As a professional storyteller with a long memory, I’ve been asked many times which story of them all stands out in the memory bank from my days pioneering sportswriting in the Yukon, and the answer has always been the same although I’ve never written about it before: The Flying Fathers.
The Ontario-based Flying Fathers hockey club were a collection of Roman Catholic priests who played a unique brand of comedy hockey to benefit many charities, most of which were directed towards disadvantaged children. If you can imagine white Canadian priests on ice imitating the famous Harlem Globetrotters, you have the right idea.
They originally formed up in the winter of 1962-63 for a one-time charity fundraiser, the brainchild of two Ontario priests, Brian McKee, of the diocese of Sault Ste. Marie, and Les Costello whose name is on the Stanley Cup as a member of the 1947-48 Toronto Maple Leafs. One fundraiser led to another and, by the mid-70s, they were famous and well-established all across Canada but had never performed north of the 60th parallel.
Somehow, Whitehorse saloonkeeper and promoter Cal Miller, of the Capital Hotel, had heard about them and made arrangements to change that for the benefit of his pet charity, the Boys and Girls Club of the Yukon. This was right up Cal’s alley as he, with Ken MacKinnon, were two of the prime movers in starting the Arctic Winter Games, and he told me (but never asked) I was going to be on the organizing committee as sports editor of the Yukon News, tasked with “filling up the arena. If it’s not a sellout, it’s a failure and we don’t do failures.”
Fortunately, since it was a spring date, I had nearly a full winter to promote the event and put the butts in the bleachers.
In addition to the Flying Fathers, Cal had also lined up Billy McNeill, former captain of the WHL’s Vancouver Canucks and two-time league MVP, to referee the event. Billy’s claim to NHL fame came with getting an assist on Gordie Howe’s 545th career goal, which broke “Rocket” Richard’s all-time goal-scoring record and officially made Howe the NHL’s greatest scorer, a distinction he held until Wayne Gretzky came along and re-wrote the record book.
So for the rest of that winter, I had to eat lunch every Wednesday with Cal, Eddie Raycroft and six or eight other Whitehorse wheeler-dealers and tell them about my progress promoting the event, which was actually a pretty simple assignment. I was in contact with their goalie, Father Vaughan Quinn of Detroit, who mailed me all the FF hard copy and history with many hilarious photos and I just ran a feature every week all winter explaining to Yukon readers what was coming to their territory after Rendezvous to pique their interest.
As soon as the tickets were printed, the event sold out within weeks. It was a natural for Yukoners tired of the long winter and a chance to get the kids out of the house.
So I didn’t have much to do at the end until Quinn told me a week before the big show that I had to line up a horse. I innocently asked why, and he said, “To play goalie for the Whitehorse team. It’s an important part of the act. Any big, dumb, gentle horse will do, just make sure he’s shod with ice lugs so he doesn’t slip and break a leg.”
While everyone else was patiently waiting for the Flying Fathers to arrive and get on with the show, I was frantically calling local outfitters out on the Mayo Road and saying, “Do you have any horses close to town that can play goalie?” Incredibly, I found one who laughed so hard he offered to do it for nothing, including putting on the ice shoes and hauling the horse to town, so I gave him complimentary tickets for his family and gratefully called it square.
Normally, when people spend their hard-earned money on a ticket to a sporting event or concert, they have a pretty good idea what kind of bang they’re going to get for their buck. Not so for a Flying Fathers performance. The crowd that poured into Jim Light Memorial Arena on Fourth Ave was almost entirely families with kids and the kids looked excited like on Halloween. They didn’t know what they were going to get but sensed they were going to like it.
The FF had a well-scripted performance they had done hundreds of times, including taking over the PA system for narration, and it started kind of slow like an Oldtimer’s game except the priests kept putting McNeill, the ref, into the penalty box for things like “five minutes for lying.”
They let Whitehorse start with a human goalie, who they easily scored on, necessitating a goalie change at the end of the first period, which is when the horse came out wearing a jersey, a goalie mask with a nose bag and big wide pads on both forelegs.
Suddenly, the FF couldn’t score a goal because they were wizards at directing their shots onto the horse’s pads and Quinn, on the other end of the ice, became a human sieve and Whitehorse scored goal after goal to take the lead into the third period which kept the kids cheering.
Throughout, of course, the narrator is stopping play for scripted absurdities like trick sticks and a penalty shot with Costello versus the horse. He skated up to its nose, pulled a carrot out of his hockey sock and slipped the puck into the net while the horse was eating, the only goal the equine beast gave up until the belated arrival of The Flying Nun late in the third.
Halfway through the final period, Costello faked a serious injury and the arena was suddenly quiet, somber and gloomy as he appeared to be unconscious. (He later told me he loved that part of the show because he could grab a quick nap before the grand finale.) I was watching the kids in the audience and they looked totally fished in as Costello’s body was loaded on a stretcher and carried off the ice to funeral music, after which the remaining Fathers formed into a circle at centre ice to pray for a miracle and the narrator sadly told the audience Father Costello would want the game to continue in his absence, but it was starting to look like a fun evening was going to end with a bummer.
As soon as he was out of sight of the audience, Costello leaped off the stretcher, ran into the dressing room and emerged within minutes in a black nun’s outfit with a long trail and a veil while his teammates were floundering on the ice and he proceeded to put on a riotous NHL-type skating and shooting exhibition for the rest of the game firing shot after shot past the hapless horse which now had the real goalie on his back, a double-decker goalie if you will. At the very end after he scored the winning goal as time expired, he threw off his headgear and veil and I swear there were kids who hadn’t realized it was him scoring all those goals. The arena was going crazy with laughter and mayhem as they realized Costello’s “injury” was just another gag.
At the end of the night when Cal took the mike at centre ice and thanked the crowd for coming out to support the Boys and Girls Club, he had tears in his eyes, and they were genuine.
It was quite the night, possibly one of the best in the history of Whitehorse, but don’t take my word for it. Ask anyone who was there, especially the ones who were gullible 10-year-olds at the time.
The Flying Fathers are extinct now. Costello died in 2002 after 40 years on the ice and by about a decade ago, they weren’t able to find enough skaters to continue. Their final record was 900-6-1. They raised over $5 million for little kids who needed a little help along the way.
Doug Sack was the first sports editor of the Yukon News and later a longtime sports editor of the Whistler Question and a columnist and features writer for Ski Canada magazine. He is currently semi-retired in Whitehorse.