Thursday, October 23, 2008

Are the Canadiens a religion?

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 Université de Montréal 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 "démon 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.

No comments: