Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? 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. That is, such Outside operations started paying attention to Alaska once long-distance air travel became affordable, and the population grew large enough to ensure a good turnout. However, none of these teams had as traumatic a 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. In simple terms, the Flying Fathers were for hockey what the Globetrotters are for basketball, except that the former existed for charity rather than profit, and the gags tended to have more religious aspects.
The Flying Fathers originated in the Ontario town of North Bay. In 1963, Father Brian McKee learned that one of his altar boys had badly injured an eye during a hockey game. His family could not afford the necessary surgery, so McKee organized a charity hockey match of priests versus the local amateurs. In his youth, McKee had been a standout 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 priests would be able to hold their own on the ice. To the great surprise of the crowd, the priests won that game 7-3.
By 1964, the team had its name and soon became a Canadian institution. As they evolved, they pulled in more experienced players, including Father Les Costello, who briefly played for the Toronto Maple Leafs and won a Stanley Cup before retiring to enter the seminary. Several other players on the team had spent time in the minors or advanced amateur leagues. Like the Globetrotters, the Flying Fathers were nearly unbeatable, winning around 900 games to only a handful of losses.
Skits were a significant part of that 1963 game, and as the team grew in popularity, the use of comedy in their performances increased until it became the primary 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. In every game, a referee would penalize the opposing team for acting like a Protestant or skipping Mass. There were cream pie baptisms and miracle births from pileups. The priests occasionally took hits from a flask containing “altar wine.” These were most irreverent reverends.
In their most famous routine, the star player, usually Costello, would feign an injury and be removed to the dressing room. Then, they would suddenly reemerge dressed as a nun — Sister Mary Shooter — who dashed from end to end and aggressively checked opposing players. Sister Shooter would eventually remove her habit and reveal her identity to great applause. Similarly, the goalie was often replaced by a horse in full pads, Penance, who was trained to kneel as if in prayer.
For over 40 years, the Flying Fathers 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 reality, so they turned him down.
However, the founding players eventually aged out, and the team struggled to find replacements. In 2009, the team disbanded. There have periodic attempts to restart the team, including a three-game revival in 2019, but the time of the Flying Fathers has seemingly passed.
Still, in the heart of their heyday, they found time to tour Alaska. In 1981, they played a three-game series against local senior league teams. Tickets were $8, and all profits went to the Special Olympics and various youth programs offered by the Archdiocese of Anchorage. The horse, unfortunately, did not make the trip.
The team members were their usually bawdy selves, to the shock of area news organizations. Team captain Tim Shea told everyone he could that the team had earned its undefeated record that year. Said Shea, “We’re 20-0 because we cheat. We cheat like the devil.” Accordingly, during their Anchorage games, the devil, a man dressed like the devil at least, appeared on the ice and tied opposing players to their goal.
Another player was fond of answering the phone with the name of a massage parlor and asking, “do you want a massage?” During a television interview, one of the Flying Fathers asked the female host, “Is it true that your buns are flown in fresh each morning?” That quip earned them a reprimand from the Archbishop of Anchorage.
All three games in Anchorage were played at the Ben Boeke Arena, from Jan. 30 through Feb. 1. As expected from such veteran entertainers, the first game began smoothly. And as per usual, Smitty the Clown, played by Father Patrick Smith, took the ice after the first period. His role was to keep the crowd entertained through the break via pratfalls, 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, that is Smith, lassoed the Zamboni and rode behind the machine as if he was water skiing, to the great surprise of Pickens, who had not been informed that he would be involved in any clown shenanigans. After a couple of laps around the rink, Smith reached into the back of the Zamboni for some snow. As one of his regular gags, he would gather the ice into snowballs and throw them at the operator and audience. Hilarity would typically ensue.
Father Vaughan Quinn, the Flying Fathers non-horse goalie, told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, “We’re always saying to Smitty ‘Stay away from the machine.’ He always checks the machine, but obviously, the ones up here are built different than the ones back in Ontario. And, of course, we came into Anchorage late, and he didn’t check it.”
On this day, Smith/Smitty slipped or reached too far into the machine, and the rotors sliced off the index and third fingers of his right hand. As Pickens told the Daily News, “I knew what happened, so I instantly turned off the augers and went into the Zamboni room and dumped it and dug through the snow and found his fingers. They were blue. I put them in a paper towel.”
Smith was rushed to a hospital where doctors labored for hours in an unsuccessful attempt to reattach the fingers. The priest met with Pickens the next day, shared a beer, and assured him that the accident was not his fault. The demonstrably earthy Smith told his friends, “What the @#$%, I can still count to eight.”
The audience, which included dozens of children in the standing-room-only crowd, watched a clown be mutilated, writhing in pain on the ice as a small pool of blood spread 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 had two more games to go in Anchorage, followed by a series in Fairbanks. Smith addressed the crowd at that next game in Anchorage and promised them he loved the town so much that he wished to leave a part of him behind forever. The show must go on.
Godwin, Chris. “Fathers Fly, Cavort 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. “Injured Flying Father Out But Not 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 Catholic Priests Playing Hockey—and Having Fun—Became an International Sensation.” Globe and Mail, June 29, 2018.
Olson, Keith. “Their Game Plan: To Keep ‘Em Laughing.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, February 6, 1981, 11.
Rush, Curtis. “In Canada, a Hockey Revival.” New York Times, February 18, 2019
Somers, Ron. “Flying Fathers: Not Likely to be Taken for Trappist Monks.” Anchorage Daily News, January 30, 1981, B-1.