He was born in South Porcupine, Ontario, and played hockey as a teenager, eventually joining Toronto's St. Michael's Majors in the 1940s, winning two Memorial Cups with the team in 1945 and 1947. He subsequently played two years in the NHL for the Toronto Maple Leafs, including the 1948 Stanley Cup championship team. His brother Murray was also a professional hockey player.
(Fr. Les Costello's name engraved on the Stanley Cup in 1948)
Costello retired from professional hockey in 1950 to pursue seminary studies, and was ordained in 1957. He took a parish in his hometown of Timmins, where he was widely respected for both his flamboyant, fun-loving demeanor and his tireless commitment to social justice and charity work.
In 1963, Costello and colleague Brian McKee founded the Flying Fathers, a group of Catholic priests who played exhibition hockey. Originally intended as a one-time charity event, the Fathers became a phenomenon, regularly touring North America to raise money for charity, and are still active as of 2005.
In 1979, Costello got lost for over 24 hours on a camping trip, and subsequently had several toes amputated due to frostbite. Although his skating ability was significantly impaired by his disability, he continued his involvement with the team, stuffing rolled-up socks into the toes of his skates. The incident also attracted international media attention, including coverage in People magazine and on the television show Real People.
As a result of the media coverage, Francis Ford Coppola offered the Fathers a movie option. He brought Wayne Gretzky to Hollywood to audition for the role of Costello, but the film fell apart when Gretzky's acting ability proved unable to carry a film. (However, it was on that trip that Gretzky first met his future wife, Janet Jones.)
For the 25th anniversary of Costello's ordination in 1982, friends and parishioners took up a collection to buy Costello a truck for use in his charity work. Instead, Costello sold the vehicle and used the money to buy furniture and food for needy families.
At a Flying Fathers game in Kincardine in 2002, Costello was hit in the head by a puck, falling back and hitting his head on the ice. Still feeling unwell the following day, he was admitted to hospital, where he slipped into a coma and died a week later on December 10.
As his parish was unable to accommodate the crowds expected for his funeral, the service was held in Timmins' McIntyre Arena. Thousands from all over the country are reputed to have been at the funeral. Even Timmins native Shania Twain issued a statement of tribute to Costello:
"Father Costello has been there for my family many times over the years. Whether it was to find my grandmother a second-hand fridge; marry my parents; give our family funeral services — including our beloved Mom and Dad; or just plain joining in on a good joke. He's always quick to smile and share his zest for life. The goodness of God is with this very special man and he shares that spirit with everyone around him. We all love him."
Writer and politician Charlie Angus published a biography of Costello, Les Costello: Canada's Flying Father, in 2005. A foundation to raise funds for food banks, homeless shelters and other anti-poverty charities in Northern Ontario was also launched in Costello's memory the same year.
Fr. Les Costello - requiescat in pace