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If you really think about it, the Flying Fathers Hockey Club, consisting of hockey-playing priests, was probably the most widely-traveled team in hockey history. Starting in 1964 in North Bay, Ontario, the Flying Fathers became the Harlem Globetrotters of hockey, playing before crowds across Canada and the United States, and even into Europe, where the Pope once caught the action.
So it's kind of surprising that there has not been a book solely on the Flying Fathers until Frank Cosentino stepped into the void. The result is the just-released Holy Hockey: The Story of Canada’s Flying Fathers. And in the spirit of the whole thing, like the $4 million raised for charity through the years, proceeds from the $25 book are also going to charity.
Cosentino, a former CFL quarterback turned writer, is a good choice for the job. “History of sport is one of my main interests and most of the books I've written deal with subjects which have long been forgotten by the public,” Cosentino said.
Now requiring four hands to count all his books, Cosentino's main interests are historical in nature, particularly CFL football and hockey. (His website, http://www.valleyoldtimers.com will help you with your checklist.)
Two members of the Flying Fathers team, Father Pat Blake and Father Grant Neville, approached him about writing a book. Initially, Cosentino had to put them off, He was deep into Canadian Football 1995-2014: Home Again and barely had time to look up. (Though he is retired from his day job teaching sport history and history of physical education courses at York University; he was recently announced as part of the 2018 induction class into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.) They met again a year later, and Cosentino was all in.
Fortunately in a difficult market to find a publisher, the priests had a connection, and Burnstown Publishing House came on board.
Cosentino dove in. “I sort of had to feel my way through the material I had before me. There was the typical W5 approach and a lot of evolution which revolved around certain themes that jumped out: the idea of priests playing hockey, having to do so in their spare time so as to not impinge on parish duties, mollify pastors and/or bishops who weren't sold on the idea,” explained the author. “The idea of a former Stanley Cupper, the idea of raising money for charity, the increase in oldtimers hockey, the priests themselves and their route to becoming priests, the fun, camaraderie, etc. all worked their way into the story.”
A hockey historian from Pembroke, Ontario, George Kiely, had donated his scrapbooks on the Flying Fathers to the NHA/NHL Museum in Renfrew, Ontario, where, coincidentally, Cosentino is on the Board of Directors. (The NHA/NHL Museum hosted the Society of International Hockey Research's fall meeting in 2013.)
“It is a remarkable source drawing on many articles and items provided by Father Pat Blake,” Cosentino said of Kiely's books. “I also got much material from interviews I did with Fathers Blake and Grant Neville, people I knew who played against the Flying Fathers. Emails and phone calls also played a role in my being able contact different members who were still living. It helped me to try to get beneath all the slapstick routines which many people wanted to dwell on.”
Like the Globetrotters on the hardcourt, the Flying Fathers entertained with their antics as well as thrilled with their skills. Goals would be scored in unique (less than legal?) ways, sometimes counting as a touchdown on the scoreboard.
At its core, though, are priests who believed in their calling, spiritually and on the ice. Its most famous player, by far, was Father Les Costello, who Charlie Angus wrote about in 2005's Les Costello: Canada's Flying Father. Costello was a winger on two Memorial Cup championships for Toronto's St. Michael's Majors, and played for the Toronto Maple Leafs for two seasons, 1948 (a Stanley Cup-winning team) and 1949. But then he entered the seminary.
“Things are never straight forward but in some ways the story took its own natural path, the beginning, the unfolding, pivotal points such as the frozen toes of Father Les Costello,” said Cosentino. Costello dubbed his three toes the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and the publicity generated continent wide from the accident and his recovery, helped the Flying Fathers in their crusade, “Playing and Praying for a Better World.”
Costello died in 2002. Another from Cosentino's wish list would have been Father Brian McKee, who he had met in his previous career.
“I had sort of met Father McKee in 1960 when was playing with the Tiger-Cats, my first year. We went to play an intra-squad game at Scollard Hall. McKee had tried out with the Blue Bombers before he went into the seminary. I guess he still had football on his mind and joined in the practices incognito. But he was recognized by the local media and didn't want to get into any trouble with church officials and pulled out.”
Asked whether the Flying Fathers would have been quite as notable should they have been created in this day and age, Cosentino thought so.
“Could the Flying Fathers make a go of it today? They probably could if the circumstances were right. In fact a group of priests from the Peterborough [Ontario] area played a game this past January and it created a lot of interest,” said Cosentino. “But certainly the times are different. there has been a fall off in seminarians entering the priesthood. A lot of churches have to be joined with the same priest conducting services and church attendance has fallen. In the era of the Flying Fathers in their heyday, seminaries were packed. Hockey being the national winter game that it was meant that a significant number of those seminarians were introduced to hockey as much as any youngster in Canada. These were talented people who worked within their mission, introduced a lot of comic items and made the people leave with a smile and lots of memories. Their era was ready for it.”
Get your copy of Holy Hockey: The Story of Canada’s Flying Fathers from the publisher at http://burnstownpublishing.com/product/holy-hockey-the-story-of-canadas-flying-fathers/
A fun new book on shelves is called Upon Further Review: The Greatest What-Ifs in Sports History. It's 320 pages of speculation, sure, but it also provokes a lot of thought, reminiscing and laughs.
If you go pick it up, don't do it for the hockey, as there is only one hockey-related entry, “What If Wayne Gretzky Hadn't Been an Oiler?” It's a piece by Katie Baker, who was at Grantland (R.I.P.) covering hockey and is now a staff writer at Ringer. The premise is a good one, as Gretzky's exclusive deal signed with Oilers owner Peter Pocklington on his 18th birthday was a personal services contract, so he was exempt from the WHA-NHL merger rules which allowed each WHA team to only protect were allowed to protect two goalies and two skaters, with any rights to a player reverting to its NHL claimant. Would Gretzky have been Great with the Colorado Rockies?
Other speculative pieces touch on hockey in very roundabout ways, like the essay about Title IX in the U.S., and how it forced NCAA schools to offer the same sports for women as men. If it hadn't been implemented, it's not a stretch to say that there would be no women's hockey World Championships or women's hockey at the Olympics.
Mike Pesca is the editor of the book (published by Twelve), and is the host of the daily podcast The Gist; he covered sports for NPR for a decade as well. In an email, he said that a couple of other potential ideas were considered:
“As far as more hockey what if's, some effort was made to get Mike Eruzione to write the chapter on the 1980 Miracle on Ice,” Pesca revealed. Another more truculent one was, “What if other sports had the same 'enforcer' tradition as hockey?”
Another intrigued question not explored was, What if Eric Lindros had stayed with the Quebec Nordiques. “Since it’s a what if, we would have wished head health upon him and kept the franchise in Quebec,” wrote Pesca.
The goal was to avoid the obvious “What If ...” concepts, like trades that didn't happen or players ending up on different teams. Some of the entries are really interesting and challenging, like the piece on, “What If Major League Baseball Had Started Testing for Steroids in 1991?” Others are outright humorous, like, “What If the Olympics Had Never Dropped Tug-of-War?” which posits that elite athletes like LeBron James would have been tuggers.
- In a November 2017 column, I wrote about Jim Vantour's book, I Just Wanted to Play Hockey: Guyle Fielder: The Unknown Superstar. Since Vantour lives in Ottawa, and Fielder calls Arizona home, they didn't really have a book “launch” until May 8, at an event in Richmond, B.C. “The event was a great success,” writes in Vantour. He sent along a photo too:
From left, it's “Jumbo” Jim Powers, one of Guyle’s most, prolific wingers, Jim Vantour, and Guyle Fielder.
- Dan Robson revealed the cover for his Johnny Bower book with a tweet (@RobsonDan) on May 29: “Thrilled to share this news. My biography of Johnny Bower comes out this fall. There has been so much to learn about his remarkable life. I hope you'll pick up a copy. @HarperCollinsCa
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