A ’holy’ education for hockey lovers

In a new course, a Montreal professor equates devotion to the Habs with religion.

Almost every religion has its sacred places of worship. For Tibetan Buddhists, it’s the Jokhang temple at the foot of Mount Gephel in Lhasa; for Hindus, the shrines of Varanasi on the Ganges River in northern India; and according to one professor, the Bell Centre in downtown Montreal for the pious and devoted followers of the Montreal Canadiens.

The idea that the Canadiens are a religious institution, with the Bell Centre serving as its cathedral, came to Olivier Bauer, a theology professor at the Université de Montréal, as a “divine inspiration,” he says, when he first arrived in the city to teach at the faculty of theology and religious studies in 2006. He decided to write a book to explore the subject, The Religion of the Montreal Canadiens, that coincided with the team’s 100th anniversary last year, and he started a course on the subject to further examine Quebec’s century-long bond with the city’s legendary hockey club.

Bauer, who was born in Switzerland and played goal when he attended the Université de Neuchâtel, has some overwhelming evidence to support his assertion. “It starts with the jersey,” he says, “which is often referred to as la Sainte-Flanelle, the Holy Flannel.” He then points to the media and general public in Montreal who often assign religious names to certain players: Guy Lafleur was affectionately known as le Démon Blond (the Blond Demon); Patrick Roy was St. Patrick—until demanding a trade in 1995 got him labelled a heretic; and Carey Price, the team’s young goaltender, is hailed as Jesus Price. The mercurial Andrei Kostitsyn is Frère André.

And who might be God? “Maurice Richard, for sure,” says Bauer, and “Don Cherry is Lucifer because real Habs fans don’t like him. But if they want to be honest, they have to admit that he brings light to the dark world of hockey.” The fans, meanwhile, are the “priests celebrating the liturgy,” some of whom climb Saint Joseph’s Oratory on the northern slope of Mount Royal before important games to pray.

Bauer’s inaugural class last year drew theology students in the pastoral stream along with hard-core Canadiens fans. Taught in three parts, its first section addressed relics. As an example, Bauer points to Maurice Richard, considered by some to be a sort of divine entity possessed of healing qualities. Legend has it that a mute man began to speak after seeing Richard score a goal. The second segment looked at rituals, including whether or not there are similarities between a Canadiens game and a religious mass. (Apparently one student thinks so: he showed Bauer a picture of his living room complete with an altar adorned with pucks, red candles and a miniature Stanley Cup. A seat from the old Montreal Forum is his chair of choice when watching playoff games.) The final section addressed certain pastoral questions, such as: “If I’m in charge of a religious community, how do I deal with the Habs religion?” Assignments ranged from studying media coverage of the team and examining religious metaphors, behaviours and ethics, to drawing links between these religious elements and devotion to the Habs. When the course starts up next semester, Bauer wants to bring in guest speakers to share their own ideas about the Canadiens religion. Don Cherry is tops on Bauer’s list of potential candidates.

Surprisingly, Bauer doesn’t ascribe to the religion of the Montreal Canadiens, despite promoting its existence. “It is a very tribal religion and could be a violent religion because if you are a fan of the Canadiens you have to hate the Bruins or the Leafs, and I don’t think that is a value that religion should promote,” says Bauer, who before coming to Montreal worked as a Protestant pastor in Washington. “I think religion is love and it’s important to remember that you play with someone, not against someone.”

Set for release next month is Bauer’s latest book, A Theology of the Montreal Canadiens, in which he further explores the unfavourable aspects of the Habs religion. In addition to its tribal nature, Bauer feels that it’s too exclusive because only fans who can afford the pricey tickets can attend games, and average players are largely ignored. He also thinks it plays too much into human frailty. “Fans think that performing some rituals will convince God to do exactly what they want,” says Bauer. “I prefer to let God be free to surprise me and give me what I really need.” In June, Bauer will present a paper in Buffalo at an international scholarly conference, Hockey on the Border, where he will argue that the province’s passion for the Canadiens walks a fine line between faith and idolatry.

As for the Canadiens biggest rivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs, Bauer says the faith of their followers is being tested as the team approaches a 43-year Stanley Cup drought. “Cheering for the Leafs,” he adds with a devilish laugh, “is like going to church when you know there is no God.”