When nearly 200 priests and seminarians get together, an ice rink isn’t the most logical meeting place. But once a year in Winona, that’s exactly what takes place. In what is simply known as “The Game,” seminarians from St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Winona take on the priests from across the United States and Canada who studied at the very same institution.
It all happens at Bud King Ice Arena and is radically different from any high school, college or youth game that usually occupies the ice.
Since 1988, “The Game” has been the biggest rivalry no one really knows about in Minnesota — yes, the State of Hockey.
Let me tell you, it is a hockey game unlike any other. I witnessed “The Game” on Wednesday at Bud King Ice Arena and it left me, well, smiling.
“The game is pretty well known throughout our society of priests,” said Father Arnaud Rostand, who is stationed in Kansas City.
Every February, priests are summoned to Winona for annual meetings.
Back in 1988, Father Charles Ward wanted to add something extra to the meetings and came up with an idea that has turned into a tradition.
Ward decided to start an annual hockey game between the priests and the seminarians.
After arranging it with the District Superior, his dream came to fruition.
“The seminary was originally based in Richfield, Conn., and a lot of the seminarians out there played hockey,” said Ward, who now is stationed in Los Angeles. “When we moved here we found a way to keep playing.”
While some priests — their team is known as the “Flyin’ Fathers” — wear traditional hockey equipment, many are on the ice in their robes. Yes, robes. Let your mind wander free for a moment and imagine that.
Robes are not likely going to turn into the latest hockey uniform craze, but hey, that’s not what this is all about.
It’s about fun, although both teams play to win.
“We just try to play a noble game with good sportsmanship,” Ward said. “We play because we love the game and for the rivalry.”
Rivalry, yes. Trash-talking? Nope, that’s not a part of this game.
The rivalry is pretty one-sided; the priests have won just twice since ’88, which is something they quickly attribute to their “older” age.
While the majority of the people watching the game were priests or seminarians, the game certainly left an impression on others in the stands.
Rink manager Jim Martin has watched the game for the past 11 years and looks forward to it every season.
“I’ve played and been around hockey all my life, and I love watching them play,” Martin said. “They’re out there having fun, but it gets to be a pretty physical game.”
The thing that stands out for Martin isn’t the actual game, but what takes place prior to it.
“When they all meet at center ice and do their Latin prayer, it really is surreal,” Martin said. “It just echoes in here.”
It’s quite a contrast to a high school fight song.
What the game mostly represents is hockey in its purest form. Some of the players have played some level of organized hockey, some haven’t.
They play for the competition, the camaraderie, or simply the love of the game.
“(Love of the game) is why I play,” said Father Christopher Lieth, who is stationed in Browerville, Minn., and has played in the game as either a priest or seminarian for 18 years.
“It gives us a great bonding event once a year, and it gives us a nice break from our meetings.”