'Praying And Playing': The Story Of The Flying Fathers18:10

After a decade-long hiatus, the Flying Fathers returned to the ice in 2018. (Courtesy Rob Viscardis)
After a decade-long hiatus, the Flying Fathers returned to the ice in 2018. (Courtesy Rob Viscardis)
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In some ways, the story of how John Perdue became a Roman Catholic priest is a story about hockey.

Perdue grew up in Canada. But that doesn’t mean he was born with a hockey stick in his hands.

"My mom would tell you that I didn't like it at first, and I would cry the whole time I was out on the ice," Perdue says.

Over time, Perdue learned to love the game. And he was good. His team won two provincial championships. (That's the Canadian equivalent of state championships.)

But as college graduation was approaching, Perdue began to feel like something was missing in his life — and it wasn’t something he could find at the hockey rink. So, he decided to check out the seminary — and maybe become a priest.

Perdue was worried he’d have to give up hockey. That’s when he learned something he now calls "a revelation."

"Every Friday the seminarians played," Perdue says. "And I could continue playing sports and being normal and be a priest as well — which was kind of a piece of my saying, 'Yes.' "

So, Perdue started playing ice hockey with his fellow seminarians every Friday night. He says it helped him push aside the stresses of his studies.

"Also kind of bonding with the guys: lots of laughs and the occasional trip to the hospital if somebody hurt themselves, or whatever," Perdue says. "It's a very beautiful part of my formation for the priesthood."

Growing up, Perdue had heard lots of stories about a team of hockey-playing priests called the "Flying Fathers."

But once he got to seminary, Perdue learned that the Flying Fathers had disbanded just a year or two earlier, in 2008.

Perdue reached out to a priest who’d worked with the Flying Fathers. He wanted to help re-start the team. But he never heard back.

Frank Quinn. (Ayesha Barmania)
Frank Quinn. (Ayesha Barmania)

"Then I get ordained a priest, and I'm assigned to the Cathedral of St. Peter in Chains in Peterborough," Perdue says. "It just so happens that, at the cathedral, I meet this very friendly greeter. A good storyteller, friendly guy by the name of Frank Quinn. And one day he's just like, 'Did you ever hear about the Flying Fathers?' "

"He said, 'I have to talk to you about this,' " Quinn recalls. "He said, 'I've always dreamed of restarting the Flying Fathers.' I said, 'I used to be their manager.' Well, his eyes just popped, you know?"

Perdue calls it "God's providence." But in any case, Frank Quinn invited John Perdue over for dinner.

"So I go over, and it was a great night," Perdue recalls. "Frank, he's able to just tell me stories, and he regales me with a lot about Les Costello — like, yes, about the team, but a lot of it kind of featured on the figure of this hilarious, good-hearted lover of the poor, Les Costello."

"Father Costello was my parish priest when I was a boy," Quinn says.

That was in Timmins, Ontario — eight hours north of Toronto.

"His sermons were — they were down to earth," Quinn recalls. "You know, there's loggers and miners and kind of a rough community just after the war. Father Costello always had just a wonderful message about giving of self."

"His great patron was Martin de Porres, who's a 15th century South American saint who was devoted to the poor," Perdue says. "And so, his garage and his living room were full of stuff that he was taking out to the poor. And he never owned a vehicle. He would just go down the road and just jump in a truck and take it and use it to deliver a fridge."

"Imagine a priest there, at 25 below zero in a place like Timmins, out hauling fridges, stoves, you know?" Quinn says. "When he would say Mass, I'm not joking when I say he would take 45 minutes to empty the church. He'd take the time. Everybody'd just crowd around him. Just like a like a rock star, you know?"

And the story of how this "rock star" became a Roman Catholic priest? That’s a hockey story, too.

'I'm Going To The Seminary, Murray'

Father Les Costello grew up in South Porcupine — that’s just up the road from Timmins. And he was a very good hockey player. He rose through the ranks and, in 1948, he got called up from the minors to help the Toronto Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup. He spent most of the following season back in the minors.

"And he and his brother, who's also an excellent hockey player and a Hall of Famer, Murray Costello — they're headed back to training camp the next fall," Perdue says.

"Murray was going to the Chicago camp, and Father Costello was heading to Toronto. And the two of them got on the train, bid the family goodbye," Quinn says. "And at North Bay, just 'bout the last little bit of the train ride..."

"Les turns to Murray and says, 'Well, Murray, we'll see you later. I'm headed east,' " Perdue says. "And Murray is like, 'What do you mean? We're going north.' And Les says, 'No, I'm going to the seminary, Murray.' "

"And at that time, he thought that Father Costello was crazy to be giving up this wonderful career that he had," Quinn says. "But, in any event, he went into the seminary."

But soon, Father Costello would have a reason to pick up his hockey stick again.

"This started out in 1963 in North Bay, Ontario," Father Les Costello said in an interview he gave to an Inuvialuit TV station in 1986. "A young guy had lost his eye, so we thought it would be very good to get together a bunch of priests playing hockey against guys who were in worse shape than we were — like cops or radio guys or TV guys.

"So we had a game, and we raised $5,000 and gave it to the mother. The mother was very happy, ‘cause she didn’t have the proper insurance. So we thought it was a good gimmick. It was better than Bingo. So we continued on."

"I think all the humor got added in that first game in North Bay," Quinn says. "They only had about four skaters taking on a whole team. But the police chief was at that game. And [Father Costello] borrowed the handcuffs from the police chief and handcuffed the goalie to one post. So that helped him score a lot."

"The reason we win so many games is ... we cheat," Father Costello said in that 1986 interview.

Frank Quinn didn’t become a priest. He became a cop. But his childhood connection to Father Costello helped him snag a spot on the Flying Fathers as a "ringer."

And this is where you might come to understand why some compare the Flying Fathers to the Harlem Globetrotters.

A Flying Fathers classic. (Courtesy Flying Fathers)
A Flying Fathers classic. (Courtesy Flying Fathers)

"We’d make it look like it's going to be a very serious hockey game," Quinn says. "Somebody scores on us. We have little gimmicks. The first guy to score in the opposition — we ordain him a priest and then we count his goal for the Flying Fathers."

"There was slapstick. There were people being penalized for acting like a Protestant," says Frank Cosentino, who wrote a book about the Flying Fathers. "They found novel ways of scoring. They'd break, and they'd go into a huddle. And they introduced a football. The goalie would be the quarterback. And one of the priests would race down the field on skates, catch the pass and throw it in the goal. It was six points.

"If the opponents came, and they said, 'Well, you can't do that! You can't throw a football in the net and get six points for it,' the Flying Fathers would pull out a rule book and say, 'Show me in this rule book where it says you can't throw the football in the net.' They'd say, 'Well, it's not in that book, so there you go.' "

"The Flying Fathers would pull out a rule book and say, 'Show me in this rule book where it says you can't throw the football in the net.' "

Frank Cosentino

And then, there was the team’s backup goalies: two horses named Patience and Penance.

"The horse had goalie pads and a clown on his back," Quinn says. "We'd give a penalty shot to the opposition, but the horse would generally make a save. ... Anyway, Father Tim Shea would ask the horse, 'Who is going to win? Is the opposition going to win?' And the horse would say, 'No,' just shaking his head. 'Flying Father’s gonna win?' He'd say, 'Yes.' By how many goals?' And the horse would start to paw: one, two, three. 'OK. That's enough.' And then, they'd say 'Why are we going to win?' And the horse would bend down like he's praying."

"It was just a delightful family night where people could enjoy being brought together as a community," Cosentino says.

Sister Mary Shooter (Courtesy Flying Fathers Hockey Club)
Sister Mary Shooter (Courtesy Flying Fathers Hockey Club)

Cosentino says the bishops were a little unsure about allowing their priests to travel the world playing hockey instead of staying in their parishes tending to their flock.

"The priests' comeback was, 'Well, we can do both,' " Cosentino says. " 'We go on our own time. We provide funds for charity. We provide entertainment for a family, so they could come as a family.' 'Praying and playing' was a motto that they used."

And, the priests said, spending this time together and meeting with people all around the world — it gave them material for their sermons; it made them better priests.

So, they kept at it.

And then, in 1979, something happened that made the Flying Fathers even more famous than they’d been before: Father Les Costello lost his toes.

"He was out partridge hunting, and I guess a storm blew in. And I guess he couldn't see his tracks," Quinn says. "And so he gets lost in the bush overnight, and he froze his feet."

"Just when all seemed like it was all going to be over for Les Costello, he blurted out, 'Martin de Porres, if you want me to keep doing some work for you, you'd better find me some help, 'cause I'm not going to last too long,' " Cosentino says. "And, within a short time, he heard a gun fired. And so he got his his rifle, too, and he fired that in the air. The search party was out looking for him, and they rescued him."

"Anyway, the bottom line is he'd had such frostbite, they had to amputate seven of his toes," Quinn says.

"So that he only had three toes," Cosentino says. "And he called them 'the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.'

"It became international news. There were media people from Canada, from the States, from Europe, who wanted to find out more about this priest who had his feet frozen."

A fraction of the memorabilia Frank Quinn collected over the years. (Ayesha Barmania)
A fraction of the memorabilia Frank Quinn collected over the years. (Ayesha Barmania)

Over the years, Father Costello told people that the Flying Fathers earned more than $4 million for charity. But Frank Quinn believes the team earned much more than that.

"Father Costello always said it was about families and working for charity, and it isn't about the dollar sign. So we don't really count it," Quinn says. "But it must be in the — I think — tens of millions. It has to be up there. We've played some games where they've made for charity over $250,000. Now, that's pretty good money."

But, as all this was happening, the Flying Fathers were getting older. By this time, Frank Quinn had stopped playing and was the team’s manager. And at some point, it started becoming more difficult to put this team together.

"Well, I think everybody knows," Quinn says, "with the scandal in the priesthood, we couldn't find enough hockey players. We were all getting far too old. I played, God, 'til I was nearly 60 years old. That's too old to be playing that level of hockey, you know?"

"People weren't coming into the seminaries, and it meant that whereas a church might have had two or three or four priests at that church, it was rapidly boiling down to one church, one priest," Cosentino says.

By this point, it was November of 2002. Father Costello, the man who’d given up a professional hockey career to become a priest, was 74. He was no longer the Flying Father’s best player, but he was still traveling with the team.

"We couldn't find enough hockey players. We were all getting far too old. I played, God, 'til I was nearly 60 years old."

Frank Quinn

"They were on this tour. He fell, hit his head on the ice, was rushed to the hospital, had a concussion, didn't stay overnight, but the doctor told him that he should not play the next game, which was going to be up in Lindsay, Ontario — which was a short distance away from Peterborough," Cosentino says. "And, while the priests were playing up in Lindsay, Father Costello took a turn for the worse and ended up going into a coma."

Father Les Costello died on December 10, 2002. Frank Quinn was heartbroken.

"My father was a great storyteller up in the lumber camps," he says. "Now, I'm not a poet, but I'm going to read you the start of a poem that I wrote. And it just came off of me like, ah — you know how you feel when you're really down? So I just started off with the way my father would have:

Let me tell you the story of a tough little scamp,
who became a true legend of the Porcupine camp.
Father Les Costello of Maple Leaf fame
made millions for charity and in the Lord's name.

"And I just went on and on and on and on, and I must have about 20 verses here. You know?

"The funeral home couldn't handle the number of people that were coming. The funeral had to be held in the arena that he played hockey as a boy, you know."

"The place was just overflowing. It was described as looking like a cathedral," Cosentino says.

The Flying Fathers kept playing for another six years. But it was never the same.

"Father Costello was the heart and the soul of the Flying Fathers. And, when he died, it really knocked the wind out of us, you might say," Quinn says.

The team disbanded in 2008 — after more than 900 wins and just six losses.

"It was time for someone else to kind of pick up the torch, if you will," Cosentino says.

Picking Up The Torch

(Courtesy Father John Perdue)
(Courtesy Father John Perdue)

And that’s where Father John Perdue comes back into the story. In the early 2010s, before he was ordained, Perdue started organizing a hockey tournament between seminarians and young men in the community. And, five or six years later, during an organizational meeting, Perdue was asked if he could put together a team of priests to play in that tournament.

"I kind of sat back. It was like — it's all in my mind," Perdue says. "And I'm kind of like, 'Is this, kind of, the moment that this is going to happen?' And I was like, 'Guys, you can't have a team of hockey playing priests in Canada and have it not be the Flying Fathers.' "

And right there, as the meeting was still going on, Perdue called Frank Quinn.

"So Frank puts on a Flying Fathers jersey and a Flying Fathers coat, and he kind of like — I always tell the story as if he kind of, like, kicks the door in in the middle of the meeting. Which he didn't actually do," Perdue says. "But it had the feeling of bursting onto the scene. And he starts regaling everybody with stories of the Flying Fathers and telling them all about the history and the travels and the jokes and the antics of the team."

"Well, he's been driving me like a tired mule ever since, trying to get things going," Quinn says.

The new Flying Fathers scheduled their first game for Jan. 29, 2018.

"One challenge ... is, like, there isn't a high concentration of hockey-playing priests, so we're actually coming from opposite ends of the country, almost," Perdue says. "We had to just say, 'Guys, can you come early for the game? And we'll meet about an hour and a half ahead of time.' And in a gym, we ran through some of the bits. You know what I mean? It wasn't even like an on-ice practice. So we always say that the team is guided — our coach is the Holy Spirit, is God. Because we're relying on grace to make these things come together.

And before that first game in January of 2018...

"Well, it was a blast," Perdue says. "The priests are like sharing stories from seminary. Some of them haven't seen each other in a while."

Frank Quinn came into the locker room to remind the new Fathers to not take the hockey too seriously; to have fun and remember that they were raising money for charity.

Quinn didn’t mention this part. But on the inside, he was worried.

"Well, you know what I was afraid of, I just thought maybe it was old and corny and maybe it wouldn't go over," he says. "It's hard to fill rinks nowadays, with big screen TV and sports all over the place."

Perdue was worried, too.

"Like, I didn't know. Would people want to come and see this?" he says. "Would it be a success?"

(Courtesy Rob Viscardis)
(Courtesy Rob Viscardis)

The new Flying Fathers did all the old bits.

Well, almost all the old bits.

"The way things are with insurance and so on, you couldn't have a horse on the ice anymore, I don't think," Quinn says.

"Our coach is the Holy Spirit, is God, because we're relying on grace to make these things come together."

Father John Perdue

OK, so no horses wearing goalie pads. But the new Flying Fathers shoved a cream pie in the referee’s face. They even played a little football.

And the crowd loved it all.

"And you looked down the bench, and all the guys were smiling, the crowd is smiling, money's being raised for charity — it was a huge success," Perdue says.

After that game, the Flying Fathers started receiving requests for the team to come to town. Not by the hundreds — like back in the day — but more than enough to keep Perdue and Quinn busy, setting up tours to visit different parts of the country.

"Holy Hockey" by Frank Cosentino
"Holy Hockey" by Frank Cosentino

"So, the next thing you know, this latest tour, I've had to tell two priests, 'I'm sorry. We're full,' " Quinn says. "We have too many players and, apparently, a lot more coming."

Father John Perdue is now the director of vocations for the Peterborough Diocese. That means he’s in charge of helping young men decide if they want to enter the priesthood. So letting people know that there are priests out there trying to do good for the world is close to his heart.

But, in some ways, for Frank Quinn, this has always been about Father Costello and his legacy. Which is why he’s happy that the Flying Fathers will play next weekend in Timmins — just down the road from South Porcupine — where Father Les Costello grew up.

Frank Cosentino's book is called "Holy Hockey: The Story of Canada's Flying Fathers." Special thanks to videographer Rob Viscardis for sharing his footage from the Flying Father's 2018 debut with us.

This segment aired on February 15, 2020.


Karen Given Twitter Executive Producer/Interim Host, Only A Game
Karen is the executive producer for WBUR's Only A Game.