of hockey and getting to know my fellow priests,” said Father Schmidt, who is a member of Father Duncan MacDonnell Council 6363 in Fort Saskatchewan. “Initially I thought I’d have to wait and see if the Flying Fathers came out west, so I feel incredibly blessed to have gotten to play with them this year.”
In addition to raising money for charity, the games have “fostered a spirit of priestly fraternity,” Father Perdue said. “Sometimes we don’t get to spend as much time as we’d like with our fellow priest friends.”
Father Perdue also gets to spend time with his sister, a member of the Sisters of Our Lady Immaculate in Cambridge, Ontario. Sister Mary Catherine Perdue is better known by her stage name, Sister Mary Shooter, as she brings back one of the classic antics of the original Flying Fathers.
“She appears on the ice after the ref awards a penalty and skates down from center ice in her habit to score a goal,” Father Perdue explained.
Growing up, both of them spent a lot of time at the local rink.
“I would go to hockey practice, and she would go to figure skating practice,” said Father Perdue. “She also took drama in school, so she has this animated flair about her. We couldn’t ask for a better Sister Mary Shooter.”
Among the Fathers’ other guest players is Smitty the Clown, who is known to deliver an occasional pie to the face.
Pranks and showmanship aside, Quinn sees the team as a sign of hope in the Church. Ten years ago, he could not find any young priests to play; today, thanks to Perdue’s connections and a pope whose voice resonated with Catholic youth, he has been pleasantly surprised by the team’s resurgence.
“We have some great guys in their late 20s, early 30s,” said Quinn. “I think we have John Paul II to thank for that. I remember him speaking at World Youth Day [in Toronto] and saying, ‘God loves you.’ All the young people cheered, but then he wagged that little finger of his at them and said, ‘Yes, but God also expects a lot from you.’”
Father Justin Bertrand, 28, who is a priest in Fort-Coulonge, Québec, sees playing for the new Flying Fathers as part of his vocation.
“Our motto is playing and praying for a better world,” said Father Bertrand, a member of Fort-Coulonge Council 7221.
“Father Les used to say, ‘A Flying Fathers game is a success when you see a grandfather bouncing his grandson on his knee and they are both laughing and smiling. … Save the family and you save the world.’ The Church, and the world, needs more good news. That’s why this is a beautiful thing to do.”
MEGAN HOEGLER is a freelance writer based in Toronto.
The Flying Fathers 2019 Roster