Searching for a hockey God

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.

Stefan Edberg (right) manages not to roll his eyes as Michael Chang drones on and on. Roland Garros, 1989.

Stefan Edberg (right) manages not to roll his eyes as Michael Chang drones on and on. Roland Garros, 1989.

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.’

You can buy the t-shirt ...

You can buy the t-shirt …

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.

The early days: ice hockey under a roof. Montreal, 1893.

The early days: ice hockey under a roof. Montreal, 1893.

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?’

Maurice 'Rocket' Richard's all-conquering and Quebec-changing Canadiens.

Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard’s all-conquering and Quebec-changing Canadiens.

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:’open%20ice’%20book%20Richard%20funeral&pg=PA21&output=embed

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.

A question without notice

So, a strange thing happened on Wednesday night in the Icehouse change room.

A friendly member of the local hockey community … unlike that prick, Nicko Place.

Walking off the ice from Dev League, I congratulated my opposition winger, Theresa, on a good game, and she returned the compliment.

Then, with a big smile, said to me: “So Nicko, are you coming to the Melbourne Ice Gala?”

The Gala is a big swanky annual sit-down dinner where the hockey community gets dressed up in formal gear (well, more formal than armour and sweaty jerseys, and mostly favouring shoes instead of skates on the dance-floor). This year is a big one because it’s to celebrate the club’s 10th anniversary.

Theresa, welcoming, ever the energetic social driver of our crew, asking me if I wanted a seat on the Rookies’ table? To which I replied, without even thinking, in a question-without-notice reflex action: “No.”

Theresa’s smile dropping. “How come?”

And I replied, honestly: “I just don’t do those kind of things.”

Which was honest but kind of blunt.

(** and yes, this entire post is a way of apologising, to Theresa, and Wayne, who is – * spoiler alert * – still to come in this anecdote…)

Outside, back in street clothes, about to head off into the night, another Rookie, Wayne (see, told you), asked the same question: “Coming to the gala, Nicko?”

“Nope,” I said. “Any night at the pub with you guys, I’m there. Not the gala.”

And off I went, safe in my suddenly unexpected crowning as the antisocial bastard of the night.

But not feeling great, despite the glory of Aimee and my “perfect” two-on-one tic-tac-toe goals during Intermediate, or some decent efforts by me in Dev League, even if I did screw up in the final minute which led directly to an opposition goal. Oops.

Anyway, doing my usual Wednesday night post-hockey thing of lying wide-awake until after 2 am, I thought about it. Why would my instant reaction to the gala be no? I love the hockey crowd, I would be happy to sit and break bread with pretty much anybody in that world. I like alcohol, a lot. Especially with friends.

So why my instant, brutal dismissal of a fun, formal night out?

It took me two days to work it out, and the good news is that it’s baggage from my past; nothing to do with hockey. In fact, it led to an even deeper love of hockey … I’ll explain.

You see, I was a sportswriter for many years, for The Herald and then The Age and Sunday Age newspapers, as well as The Age online and more recently my own company, Media Giants. I also worked for ten years, off and on, as a reporter/producer/writer for the Seven Network.

It was a great life, in a lot of ways. I covered tennis, including all the Grand Slams (Roland Garros remains the best event I think I ever covered), as well as boxing (including a lot of Jeff Fenech’s world title fights), field hockey and other sports.

Mostly I covered AFL.

And here’s where Wednesday night’s knee-jerk reaction came from.

In tennis and AFL, there are players and there are fans. Football likes to talk of itself as a “family”, but it’s not. There are those who have set foot on a VFL or AFL field, and the rest of us.

(Another warning: there’s some name-dropping ahead. I promise it is to make a point.)

In tennis, where players are told by coaches, family, everybody that they are only a peg or two down from God because they hit a decent forehand when they were 11 years old, the Us and Them is very pronounced. Think rock stars egos with racquets. I remember one story where an Australian player had her arse handed to her at Eastbourne, the women’s pre-Wimbledon event, and her furious coach decided it was time to lay it on the line, let her know that effort was simply not good enough, to really strip things down to the horrible truth … he walked into the players’ lounge and found said player reclining, enjoying a foot massage from her mummy, while her daddy held her hand and literally spoon-fed her, her agent tut-tutting sympathetically off to the side. This player was in her 20s at the time.

Trust me when I tell you that if you’re a journalist who writes that a player who lost 6-1, 6-0 didn’t play well, you can expect attitude from the player and his mates. Seriously. I’ve been there. Had the walls go up from the Australian players as a collective, because I didn’t write the usual excuses and “gee, he tried hard” crap. For all the glamour of covering Wimbledon or the French, Davis Cup in exotic locations, I was happy to leave that world. The players can’t work out why the media isn’t just an extension of their fan club, which includes everybody who makes money out of their success, and star struck fans.

The Woodies – Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge: great people on and off the court.

I’m generalizing here, obviously – and there are distinct and welcome exceptions, who I’m going to name because I’d be horrified on the off-chance they read this and thought I was talking about them. So I am explicitly excluding Mark Woodforde, Todd Woodbridge, Nicole Provis, Yannick Noah, Ivan Lendl, and a bunch of the Swedish players, who generally, in my experience, didn’t take themselves so seriously, including former world No. 1s Stefan Edberg and Mats Wilander. Even Rod Laver – total gentleman, and unaffected by his astonishing record. Others were cool too; including Steffi Graf who showed a lot of poise and grace while carrying a heavy load of battling English and German tabloids.

And then there’s the AFL. I would like to think I have made some genuinely good friends out of footy, and there are wonderful people and players and ex-players who have a welcome perspective on their world.

But many do not and that’s where the Ice Gala comes in (at last). I have suffered through so many AFL functions where there are the players, and everybody else. The players place such a premium on “one-for-all, all-for-one” and all that locker-room crap that they have trouble turning it off once they’re in public, if they even try to.

Fans will approach their table at a club function and the players will mostly be polite, pose for photos etc, but their hearts are rarely in it. Their eyes are often empty, veiled. Media, fans, sponsors … we’re all a kind of annoying sideline to their fame.

And this is what I unwittingly projected onto the Melbourne Ice Gala, when Theresa landed that unexpected question.

It was only on reflection that I realized part of me had gone back to footy/tennis mode. And that was wildly unfair, because the beautiful end to this rant is that hockey is so, so, so different.

One of the reasons I love this world is the lack of pretension, the lack of egos. There’s Matt Armstrong, currently one of the top scorers in the AIHL this season, a veteran of seriously high-quality international competition, driving the Zamboni on a weekday, laughing with us rookies and teaching us with endless patience. Likewise, Lliam, Tommy and Shona, all Australian representatives but never once looking down their noses at mere mortal strugglers like us.

Joey Hughes teaching his unique philosophy and hockey skills at the very unglamorous Oakleigh rink. Giving, giving, giving.

So, I hate that I projected AFL sensibilities onto these people. I swear to remember, wherever possible, how grateful I am to be in this underground, cult-like, happy, friendly, intense world of Melbourne hockey. Solidarity, brothers and sisters. That gala would actually be a lot of fun, and I hope everybody there takes a moment to realize how special it is that the Ice players like Lliam, Army, Tommy, Jason et al, are genuinely happy to chat with fans and rookies, instead of just doing their time because they have to.

Army keeping it real in the local hockey version of an ice bath. Pic: Melbourne Ice

Take it from me, who has sailed the wider waters of international sport. This is a rare treasure.

And no, I still won’t be there … turns out it’s the same weekend that my kids film festival, Little Big Shots  is at the Sydney Opera House, so I’ll be in the Opera House green room, smiling quietly as artistic egos fill the room.

But Theresa, Wayne and other rookies, Lliam, Army and co, have a drink for me. Keep your eye out for how Ice Man manages to drink through that helmet of his … I’ve always wondered. And can he fit a tux over his armour?

I genuinely wish I could be there. Really.