Worshipping the Habs


Back in the days of Maurice Richard, there were tales of ailing Montreal Canadiens fans who claimed they had been cured by touching his jersey.<br />


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MONTREAL -Back in the days of Maurice Richard, there were tales of ailing Montreal Canadiens fans who claimed they had been cured by touching his jersey. Today, the young goalie expected to lead the team to playoff glory has been nicknamed Jesus Price. That Montrealers are mad about hockey is no secret, but students at the Universite de Montreal will soon be learning that the fervour is religious.

Beginning in January, the university's faculty of theology will begin offering a graduate course titled "The Religion of the Montreal Canadiens." Olivier Bauer, the professor who conceived the course, said that since moving here from Switzerland in 2006, he has been struck by the parallels between Montreal's hockey team and religion. When he saw that the team was about to celebrate its centennial season, he decided the time
was right "to finally address the question that nobody dares ask: whether the Montreal Canadiens are a religion," he said.

"Nobody has examined what this really means, all the religious aspects around the Montreal Canadiens. Is it just a metaphor? Is there something deeper? How important is it, and what is the relationship to Quebec's Catholic tradition?"

When he took on the project, not everyone in the faculty was enthusiastic. "At first, people thought it was almost a joke," he said.

Mr. Bauer approached colleagues for contributions to a book on the subject to appear early next year. "Some said yes, others said no. But people made fun of me a little, saying 'He's not serious. Who is this guy who is interested in hockey?'"

The university offered him a $7,000 grant to help his research and invite a visiting lecturer, but he was advised to tread carefully.

"I think the fear was of treating religion with too little respect. Using the word incarnation in the context of a sport, for example, or calling a hockey match a mass, some people might find it insulting."

The doubting Thomases notwithstanding, Mr. Bauer is persuaded that the Canadiens have the characteristics of a religion, beginning with the devotion of their fans. Since news of the course was first reported in Le Devoir, Mr. Bauer has heard from people saying, "Yes, that is me, hockey is my religion."

A young woman commenting on Le Devoir's Web site said she considers it a sin to miss a Habs game. Last season, when the team was facing elimination in the playoffs, she said she sought to bring the team luck by climbing on her knees the 283 steps to the St. Joseph Oratory.

Mr. Bauer noted that nicknames associated with the team often draw on religion. The jersey is known as the Sainte Flanelle, literally the Holy Flannel. Guy Lafleur was known as the "demon blond" or blond devil, and Patrick Roy was dubbed Saint Patrick. Carey Price, the team's current goalie, was nicknamed Jesus by some last year because Price rhymes with Christ.

Mr. Bauer also sees significance in the motto that adorns the Canadiens' dressing room, taken from the poem In Flanders Fields: "To you from failing hands we throw the torch. Be yours to hold it high." It is in keeping with the idea of redemption through suffering, and he sees a parallel with Christ on the crucifix. "It's not a club where strength is put forward but rather failing hands," he said. "The [Philadelphia] Flyers sell their team as warriors but not the Canadiens."

That is not to say the Canadiens don't occasionally go into battle. Last Saturday, after a cheap shot by a visiting member of the Phoenix Coyotes knocked Montreal's Andrei Kostitsyn out of the game, the crowd began howling for Georges Laraque, the team enforcer, to settle accounts. Even in an apparent animal reaction, Mr. Bauer spots a religious side.

"Is it Georges Laraque who is sacrificing himself for the others, because he will receive a penalty? Or has he come as the avenging angel with a sword in his hand?" he wondered. "Maybe, symbolically, one is ready to kill or to die for one's club, and for one's hockey team. It remains symbolic, thank God."

The final phase of the 16-week course will challenge students, all of whom are studying to become priests or ministers, to consider the Canadiens in their pastoral duties.

"How do I manage this religious side of the Canadiens if I am a priest or pastor or rabbi?" Mr. Bauer said. "Do I oppose the Canadiens because it is idolatry, or do I try to use what I can because it works well and maybe my church would work better if I could invite [Canadiens stars] Alex Kovalev or Saku Koivu to take part in the mass from time to time?"



Pierre Castonguay, responding on Oct. 14 to an article in Le Devoir about Professor Olivier Bauer's course on the religion of the Montreal Canadiens:

I believe in the Canadiens, the club almighty

Creator of Heaven, earth and the Holy Flannel

And in Maurice Richard, our Saviour Who was conceived of sane mind Born for the good of the homeland Suffered under Clarence Campbell Was crucified for a bad decision That almost killed us And ascended into Heaven

And is seated at the right hand of the great Referee

From thence he shall come to judge the good players and the cowards I believe in the Holy NHL,

The Communion of old Canadiens heroes

The forgiveness of years without the Stanley Cup

The resurrection during the next playoffs

And glory everlasting. Amen.


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