From goalie pads to priest’s robes

Pictou Advocate sports

It’s amazing how, when we’re kids, many of us are influenced by someone just a bit older than ourselves.

It might be a young guy in the neighbourhood. It might be a fellow we see around town. If we’re already interested in sports, it might be a teenage hockey player or a budding baseball star.

It happened to me.

- Advertisement -

It was many years ago — before black and white television, in fact. It was in the good old days of the late 1940s and early ’50s. Back then, I knew a teenager in New Glasgow who was playing organized hockey. He was a goaltender and had the pads to prove it. He caught my eye because I always favoured the netminders.

He was Bobby Day.

Funny how things turn out. A few hockey seasons later, I was in high school and just beginning my newspaper career. One day, after a game, I found myself interviewing, yip, the same Bobby Day.

He was at a crossroads in life.

He had two options. He could continue being a hockey goaltender, at a time when there were no masks or helmets, when you stood out there alone and bare-faced, anticipating your opponents’ hardest shots. Or he could become a Roman Catholic priest, standing alone in the pulpit on Sunday mornings, preaching to the faces in the pews.

He chose the priesthood.

Almost five decades later, I was interviewing 67-year-old Father Robert Albert (Bobby) Day about his life, his long-ago hockey exploits, his years in priest’s robes.

I couldn’t resist. I asked him if he were given the same choices for a career, would he put away the pads for the robes?

Laughing, he told me he would rather step into the net anytime because you have the pads on when you’re in the net.

We both laughed.

He was — from my own observations — a good, promising goaltender. He was — from what I heard often — a good, well-liked priest.

During that get-together, he didn’t mind that I called him what I had called him back in school. To me, he was always Bobby.

He told me how hockey helped him not to be shy and reluctant when meeting people. It helped him in other ways as a priest.

When our conversation swung to hockey — how could it not? — he wondered if the advances in sports, with the added pressures, were a good thing or if the circumstances were better in the 1950s.

Bobby talked about how he and his teammates would walk almost a mile, carrying their gear, just to play on an ice pond, opposed to kids nowadays jumping into a car and being driven to a heated arena.

Make no mistake, he enjoyed hockey.

He was good enough to play for Our Lady of Lourdes minor hockey program. He was good enough to go to North Sydney and star for the strong Northside Franklyns in junior hockey. He was good enough to play for the powerful St. Francis Xavier X-Men in the early years of the team’s 13 consecutive Maritime championships. He was good enough to be considered a pro candidate.

In the end, he didn’t allow his puck-blocking to derail him from his ambitions to enter the priesthood.

He told me there were benefits at X in combining hockey with his studies. Playing with the varsity team helped him as a student, taught him how to get along with people, showed him how to develop skills, and how to be a team member, not just an individual player.

Were there regrets about hockey?

The only regret, he said, was that he never had a pair of pads that he owned himself. He always wanted a new pair. When he started playing, the pads were about as thick as the hockey gloves people wear today. They were very, very thin. They were borrowed. Everything he had was borrowed from somebody else.

During his childhood, there was no minor hockey in town.

His first memory of hockey — as was mine — was playing out on Connolly’s ice dam off East River Road. He used to play a lot of road hockey. There was nobody else to play nets, so he was picked, and that’s where he always played.

Bobby and I talked hockey several times. He was always stressing the value of letting kids enjoy the participation rather than pressing them to aim for professional or other high levels of the game. He talked about it in a serious vain, saying he worried about youngsters who were lured away on big promises, only to have the door slam shut.

His opinions were sincere.

All of us who spend a lot of time around minor hockey see the same thing. Promises made, promises broken. You often wonder what impact the experience has on a young person in the days and years ahead. It’s the one negative aspect of minor hockey.

I’ve always remembered that afternoon with him. It was 2001 and our conversation became two columns. I got good reactions.

That was the last time I interviewed him.

Two years later, he and I met up again — this time at John (Brother) MacDonald’s funeral at Our Lady of Lourdes. We chatted briefly about how Brother had been such an influence on both of our lives, even though our lives were headed in different directions.

The next time I was at Lourdes was on an October morning in 2008. I was there to attend funeral mass for Rev. Robert Albert (Bobby) Day. The old goaltender had passed away at the Aberdeen Hospital at the age of 75.

This weekend marks the anniversary of his death and, even though we weren’t of the same religious faith, I’m sure “Bobby” would be pleased if I said a little prayer for him.

Why not? We both attended St. FX.