Priests' hockey game at Winona

February 27, 2014
Source: District of the USA

One of the important events of the annual one week meeting of the US District priests at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary is the hockey game between the priests and the seminarians.

There is a hockey rivalry known in the clerical circles of the US District that matches the intensity felt at the USA vs. Soviet Union 1980’s Olympic hockey match. This rivalry reignites every year when St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary hosts the priests for a week of meetings. Although the priests remember to pack their notebooks and pens for the occasion, they do not forget to bring along their skates and sticks as well for the annual priests vs. seminarians ice hockey game.

Every year the Flyin’ Fathers return to their alma mater with sashes a bit tighter, hair a bit grayer and a fading memory of how to ice skate. But the rivalry stirs their sluggish sticks and they take to the ice wondering if perhaps, by some chance, this year they might just steal the victory from the Russians… or rather the seminarians. If so, it means bragging rights for a whole year and claiming the envied Winona Cup.

Wednesday, February 22 was the day set for the 2014 game and from the beginning to the very end the spectators were not disappointed. Some early goals for the priests were answered by the seminarians’ persistence. Then Fr. Richard Boyle seared the back of the net with the puck from a won faceoff with 20 seconds left in the first period to put the priests up 3-2 going into the first intermission. The second period was just as close as the seminarians matched the Fathers' goal for goal leaving the scoreboard to show the Fathers with a slight 5-4 edge going into the third period. 

How could the Fathers really be this close so late in game? Could the Fathers really defeat their young, fresh-legged juniors as the Americans did their far superior Russian rivals? This is no airplane ride to a mission or parish potluck, this is a physical test of endurance and teamwork to go usque ad finem (all the way to the end). Fresh ice for period three would mean a faster game, as the young bucks were just coming into their comfort zone and getting their second wind.

A confident goal from seminarian Dan Reuter halfway through the period tied the game at 5. No longer could the priests depend on clearing the zone and milking the clock, they had to dig deep and put pressure on net. Finally with almost 2 minutes left in the period, their break came. A loose puck kicked out of the priests’ zone brought the fans to their feet—it was a breakaway for the priests. But moments before Fr. Patrick Rutledge made his move on goal, a seminarian giving it everything he had to catch up took out the priest’s legs by accident. To the consolation of the priests, the referee’s whistle blew. But this did not just mean a power play, it meant a penalty shot—a free shot on the goalie, one to one. Silence filled the arena as he approached the goalie and after the shot was taken, a slight hesitation from the referees made all wonder, but then came the whistle—it was a goal for the priests, who now led 6-5 with two minutes to kill.

War broke out on the ice those last two minutes, every team giving it everything they had. The diving bodies of the men of sacrifice and the extreme efforts of the future priests made the last two minutes as entertaining as ever. Just as the 1980 Russians, the seminarians in their red jerseys put all the pressure they could on goal, but with Fr. Daniel Dailey in the way, their shots were denied leaving a gasping priests’ bench. But then the clock came to zero and the priests celebrated as though they had won Olympic gold. One could almost hear the 1980 announcer asking, “Do you believe in miracles?

Fr. Arnaud Rostand presented the priests with their trophy and blessed the fatigued clerics before all sang the Ave Regina Caelorum to honor the Mother of God. This victory for the priests, while truly nothing in the perspective of their priestly life, left the priests wondering: perhaps those plane rides and hours in the confessional have not really stiffened their bones; perhaps those parish potlucks have not affected their mobility. But victory in this life is short-lived because next year the rivalry will continue and at the end of the day all of the priests and seminarians know that they are men of God first, and hockey players in a far distant second.