I’ve never been a big fan of mixing religion and sport.
I’m not talking about the religious beliefs of my fellow hockey players. One of my former Jets teammates was pondering recently whether to even play summer competition this year because most of the games were on Saturdays, and that’s a religious down day for him – a devoted day to try and do good for the world, which is a nice idea.
I respect his dilemma, and admire his discipline. Quietly choosing belief over sport.
Instead I’m talking about the outspoken religious types on the wider stage. The athletes who use their moment in the spotlight to shove their God down everybody’s collective throat. You know, the Olympic sprinter who crosses herself after winning gold, looking to the Heavens. Or the golfer who earnestly thanks God for a PGA win, for Divinely helping that final three metre putt drop so the believer could bank the giant cheque. Meanwhile, in the world’s trouble spots …
My favourite and funniest ever example of this phenomenon was back in the carbon-dated era when I was a very young international tennis writer and an American teenager called Michael Chang won the French Open, the only time I ever got to cover Roland Garros. I was secretly sad that Chang won because one of my favourite players, Stefan Edberg, had played out of his brain to make the final and I think he knew and we knew and everybody knew that he would never get a chance like this again, to win the clay-based French title, the most difficult Grand Slam leg for his serve-volley talents, against some teenager.
Edberg was even up two sets to one in the final but couldn’t put away the dogged, mosquito-like Chang, finally losing, exhausted, 6-2 in the fifth.
All of which was fair enough – well played, kid – until the presentation ceremony. Chang’s victory speech went on and on, in a weary monologue about how God had won this title for him, that his success was all down to The Lord, that God had given him the strength and the legs, thank you God for this silverware, thank you God for this triumph … Seriously, it was cringeworthy.
Through all this, I was watching poor Edberg. The Swede is one of the nicest guys you would ever meet in world sport and he stood, absolutely poker-faced, through this endless rant. Finally, Chang wound it up and Edberg was able to leave the court and, in an unusual move, went straight to the media room. (On the world tennis tour, the loser is allowed to go second, for media, to give them time to compose themselves, especially after a Grand Slam final.)
The journalists gathered, respectfully quiet and sympathetic to Stefan’s loss. Edberg sipped water and sighed. There was the usual pause as everybody waited for somebody to pipe up with the opening question. And then an American journo said: ‘Stefan, why do you think God was so against you today?’
Oh, we laughed. Including Edberg, who did his quiet Swedish chortle and said: ‘No, no, no, no, no. I’m not touching that. No comment. Hahaha.’
And we all got back to discussing this backhand or that point and life returned to normal.
The only reason to bring this up – apart from the fact that this remains one of my favourite memories from my tennis writing days – is that Detroit played the Montreal Canadiens today, a team also known as the Habs or, in French Canada, as La Sainte-Flannelle (The Holy Flannel).
As far as hockey goes, religion usually seems to be about as present as in any other North American sport. You’ll get players thanking the Lord for their talent here or there, and I’m sure many players are deeply, privately religious.
For fans, there are the jokes (and I apologise in advance to religious friends reading this, if you find it offensive), such as:
‘Q: Why was Jesus terrible at hockey?
A: Because he kept getting nailed to the boards.’
Or the bumper sticker: ‘Jesus saves. Passes to Noah, who shoots and scores!’
But the Canadiens shrug off such wisecracks to put an interesting spin on the whole question of sport and religion, because it has been seriously debated that the team may qualify as a faith.
In 2009, the centenary of the team’s creation, Professor Olivier Bauer at the Université de Montréal launched a 16 week class seriously asking the question: should the Canadiens should be regarded as a religion? It is unarguable that the team is much bigger to French-Canada than a mere sporting team. It is a cultural icon with a deeply powerful emotional attachment for its followers, to the point that Bauer raised the argument that the team was so deeply entwined to the region’s culture, spirit and self-belief that it may tick all the boxes required of a religion.
(The course, by the way, followed on from a book, co-edited by Bauer – who is unrelated to the hockey equipment company as far as I know – called La religion du Canadien de Montréal.)
In many ways, Montreal is to hockey what St Andrews in Scotland is to golf; the home, the foundation. For example, it was on March 3, 1875, that the first-ever indoor game of ice hockey was held there. Early incarnations of the Stanley Cup competition were won by the Montreal Hockey Club, the Montreal Victories, and then the Montreal Shamrocks, even before the Canadiens made real the idea of a unified, dedicated French-Canadian team, and later became the most dominant team in the competition.
There was always Catholic Church involvement in the Montreal Shamrocks and later the French-speaking Canadiens, until the Richard Riot, which followed all-time hero Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard being thrown out of the 1955 season for punching a linesman. The street riot that followed transcended hockey and is pointed at by some as the start of the wider Quebec Quiet Revolution that eventually saw the region shake off the control of the Catholic church and English bank.
In his course, Professor Bauer argued only half-jokingly that if you look at the Canadiens’ followers all these years later, there is activity within the fan-base that could normally be ascribed to a religion. For example, fans committed to the team to such an extent that they were truly praying for victory. ‘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 added as an aside.
Bauer also discussed the concept that fans understood that sacrifice was required for glory.
‘You know, you have to suffer if you want to win. Jesus had to die and resurrect. That’s the kind of thing we expect from our players. You must be ready to suffer in order to win or earn us some victory. You must risk everything and sweat and fight or be knocked out,’ he said.
‘Charity has been the function of the church,’ he continued. ‘Now it’s the team who is taking charge of the social life, visiting children in hospitals, inviting children to see a game or giving money to charity… Does that mean they have kind of a religious role?’
Finally, Bauer observed the blatantly religious parallels and iconography drawn by local media and fans. The old Montreal Forum was known as ‘the Cathedral of Hockey’. The team’s stars were often called names such as ‘St. Patrick’ Roy, and ‘Jesus Price’, instead of Carey Price. Back in the day, Richard’s unintended influence on the wider French-speaking Canadian world through his hockey exploits has been well documented. He became a symbol for Quebec as it rose to claim its true identity within the wider Canada – or Canadia, as Prime Minister Abbott might call it. In the excellent book of hockey essays, ‘Open Ice’, a former Sports Illustrated writer, Jack Falla, vividly describes following an intangible urge to attend Richard’s funeral and how it was just, well, bigger than a hockey player’s farewell:
In the end, Bauer’s course came the conclusion that the Canadiens could not be regarded as a religion because there was no supernatural element to the faith, an essential definer. And so, today, the Earth-bound Habs were just another NHL hockey team, continuing their excellent, non-spiritual early season form against the Wings, at the Joe, in their latest quest for an ever-elusive Stanley Cup; a Holy Grail that has refused to come home to Montreal since 1993.
As a hater of chest-beating religion in sport, I guess I’m okay with that. Maybe one day, the ghost of ‘Rocket’ Richard will be seen at the old cathedral, and we can have this debate all over again. But until then, let’s push religion to where it belongs, away from the sports arena, and go chase pucks.