Saint Patrick on Ice

Mathieu Biron 03Is there something religious (not to mention potentially idolatrous) about the relationship some sports fans have with their beloved teams? It's a great topic, and the focus of a provocative article this week by National Post writer Graeme Hamilton. While highly entertaining, "Are the Canadiens A Religion?" really could have used the counterpoint of some skeptical voices.

The story could probably have been written about any number of other sports teams. Here in Philly I think we believe in some form of double predestination. "They" are predistined to win, and "we" are predestined to lose.

The only difference is that our team is not the subject of a graduate course.

Hamilton starts off with a few compelling snippets that illustrate well the sorta sacramental relationship fans seem to have with the Canadiens.

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.

Given the multiple references to Christian symbolism in the article, it might have been more accurate to ask "Are the Canadiens Christ-Figures?"

Hamilton could have asked Olivier Bauer, who created that course, that question.

It's hard to interpret these paragraphs in any other way:

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.

Oh, by the way, this course is only for students studying to become priests or ministers.

Thus it seems rather odd that there is mishmash of Christian allusions in the article and little follow-up. The surfeit of throway lines, and the lack of quotes from other professors or students, ends up making Bauer's quotes sound rather flip.

I'm not sure whether that was either the writers or the professors intention.

Or maybe it was. Check out the quote below.

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?"

Is such worship idolatrous? That's a fabulous question. Too bad it is only raised at the end.

PS - Here in the Philadelphia area, we know from idol worship. (Particularly when the local baseball team is playing in the World Series).

Some might even consider us a little, hmm, intense.

Longtime local resident and New York Times sportwriter Jere Longman has a great book on that subject. If Football's a Religion, Why Don't We Have A Prayer?, which chronicles the Philadelphia Eagles last journey to the Super Bowl in 2005, neatly catches the enmeshed, quasi-sacramental, fatalistic, and affectionate relationship Philly fans have with their teams.

Go Phillies! (This endorsement is purely personal and does not reflect the opinion of the management).

N.B. I had to eliminate a few accents egu for technical reasons. My apologies to any French or Canadian readers.

That's a picture of Mathieu Biron, not Patrick Roy (I know you know this).

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