Fr. David Bauer was a multifaceted man whose contributions to his faith, hockey, family and country were remarkable. Photo courtesy of St. Michael’s College School)

Fr. David Bauer was a man of the cloth, a priest of the rink

By  Greg Oliver, Catholic Register Special
  • March 26, 2017

This quote from Tom Watt, former NHL and Canadian Olympic hockey coach, left me intrigued: “Fr. Bauer is a great Canadian, but I could never get it straight — sometimes when you thought you were talking about hockey, the priest came out of him and sometimes when you thought you were talking to a priest the hockey came out of him.”

I had been mulling about writing a proper biography on Fr. David Bauer for some time, but my mind was made up upon hearing Watt deliver those words to a gathering of hockey historians.

The original premise was to remind Canadians about the unique hockey career of this Catholic priest, as a player and builder. His credits include two Memorial Cup junior hockey titles (one as a player, another as a coach), and the coach for three world championship bronze medals and an Olympic bronze. At a time when the Soviet Union was rising as a hockey power, Bauer developed the idea for Canada’s first truly national hockey team in 1963 and then assembled the country’s best amateurs to compete in the 1964 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France.

For many years this hockey-loving priest was as well known and respected in Canada as almost anyone in hockey. When he died in 1988 at age 64, his place in hockey history was assured.

But that’s still only part of the story. What I ended up with in Father Bauer and the Great Experiment was the story of a multi-faceted man who made remarkable contributions to his faith, his family, his country and to the sport he loved.

Bauer came from a well-to-do family in Kitchener-Waterloo. Education, sports and religion were cornerstones of his upbringing, often working in conflict.

“In a sense the founding of the national team dates back to when I was 15 years of age,” Bauer wrote in 1971. “It was then that my father told me that I would be a professional hockey player before I got an education — over his dead body.

“During those years he also impressed upon me the fact that one day I would have to account to God for the talents He had given me, and that there was a priority in terms of the development of our talents that included not just my own self-fulfillment but also the playing of a role in the development of world peace.”

He was an accomplished junior hockey player but chose a different path than his older brother Bobby, who was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame after years on the wing with the Boston Bruins. David Bauer went from St. Michael’s College School to the University of Toronto to St. Basil’s Novitiate. His first profession of vows came in September 1947 and he was ordained in June 1953. He also obtained a teaching degree and returned to St. Mike’s as an educator.

But he never left the hockey rink, coaching, managing and counselling throughout a life that was ended by pancreatic cancer. He was always a coach and a pastor to all his players, regardless of their backgrounds.

“The fact that father was a Basilian priest, he used to worry about that a lot, that people would misinterpret that he was trying to turn everyone into a Catholic. But really, he was very ecumenical,” said Rick Noonan, a friend to Bauer through the years.

“And you look at some of his teams, the year we won the Memorial Cup, there were more non-Catholics than Catholics. They all loved him equally.”

Well-read and a thoughtful listener, Bauer never took himself too seriously. Should a player take the Lord’s name in vain in the heat of the moment during a game, he would find a gentle hand on his shoulder: “Now, now, I do the praying around here.”

He purposefully set out to find talent that would represent each part of the country. Through his crusade to bring Olympic or World Championship gold medals back to Canada at a time when the “professionals” from the Soviet Union dominated the amateur game, Bauer found that hockey could help foster the world peace his father preached.

The very presence of a priest in a clerical collar behind the bench and behind the Iron Curtain at the height of the Cold War was a profile no missionary could achieve.

To this day, Bauer elicits fierce loyalty from his hockey disciples, the members of the Canadian national team from roughly 1963 to 1970. They still reunite every couple of years. To a man, they are thrilled that Bauer’s story — and theirs — is finally being told.

Some of the tales are funny, like Team Canada’s unexpected audience with Pope Paul VI post-Olympics — where Bauer presented the pontiff with a Russian Olympic pin — and others are touching, like  Bauer celebrating Mass in players’ homes where he found himself at Christmas.

Interviewing dozens of  people who knew Bauer and then writing the book, I came to the same conclusion as Tom Watt. Fr. Bauer was both a man of the cloth and a priest of the rink, and no matter which one was speaking, he could influence you in profound ways, inspiring you to do better for your team, your country and your faith.

(Oliver is a Toronto writer. His book, Father Bauer and The Great Experiment, published by ECW Press, has just been released.)

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