Roch Carrier’s classic, The Hockey Sweater, begins with a young boy saying that two things were mandatory in his Quebec village, mass on Sunday, and the Saturday night hockey game. For many, this still rings true today.
Montreal is one of the most diverse cities in Canada, with a wide array of people from different cultures with contrasting beliefs. Throughout most of the week, the city is on the go, its citizens preoccupied with everyday concerns. But for three hours on Saturday night, the city is united. For three hours all of these different people form one cohesive heartbeat, their only concern being the sheet of ice at 1260 Rue de la Gauchetière, and whether or not the boys in red are winning.
This level of passion for hockey can be found in cities all across the country. It has been evident for quite some time that the sport is a central aspect of Canadian culture, but some feel that it may be more than that.
Beginning in Jan. 2009, theology professor Dr. Olivier Bauer, of the University of Montreal, will be offering a course that explores whether or not the Montreal Canadiens are a religion.
“The course will provide a very deep reflection of the different religious aspects of the Canadiens de Montreal,” said Bauer. “We can find beliefs in and around the Canadiens and also want to answer the question; is the game a kind of ritual-rite?”
Bauer became interested in the subject two years ago, when he began to realize the striking parallels between the Canadiens and the fundamentals of religion.
As a member of a very Catholic community, the Habs, who are celebrating their 100th anniversary this year, have always possessed a close relationship with religion. Much of the Canadiens’ history holds religious connotations; the jersey itself is referred to as the Sainte Flannelle or Holy Flannel, nicknames for players have also had spiritual undertones including St. Patrick for Patrick Roy and more recently Jesus Price, for young goaltender Carey Price.
The most prominent factor tying the Canadiens to religion, according to Bauer however, is the devotion of their fans.
“I think there are parallel ways, the passion for hockey and the passion for religion are always kind of the same,” said Bauer. “I think it’s something that is shared all across Canada.”
Bauer said that this unwavering faith in the team resembles that which is often associated with religion and also helps to unite people within a community.
Canadiens analyst Mike Boone of habsinsideout.com agreed that the Habs have a mystical way of bonding people.
“The Canadiens are something that unites everybody,” said Boone. “It cuts across everything, young, old, French, English, no matter where you live in town.”
The Habs, however, do not only create a sense of community, but help to sustain it, another religious characteristic according to Bauer.
“It’s very interesting, the Canadiens have their own foundation for the children and a lot of their players take part in social activities and charity events,” said Bauer. “This was traditionally a role of the church, so what does it mean that the Canadiens are so involved in the community?”
Bauer is not the only theologian to tackle the issue of sports and religion however. Dr. Eric Bain-Selbo of Western Kentucky University is in the process of publishing his book Game Day and God, which looks at how college football in the South has religious qualities. Bain-Selbo agrees that the sense of community created by sports teams is also a central aspect of most religions.
“Sports are about the creation of community,” said Bain-Selbo, “and all these religious trappings, these things that people do and have and experience, they create a particular community like religions create community.
Bain-Selbo added that the fundamentals of most religions include sacred space, sacred time and sacred objects, all of which he feels are present in most sports.
“By sacred I mean that the quality of the time and the quality of the experience and the quality of the space is significantly greater than other times or spaces,” said Bain-Selbo, “the human experience of it is different.”
With this definition in mind, it is fair to say that many aspects of the Canadiens organization can be considered sacred. As far as sacred spaces go, the arena in which the game is played always possesses an air of holiness.
Barry Came of Maclean’s Magazine said that the old Montreal Forum “has long been regarded as hockey’s high temple.”
The Habs have no shortage of sacred items either. Half of the Hockey Hall of Fame is composed of Canadiens memorabilia and the equipment of old stars. Many even claim to have been healed by touching the jersey of Maurice Richard.
Bauer said he came across many of these superstitions while carrying out his research.
“I was told that in the old times when people said their prayers, there was three prayers, the first was a prayer of victory for the Canadiens, the second was to win against Toronto, and the third was to pray for Maurice Richard to score the winning goal.”
The fact that stories like these are always said to have taken place in “old times,” has allowed critics of Bauer to say the passion is no longer the same. Bauer, however, feels that that is simply not the case.
“Probably it’s quite different than at the time of Maurice Richard,” said Bauer, “but also the Catholic faith is not the same.”
Boone agrees that the passion and respect level for the Canadiens has not decreased, but taken on a new form with the changing of the times.
“I remember when people dressed to go to the Forum with topcoats and fedoras and things like that,” said Boone. “Now a minimum of half the crowd is wearing Canadiens jerseys, and a minimum half of those jerseys cost 350 bucks.”
Bauer also believes that different players represent and possess similar qualities to token religious figures. Montreal’s enforcer and bona-fide pugilist, Georges Laraque, is a good example of what Bauer refers to as a “redeemer, an angel that brings some justice.”
Young goaltender Carey Price symbolizes the saviour or sacrificial lamb, who can be “crucified” by the media after a loss but is still expected to lead the team to glory.
With all of this in mind, Bauer and his theology students will decide at the end of the 16 week course if the Habs are in fact a religion, and what its proper place is in comparison with other religions.
Until then, one thing is for sure. In the dying seconds of a Stanley Cup game, with the score tied, many fans will look to the heavens, clasp their hands and silently pray to their conventional Gods for the Habs to score the winning goal.