Part of a chase weekly series on Alaskan history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about the history of Anchorage or Alaska or an idea for a future story? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
From the Harlem Globetrotters in basketball to the House of David in baseball, touring sports teams have included Anchorage in their itineraries since the late 1940s. In other words, these outdoor operations began paying attention to Alaska once the long-distance air travel has become affordable and the population has grown enough to ensure good attendance. However, none of these teams had such a traumatic visit as the Flying Fathers in 1981.
The Flying Fathers were a collection of Catholic priests who formed a comedic hockey team that toured North America for several decades. Simply put, the Flying Fathers were to hockey what the Globetrotters are to basketball, except the former existed for charity rather than profit, and the gags tended to have more religious aspects.
The Flying Fathers hail from the Ontario town of North Bay. In 1963, Father Brian McKee learned that one of his altar boys had seriously injured his eye during a hockey game. His family could not afford the necessary surgery, so McKee organized a charity hockey game between priests and local fans. As a youth, McKee had been an outstanding athlete who rejected an offer to play in the Canadian Football League in favor of entering the priesthood. He still skated in his spare time and knew which area the priests could do on the ice. Much to the surprise of the crowd, the Priests won this game 7-3.
In 1964, the team bears his name and quickly becomes a Canadian institution. As they evolved, they attracted more experienced players, including father Les Costello, who briefly played for the Toronto Maple Leafs and won a Stanley Cup before retiring to enter seminary. Several other players on the team had spent time in the minor or advanced amateur leagues. Like the Globetrotters, the Flying Fathers were nearly unbeatable, winning around 900 games to only a handful of losses.
Sketches were a major part of this 1963 game, and as the team grew in popularity, the use of comedy in their performances increased until it became the main component of their appeal. Like the seasoned performers that they were, the Flying Fathers repeated these gags until the show was a well-polished, crowd-pleasing spectacle. Every game, a referee penalized the opposing team for acting like a Protestant or skipping mass. There were cream pie baptisms and miraculous births as a result of stacking. Priests would sometimes take shots from a flask containing “altar wine”. They were most irreverent reverends.
In their most famous routine, the star player, usually Costello, faked an injury and was sent back to the locker room. Then they would suddenly reappear dressed as a nun – Sister Mary Shooter – rushing from end to end and aggressively controlling opposing players. Sister Shooter would eventually retire her habit and reveal her identity to great applause. Similarly, the goalkeeper was often replaced by a full-legged horse, Penance, who was trained to kneel as if to pray.
For over 40 years, the Flying Fathers have entertained the masses and raised thousands of dollars for charity. They played on two continents, and producer-director Francis Ford Coppola tried to buy the rights to their story for a feature film adaptation. His version would have been more salacious than the reality, so they turned it down.
However, the founding players eventually aged and the team struggled to find replacements. In 2009, the team disbanded. There have been periodic attempts to restart the team, including a three-game restart in 2019, but the Flying Fathers’ days are apparently over.
Yet, in the midst of their heyday, they found time to visit Alaska. In 1981, they played a three-game series against local senior league teams. Tickets were $8 and all proceeds went to Special Olympics and various youth programs offered by the Archdiocese of Anchorage. The horse, unfortunately, did not make the trip.
The team members themselves were usually bawdy, much to the shock of local news outlets. Team captain Tim Shea told everyone he could that the team earned their undefeated record that year. Said Shea, “We’re 20-0 because we cheat. We cheat like the devil. As a result, during their Anchorage games, the devil, a man dressed as the devil at least, appeared on the ice and bound the opposing players to their goal.
Another player liked to answer the phone with the name of a massage parlor and ask, “Do you want a massage?” During a TV interview, one of the Flying Fathers asked the host: “Is it true that your buns are fresh every morning?” This quip earned them a reprimand from the Archbishop of Anchorage.
All three games in Anchorage took place at Ben Boeke Arena, from January 30 through February 1. As expected by these veteran artists, the first game started smoothly. And as usual, Smitty the Clown, played by Father Patrick Smith, took to the ice after the first period. His role was to entertain the crowd during the break via stunts, pranks and free candy.
As Smith worked his magic, longtime Anchorage Zamboni driver Richard Pickens drove onto the ice to do his own regular job. Smitty, i.e. Smith, lassoed the Zamboni and rode behind the machine as if he was water skiing, much to the surprise of Pickens, who had not been told he would be involved in clown shenanigans. After a few laps around the rink, Smith reached the back of the Zamboni for some snow. As one of his regular gags, he gathered ice into snowballs and threw them at the operator and audience. Hilarity would usually ensue.
Father Vaughan Quinn, the non-Equestrian goalie for the Flying Fathers, told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: “We always say to Smitty, ‘Stay away from the machine. He’s still checking the machine, but obviously the ones here are built differently than the ones in Ontario. And, of course, we got to Anchorage late, and he didn’t check.
That day, Smith/Smitty slipped or reached too far into the machine, and the rotors sliced off the index and ring fingers of his right hand. As Pickens told the Daily News, “I knew what had happened, so I immediately turned off the augers and went into the Zamboni room and dumped it and dug in the snow and I found his fingers. They were blue. I put them in a paper towel.
Smith was rushed to a hospital where doctors worked for hours in an unsuccessful attempt to reattach the fingers. The priest met Pickens the next day, shared a beer and assured him that the accident was not his fault. Smith, obviously down to earth, told his friends, “What is @#$%, I can still count to eight.”
The audience, which included dozens of children in the standing crowd, watched as a clown was mauled, writhing in pain on the ice as a small pool of blood spilled out and stained the surface. Not only did the Flying Fathers have to finish the game with Smith’s blood still visible on the ice, but they still had two games left in Anchorage, followed by a series in Fairbanks. Smith addressed the crowd at that upcoming game in Anchorage and promised them he loved the city so much he wanted to leave a part of him behind forever. The show must continue.
Godwin, Chris. “Fathers fly, frolic with Chilkoots.” Anchorage Times, January 31, 1981, D-1, D-5.
Godwin, Chris. “Fathers here to ‘cheat like the devil.'” Anchorage Times, January 29, 1981, F-1, F-7.
Gold, Julie Anne. “Father flying hurt but not shot down.” Anchorage Daily News, February 1, 1981, A-3.
Hill, Robin Mackey. “‘Zam Man’ paves the way for smooth skating.” Anchorage Daily News, January 22, 1989, M-5.
MacGregor, Roy. “The Flying Fathers: How a group of hockey-playing, fun-loving Catholic priests became an international sensation.” Globe and Mail, June 29, 2018.
Olson, Keith. “Their game plan: make them laugh.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, February 6, 1981, 11.
Rush, Curtis. “In Canada, a revival of hockey. New York Times, February 18, 2019
Somer, Ron. “Flying Fathers: Unlikely to be Mistaken for Trappist Monks.” Anchorage Daily News, January 30, 1981, B-1.