Fr. David Bauer Register file photo

For Fr. Bauer, the person came before the hockey player

  • May 3, 2024

Fr. David Bauer famously said “if you can improve the boy as a person through virtues of hockey — courage, judgment, prudence, fortitude, teamwork and fair play, he will improve as a hockey player.”

In Hockey Priest: Father David Bauer and the Spirit of the Canadian Game, St. Joseph College’s Associate Professor and Kule Chair in Religious Education Dr. Matt Hoven investigated how the sporting pioneer and Basilian priest championed the holistic development of the players he mentored. Meticulous archival research and interviews of figures in Bauer’s orbit enabled Hoven to craft a portrait of a man willing to challenge the hockey establishment to improve the game.

Hoven was keen on uncovering what made the Waterloo, Ont., native tick. In the academic’s view, previous writing about Bauer and his coaching and managerial exploits depicted him as “kind of a mysterious figure.” The only glimpses into his mindset were quotable statements about his viewpoints and some short anecdotes.

Following in the footsteps of his older brother Bobby, who twice sipped from Lord Stanley’s Cup as a member of the Boston Bruins in the late 1930s and early ’40s, Bauer’s story in the game is set in motion when he was offered a contract with the Bruins. While tantalizing, he declined the opportunity to play in the big league.

“He had an (epiphany) of ‘is chasing a puck around all my life really going to make me happy,’ ” said Hoven. “In the end, he becomes a priest, but instead of leaving hockey behind, he teaches and coaches hockey at St. Michael’s College in Toronto and wins a national championship. From there, he takes it to the international stage with the (Canadian) national team. It is a great story, but he continues into the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. What I wanted to understand is why he kept at it. What was his vision? What was his dream?”

During a momentous train voyage from British Columbia to Ontario in 1945 upon returning from service in the Second World War, Hoven said Bauer visualized potential nation-building philosophical changes to Canada’s favourite pastime.  

“He is on this train full of soldiers, and you can imagine what they are all thinking,” said Hoven. “They are excited to go home, but they have had an experience that has so impacted them. They said, ‘we have to build a different world. We have to build a world based on peace and understanding.’

“From that, Bauer dug in and understood his priesthood and hockey as inspired by it,” continued Hoven. “Hockey wasn’t just about making it to the NHL; through connections, you could build young people up. They can learn about different cultures. Not only were they physically growing and gaining in skills, but they grew as people.”

After guiding the St. Michael’s Majors to glory at the 1961 Memorial Cup, Bauer transferred to St. Mark’s College, a theological postsecondary institution founded by the Basilians in 1956 and affiliated with the University of British Columbia (UBC). His approach bore strong results again as he guided the UBC Thunderbirds to a berth in the 1963 Canadian Intercollegiate Athletic Union (CIAU) — now known as U Sports — championship. 

He emerged as a player developer of stature, and his resume earned him an invitation from the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association to form Canadian Olympic and world championship squads made up from university students and senior players. This development was deemed radical as it departed from the tradition of the reigning Allan Cup champion representing the country on the international stage. 

Bauer, an Order of Canada recipient, guided Team Canada to a fourth-place finish at the 1964 Winter Olympics and bronze medals at the 1966 and 1967 world championships and the 1968 Olympics. Eight years before his passing in 1988, he managed the Canadian national team that competed at the 1980 Games at Lake Placid, New York — the backdrop of Team U.S.A.’s storied “Miracle on Ice” against the Soviet Union. 

A significant finding Hoven unearthed while poring through the Hockey Canada archives was a speech Bauer gave to a group of coaches before Lake Placid.

“He said, ‘if we don’t situate ourselves and understand hockey in a larger framework, we are going to lose our values. If it’s simply about playing a game, there are so many outside influences, we won’t even notice what we’ll fall for.’ He’s speaking out about money running the sport, violence running it and a lack of education.”

Based on Hoven’s account, one could contend that Bauer adopted the player-friendly coaching style that has overtaken the game at all levels, a marked contrast from the tyrannical coaching styles of NHL legends like George “Punch” Imlach, who led the Toronto Maple Leafs to four Stanley Cups in the 1960s, including the team’s last grasp at glory in 1967. 

“He believed you needed to treat the players as people,” said Hoven. “Coaches should know something about their players outside of hockey. When you think of (today’s focus on) mental health, in the 1960s, he was talking about the psychological damage of sport.”

To protect young people from the “psychological distress” any sport could inflict upon them, Bauer preached the importance of doing what is best for each individual player. 

“Athlete wellbeing, mental health — these were things he was talking about 50 years ago,” said Hoven. “Other people were talking about it too. Not everyone was agreeing with the Punch Imlachs with the violence and the psychological head games.”

Bauer’s dual vocations as priest and coach caused some interior head games. Hoven said he had to manage “a delicate balance” between his priestly vows of humility and his notoriety as a hockey guy being quoted in newspapers and appearing on Hockey Night in Canada. 

“On one hand, he is a leader, but he is trying to pull back because he doesn’t want to be front and centre,” said Hoven. “That was a challenge for him as a priest.”

Hoven said Bauer was also cognizant of trying not to treat Catholic players differently than non-Catholic players. Religious denominations did not determine time on ice. This even-handed approach was perhaps not optimal for Catholic players who desired a meaningful connection with their spiritual coach. 

Following a career with the Toronto Maple Leafs that earned him three Stanley Cups, defenceman Carl Brewer, described by Hoven as a “Catholic who was a devoted daily Mass attendee,” joined the Canadian national team expressly to develop a tight-knit relationship with Bauer. 

“Fr. Bauer was interested in the hockey player,” said Hoven. “He knew it would be a problem if he treated Brewer differently. That was a challenge.”

Hockey Priest: Father David Bauer and the Spirit of the Canadian Game was released April 19, on the eve of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs started. 


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