Fr. Les Costello died Dec. 10, days after sustaining an injury before a game in Kincardine, Ont., with the Flying Fathers, the famous hockey-playing team comprised of priests that he co-founded in 1962.
Fr. Costello, who played for the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs in the late 1940s, quit hockey to become a Catholic priest.
Born in 1928 in South Porcupine, Ont. near Timmins, he moved to Toronto to play with the St. Michael’s Majors, with whom he won two Memorial Cups in ’45 and ’47 before he turned pro. In his rookie year as a Leaf, he played in the 1948 Stanley Cup finals, scoring two goals and two assists. He scored the series-winning goal against the Boston Bruins on a pass from Hall-of-Famer Max Bentley to get his team to the finals, where they beat the Detroit Red Wings.
In 1950, he left hockey and studied to become a priest, first at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto and later at St. Augustine’s seminary. He was ordained in 1957 and served parishes in South Porcupine, Kirkland Lake and Timmins, before settling at St. Alphonsus parish in Schumacher, which is now part of Timmins.
He brushed aside questions about giving up his boyhood dream of becoming a hockey player to become a priest by replying that he heard God’s call and one can’t argue with God. In an 1959 interview with Liberty magazine, he said “I’d rather teach people to live with God than thrill them occasionally on Saturday nights.”
Parishioners and fellow priests remember a man committed to helping those living in poverty. His favourite saint was St. Martin de Porres, the patron saint of the poor. He helped begin local charities and was personally involved in distributing food and furniture to the needy.
The National Post quoted Fr. Tim Shea, a Kingston priest and former Flying Father. He said he remembers Fr. Costello used to keep the door of the rectory unlocked so the indigent, tired and drunk would have a roof over their heads on rough nights.
Among his parishioners was country singing sensation Shania Twain. She told the Post, Fr. Costello was always there for her family, whether it was finding her impoverished grandmother a second-hand fridge, marrying her parents or presiding over her parents’ funeral. “The goodness of God is with this very special man and he shares that spirit with everyone around him.”
Founding the Flying Fathers combined two of his loves: playing hockey and assisting those in need. The Fathers have raised $4-million for charity since 1962 with tours in Canada, the U.S. and Europe.
Fr. James McManamy, in his Sunday homily the week Fr. Costello died, said Fr. Costello’s “concern for the poor in whom he saw Jesus, led him to found the Flying Fathers hockey team, a group of former pros or semi-pros who played slapstick hockey and raised more than $4 million for charity.”
In 1992, the Flying Fathers played the Campaign Life Coalition No Stars in a fundraising game. Coached by Jim Barnes, the No Stars lost as the Flying Fathers netted the puck a dozen times.
Fr. McManamy recalled: “Before I was a priest, I had the fortune the ill fortune to play against this team (the Flying Fathers). Nobody told me that they weren’t allowed to lose … and they cheated like crazy.”
Bill Mullally, a public affairs officer with Campaign Life Coalition, recalls the game. He told The Interim that the priests played to win but put on a good show.
Mullally, who played defense with John McCash, said that the Flying Fathers “Began the game with a centreman playing defense who would go behind the net and skate down the ice like Bobby Orr. He scored a goal in the first 12-15 seconds.”
He said that a few minutes later on the bench, coach Barnes said to the CLC No Stars, “Got to get it back.” They hatched a plan and on his next shift, Mullally scored to tie the game.
“Going off the ice,” Mullally said, “I was straight-armed by one of them and brought to centre ice where they put me through a mock ordination and made me an official Flying Father. Then one of the older guys, I’m sure it was Les Costello, smashed a cream pie in my face.”
The cream pie was a typical Fr. Costello touch. Everyone from Shania Twain to Fr. Shea recalled his sense of humour.