I had hoped the Toronto Maple Leafs would still have a big goose egg in the win column going into tonight’s tilt against the Montreal Canadiens. Instead, the Leafs are 1-7-2 going into Buffalo Friday – still good enough for last place in the league – and the real hope is for a decisive win over the hapless Buds.
For hockey fans, a Montreal-Toronto game retains the cachet of the NHL’s glory years. For Habs fans, a win over the Leafs is cause for much gloating, a loss a thing of bitter embarrassment – that would go double given the abysmal team Toronto has iced this year. (We’ll take solace in Wednesday night’s spanking in Pittsburgh by reminding ourselves the Leafs lost in Dallas, ending their winning streak at one.)
It’s difficult to overstate the rivalry, which these days is less about the teams and players themselves than it is about the cities and their fans. There are bragging rights at stake. The Halloween matchup will take on an extra fervor accordingly, which is saying something in a city where the hockey team has ascended to something resembling deification.
That’s no exaggeration. Just ask Olivier Bauer, a theologian and professor at the Université de Montréal, who authored with Jean-Marc Barreau a book called “La religion du Canadien de Montréal” and who last winter taught a graduate class on the religion of the Montreal Canadiens. A second book on the subject is due out early next year.
For Quebecers, the emergence of hockey-as-religion stems from being steeped in the Catholic faith. That attachment really started to emerge in the 1950s with Maurice (Rocket) Richard, a cultural icon to this day.
Bauer sees many similarities between Catholicism and the way the Canadiens are revered in the province. The team’s goaltender is always a savior, especially the likes of Saint Patrick (Roy) and the Jesus Price label for current franchise netminder Carey Price. As with the religion, miracles are expected to happen.
Fans came to the Montreal Forum – and later the Bell Centre – to worship. The team is known as Les Glorieux, sporting jerseys called la sainte flannelle – the holy flannel. Maurice Richard is God. The Stanley Cup is clearly the Holy Grail. The principle saint is Jean Beliveau. The players are the high priests at each service. There’s even a Judas figure to be found: this time around it was GM Bob Gainey for firing his friend Guy Carbonneau from the coaching position, Bauer suggests.
And what of Lucifer?
“If there is a devil in ice hockey, it would be Don Cherry,” he jokes, pointing out that even Lucifer serves a purpose.
“It’s a very special religion.”
As a boy growing up in Switzerland, Bauer was well aware of the Canadiens’ reputation. He even donned a Habs jersey when playing hockey, his chosen position between the pipes.
When he moved to Montreal a couple of years ago, he had to put to the test the notion that hockey is a religion in the city.
“I had to look at it more closely – it’s a great topic for a theologian.”
Given the team’s 100th anniversary celebrations, he thought it was a good time to offer the graduate course in Canadiens-as-religion early this year. The more he looked into it, the more Quebecers’ regard for the team could be seen as religious. The Habs’ fortunes are reflected in public mood, he says.
When the Canadiens lost five in a row early in the season, people were down and irritable. When the wins started adding up, everyone is happy, and more prepared to deal with a long winter. And following the team requires a certain amount of faith.
During the Montreal dynasty years, the pursuit of the Cup didn’t require faith – it was simply a fact, says Bauer. Having gone without a Stanley Cup since 1993, the Habs faithful are a bit more akin to those in Leafs Nation, though he hastens to distance himself from too many comparisons.
“Cheering for the Leafs is like going to church when you know there is no God,” he laughs. On the other hand, Leafs fans continue to believe in the team – “it is a faith.”
“The fans, they pray for two things. The first is that the Canadiens will win. The second thing is that they pray for the Canadiens to crush the Maple Leafs, but I think you don’t need any God for that,” he says of Toronto’s record of futility dating back to 1967.
It’s hard to imagine Montrealers putting up with 42 years of also-ran performance. It’s not what we expect of our spiritual leaders – the Habs may not be a means to reach God, but hockey does have many of the trappings of religion, Bauer notes, adding that going to see the Montreal Canadiens is like a visit to Rome for Catholics – “it’s the place, with a capital P.”