Ol’ Time Religion

Brothers and sisters, get down on your knees! Open up your heart and your mind and listen to the Word of Bob! Ask yourself, have I booed the Breezer in the past? Have I argued that Carbo should be canned? Did I turn off The Comeback game when the score was 5-0? It’s time to turn your back on sin and repent!

Okay, seriously. We’ve all heard it said hockey is a religion in Canada, and more specifically, that the Habs are a religion unto themselves. But it’s always been said somewhat facetiously…or at least I thought so. That’s until this week, when I came across the wacky piece of information that the University of Montreal is offering an actual course this winter with the purpose of determining whether the Habs are a religion, and if so, what kind.

The first thing I thought when I heard about it was why didn’t they offer those kinds of courses when I was in university? I’d have taken Habs’ Religion ahead of the Children’s Lit bird course I took in third year…in a heartbeat. Then I wondered what will the assignments be? Pilgrimages to the Bell? Worshipping at Jean Beliveau’s seat behind the bench?  Then I had to admit the idea of seriously examining the "Habs as religion" idea is kind of intriguing.

Merriam-Webster defines "religion" like this:
1: (1): the service and worship of God or the supernatural
(2): commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
2: a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
3archaic : scrupulous conformity
4: a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

Hmmm…interesting. At first glance, the first definition doesn’t ring true because no one believes the Habs are an actual god or anything. (Right?) But, on second glance…the "supernatural" bit…, you have to think there’s not a real Canadiens fan out there who doesn’t believe in the hockey gods or the Ghosts, at least a little bit.

The "commitment or devotion" part is a no-brainer. Any anglo who watches 82 games a year plus playoffs on RDS, including during Christmas parties, stomach flu and…ahem…amorous moments, will tell you about commitment.. Those who are willing to spend a week’s salary to watch St.Patrick, patron saint of Conn Smythe winners, have his Sainte Flanelle raised to heaven will vouch for devotion too.

Attitudes, beliefs and practices: how about wearing our special jerseys only on game nights because we think it "helps the team?" Or refusing to say "shutout" until the game is over? Or trekking to Montreal from the far corners of the world, because it’s the Mecca of hockey? Are those things really that much more outrageous than some of the tenets of "real" religions?

Habs’ fans have the hymns, the place of worship, the iconography, the legends and, when it comes to the Stanley Cup (Holy Grail anyone?) the kind of cause, ardor and faith almost any religion would be thrilled to inspire in its practitioners. And, especially in Quebec, a province that’s becoming more diverse while still needing a touchstone to its past, the Canadiens are one of society’s last great unifiers in a way real churches and religions are not any longer.

But despite all that, are the Habs really a religion? I don’t know what theology professor Olivier Bauer will conclude in his university course. But I think if we start believing in the Habs that way, we’re bound to be disappointed. One of the universal truths of religion is that it gives the individual hope they can, at least in spirit, aspire to transcend the realities of the world in which they live. I love the Habs, but when the game is over, I have no illusions that the troubles I had before the game have disappeared, or that the work I do every day is lighter. Religion can change a person. Hockey can change a person’s mood…up for wins, grumpy for losses…but it doesn’t change the person.  If it does, I don’t think that’s a good thing.

I’ll take the Habs, win or lose, with all their colourful history and crazy fans, and the devotion and passion that comes with them. But when I go to the Bell Centre tomorrow night, it will be to cheer myself hoarse…not to say my prayers.

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