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Back in the day comedy duos were the in thing. Instead of the family lining up to watch the boob tube, they gathered around the radio to listen to their favourite source of entertainment. During the 1930’s and 1940’s, and even during the early days of the 20th century’s fifth decade, “Laurel and Hardy”, “Amos 'n' Andy”, “Fibber McGee and Molly”, “Burns and Allen”, and “Ozzie and Harriet” stimulated the funny bones of thousands listeners from kindergarten kids to old age pensioners during the evenings as these comedians worked their magic.
But there was one team which outshone them all — Abbott and Costello. They were rated as number one on the laughter parade. Their routine, like some of their contemporaries, was classed as “slapstick” — better seen than explained. Lou Costello played the scatterbrain, while Bud Abbott countered as the “straight man” — keeping things both sensible and under control.
Their debut took place on the stage of the famous Minsky’s Burlesque in New York City. But their act really took off while performing their signature “Who’s On First?” on Kate Smith’s Radio Hour. Within three years they were dubbed the “Kings of Comedy”.
All of these performers eventually transferred to TV — although their success was limited in that media form. But they also were featured in shorter black and white movies, which had the audiences rolling with laughter in the aisles of theatres.
What made people chuckle in that era fell into a different category than today’s offerings. For one thing, censorship kept humour within given bounds. And rather than explain the variation in taste, any reader can take a short trip to YouTube and sample these vintage shows.
Bud and Lou were at home together on the stage. George and Les were never even in the same league, so never on the ice at the same time — let alone on the same NHL roster. Their personalities were completely opposite. Abbott was unassuming and moderate — his peers would have tagged him as “square”. Costello was boisterous and profane, going out of his way to be a “regular feller”.
Their routes to the Big Time were totally different. One common denominator was that they were both clergymen — again in two different lines of service. One was a Baptist minister, the other a Roman Catholic priest. They also shared aspirations to make hockey their vocation — but switched gears in the most dramatic fashion.
Perhaps they took their cue from the famous evangelist, Billy Sunday. He signed with the Chicago White Stockings in 1883, where he displayed remarkable talent as a base stealer and an acrobatic outfielder. After two moves, one to Pittsburgh and another to Philadelphia, in 1891 he requested his release from baseball so that he night pursue his calling to the Christian ministry.
Rev. George Abbott was born in Sydenham, Ontario in 1911, and, like most Ontario boys, he fantasized about wearing the uniform of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (His dream did eventually come true, in a way). He had been playing for the Dunnville Mudcats, an AAA Senior club, performing well enough to earn a try-out with the Ontario Senior “A” OHA Hamilton Tigers. But his opportunity was almost immediately halted when he was hit in the eye with a deflected shot during a team workout. For the most part that spelled “finis” to his pay-for-play aspirations.
With that door apparently closed he did some serious soul searching and entered the Baptist ministry as an alternate pursuit in life. When World War II broke out, the newly-ordained pastor was assigned as a chaplain among the troops in Toronto, under the umbrella of the “Soldiers and Airman’s Christian Association”.
Like the old idiom has it about those born and bred in the country: “You can take the boy out of the farm, but not the farm out of the boy!” Applying that to hockey, it fits Mr. Abbott. He still loved the game, and was within reach of Maple Leaf Gardens and his favourite team. Realizing the shortage of players because of the war, he approached Leaf coach, “Hap” Day, and asked if he would consider using him as a practice netminder. The Toronto bench boss was happy at the prospect, and having the other net occupied during drills gave George the opportunity to enjoy the game.
He never realized that this back-up position would lead to the greatest adventure of his life. On November 27, 1943, the Boston Bruins arrived at Maple Leaf Gardens, minus goalie Bert Gardiner, who had come down with a case of the flu. Spare goalies were still a future security in the world’s premier circuit, and the Beantown Six were grasping at straws for a solution.
The Hub manager, Art Ross, called Hap Day and told him about the dilemma. The latter promised he would do what he could. Without further communication. he directed George to the Bruin dressing room. When he walked in the door one of the players snarled, “Who the h--- are you?”
He politely introduced himself as “Reverend George Abbott”. While the rest of the club members were dumbfounded, Art Ross almost blew a fuse! He stormed into the Leaf locker room, angry because Day was known for his practical jokes and “Uncle Autha’” felt the situation was too serious to be pulling a gag then. When he was assured that the Toronto practice goalie was indeed all he could offer, he roared, “I asked for a goaltender, and you sent me a preacher!”
The “Rev.” scrounged up enough equipment and made his way back to get ready. He sat down next the veteran Dit Clapper, who recalls complaints about “how hot it was in the room”, and that he was so nervous he tried to put the right skate on the left foot. Once he was all decked out in his cage cop regalia he asked permission to get out of the heat and go out to the runway leading to the ice surface. There he paced for half an hour before the opening faceoff.
Clapper also remembered that during the warm up he thought one of the practice shots had gone into the cage, and he proceeded to try to find where it was stuck in the twine. But actually the puck had hit him in the seat of the pants and bounded way. “The best save of the night!” said Dit.
Tradition still prevailed in those days that salty language was taboo in front of ladies in general, and grandmothers and preachers in particular. And, even though the Boston captain warned his troops about this courtesy, there were lots of expletives in the dressing room, on the bench, and on the ice. Later, good manners prevailed, and the guys apologized for their profanity.
One journalist entitled his profile of the shinny-playing minister as a “Goalie From Heaven”. When the conflict began at Maple Leaf Gardens that night, with the Leafs bombarding him with rubber, he may have thought he was closer to the counterpart of paradise. The Toronto players showed no mercy in blasting the old boot-heel his way. His nervousness found no consolation in the fast and furious action. After five minutes he was at the bench asking for a towel to wipe his dripping face. Milt Dunnell of the Toronto Star opined that he was “sweating like a punctured watermelon!”
The score was 7-4 for the Queen City sextet, but three of the 52 shots fired his way were deflected into the cage by his own teammates. He not only had to contend with the usual congestion in his crease, but his Leaf pals decided to have some fun with him and kept pulling the blades out from under him. He complained to referee King Clancy, who denied seeing any of this. That was the whole trouble Abbott complained.
He impressed fans, as well as friend and foe alike, with his ability to deflect shots out of the way with his stick, imitating the great Georges Vezina. One shot he didn’t deflect, a blast from Babe Pratt, knocked him cold. But he revived and finished the game. It is said he refused to accept any honourarium, so $150. was donated to his church.
In the lighter vein, as he continued to practice with the Buds, one day following a workout, he was casually scanning a list of people he had to visit in the hospital. Trainer Tim Daley failed to understand the nature of his little black book, assuming it was a Bible. Coincidentally, Gus Bodnar was lying on the rubbing table, while George recited the names of the prospective patients. That night Gus scored two goals. Still unaware of the significance of it all, the next day at practice the “kinely ole trainer” announced: “If you bums’ll just line up an’ let Rev. Abbott read some more from that little black book, we’ll have nothing but 20-goal scorers on this team!”
The profile of Rev. Les Costello is quite a different kettle of fish. As mentioned, his personality and that of George Abbott were decidedly different. Lester John Thomas was born in South Porcupine, Ontario, just down the road from Timmins. In that frigid zone where, when you talked about “going south”, it was probably a jaunt to North Bay, not Florida.
He was born with a hockey stick in his hand, and his performance with the local Midgets attracted the attention of Maple Leaf scouts. He starred with the Junior St. Michaels Majors as so many with a Roman Catholic heritage did. Twice he was a member of that team when they won the Memorial Cup championship. This earned him a spot on the club’s farm team, the Pittsburgh Hornets. As was often the case in the “Original 6” era, prospects were given a chance to show their stuff during the playoffs. For Costello the timing was perfect. The Blue and White were aiming for their second consecutive Stanley Cup in 1948, and for the final five contests in the post season he was in the line-up just in time have his name engraved on hockey’s premier championship trophy. He added some pizazz by scoring on his first shift on the ice. He added another goal and two assists during his big-league debut. His NHL future looked promising and he did skate for the parent team 15 games the next campaign.
But he suddenly felt the call to serve a higher purpose in life, entered seminary, and was ordained a Roman Catholic priest. He did become a parish padre (in Kirkland Lake); but his first love was working with wayward boys and helping juvenile criminals in rehabilitation. People’s personal needs were his passion. He burned a great deal of energy providing for them — arranging for everything from fur mittens to furniture. In fact, on one occasion, the community bought him a new pick-up truck. But he sold it and used the money to provide for the needy.
However, he is best remembered for being the central figure in a hockey team made up of priests, called the “Flying Fathers”. It was meant to be a one-time charity event. But it was such a popular project that the team continued to tour all over North America, eventually raising some $4 million for various charities.
It was during that time that he had the misfortune to freeze his feet on a hunting trip, and lost several toes as a result. Although it hampered his skating, he still stuck with it, stuffing the toes of his skates with several socks.
Anyone who saw their games will recall that horsing around added humour to their performance. In fact there is a famous photo of a horse they used for one game, strapping goal pads on his four legs, and assigning him to guard the crease.
If there is a negative side to his love of laughter and desiring “to bring happiness and joy into the lives of everyone!” it was that his superiors did not always approve of the manner in which he accomplished it. To say that he was unconventional is an understatement. This prompted a former teammate, Flemming Mackell, to say. “He is the last guy in the world you would figure to become priest!” This was the result of knowing him in the dressing room and by his undisciplined conduct in general.
One example was the way he dealt with hot weather when welcoming his parishioners to mass during a heat wave. He met them at the door of the church wearing no shirt, let alone his clerical collar. But that was tame in comparison to his conduct in the pulpit. He enjoyed introducing his sermons with a joke — which was quite acceptable — except that several of them were off colour.
His comical approach to life, on and off the ice, kept his peers in stitches. But he seemed not to recognize the boundaries which represented good taste. In Charles Angus’ biography about the player turned priest, he noted that he “cursed like an Irish barman………he never took the name of the Lord in vain, but used every other method of swearing!”
For many this was offensive. What place did this unholy lifestyle have in the manner of one called “reverend father”?
For others it salved their conscience. “If a padre could casually talk and act in a profane manner, then it must be alright for the man on the street.”
Sadly his life came to a premature end. On December3, 2002, in KIncardine, Ontario, while warming up for one of those exhibition matches, his feet got tangled with the puck, causing him to fall and hit his head on the ice. Their next game was in Lindsay, Ontario, but he sat out because he was not feeling well. The next day he was hospitalized in nearby Peterborough, where he lapsed into a coma. He was transferred to St. Michaels Hospital in Toronto, where he passed away on December 10th, one week after his tumble.
His parish was unable to accommodate the crowds expected at the funeral, so the service was held in the McIntyre Arena in Timmins. In tribute to his service in Ontario’s north, the Cobalt arena was renamed the “Father Les Costello Memorial Arena”.
Controversial? Indeed he was. The majority of hockey nuts have never heard of the “other” Abbott; but that was one way in which this Costello will never be forgotten.
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