Q&A with Matt Hoven

We are delighted to have Matt Hoven on our blog to discuss his book Hockey Priest: Father David Bauer and the Spirit of the Canadian Game. Matt Hoven is an associate professor and Kule Chair at St. Joseph’s College, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada.

Q: How did you first become aware of Fr. Bauer and what drew you to wanting to write this book about him?

A: I first heard of Father Bauer as a child in grade school. My brother explained to me how a priest organized the Canadian ice hockey team at the Winter Olympics. I can remember feeling disoriented at the news: how could a priest lead a hockey team?

Decades later, I noticed that only a small number of sport studies engaged religious topics and that the research was almost always situated in the US and UK. Why had no one written an in-depth book about someone as prominent as Canada’s Father Bauer? My initial research sought to know Bauer’s motivations and thinking about hockey: why did he stay involved in the sport as a priest? Once I began searching in archival collections, I was amazed at the speeches and reports that he had written about hockey. They were marvelous.

Q: Fr. Bauer was, obviously, a priest, as well as a hockey coach. How did you go about balancing those two parts of his life in the book?

A: This question is more difficult than it sounds. It would be wrong to say that we can simply remember Bauer as a hockey person. It is true that his life gravitated around hockey, but he was devoted to his faith and it inspired his actions. He believed he could give witness to higher ideals through sport. It has been said that he spoke from the nation’s biggest pulpit—the sports pages of Canadian newspapers. At the same time, the priest was still an outsider at the highest levels of hockey. For example, the game’s most powerful men saw Bauer as someone moonlighting in hockey and wanted him out of their way.

This complex reality made it difficult to write about Bauer the priest-coach. I had a lot of hockey material from his decades involvement in sport, whereas his faith-based convictions were less pronounced. And it was not his religious thinking that made him prominent but his work in hockey. He integrated his beliefs and values into his leadership. Thus, the book is about his work and thought in hockey and—to understand this properly—I examined his religious roots and philosophical interests. I framed his involvement in sport through these influences.

Q: What do you think this book has to teach a reader today, whether about Fr. Bauer, about hockey, or about religion?

A: Readers will appreciate getting to know the figure of Bauer. Past work has not carefully examined his personhood, motivations, and vision. Integrating his core principles and beliefs brings his story into technicolor. Too often he was viewed as a mysterious figure, a hockey coach with otherworldly concerns. Instead, I unpack the influence of his family and the Basilian Fathers’ sporting tradition, while examining how he tried to integrate the thought of Maritain, McLuhan, Ellul, and others into his hockey philosophy. For instance, his understanding of human development and freedom deeply shaped how he handled players and developed coaching strategies.

To fully understand Bauer, it was necessary for me to situate him in the history of hockey and the Canadian hockey system. For instance, readers will learn the basics about the formation of the sport. Bauer influenced the formation of coaching clinics and a national certification program. The book includes short insights into his game  strategies, such as how he saw hockey as a series of one-on-one battles which resembled the human capacity to rise up and become one’s best self. The ugly side of hockey is also explored, whether it is the game’s excessive violence or how the powerbrokers of the game angled Bauer out of a position of influence.

The book shows readers the lived faith of a religious priest in a hockey setting. We find how religious faith has to bring to the public square, whether in its devotion to ageless values or in its belief in transcendence. We discover a religious faith that is rooted in developing human persons, whether in schools, colleges, or ice rinks. We see the human side of religion, one that tries to understand the implications of faith in the real world. For instance, Bauer critiques an overemphasis on skill development in sport because he believes that it limits—even denies—the flourishing of the human person, where players overemphasize know-how without considering their purpose for playing the game.

Q: What was the most surprising thing that came up during your research?

A: I marveled at the fact that Bauer was the practical reason for the National Hockey League to get involved in international hockey. There may have been other factors, but it was the priest-coach’s National Team that challenged the League’s monopoly on player talent. His efforts made the NHL enter into discussions with the federal government and other bodies to find a resolution. Still today, we see that NHL owners generally  engage international hockey as little as possible—it was Bauer who forced their participation. That is quite an accomplishment by a hockey priest named Father Bauer.

Filter by Month