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News Seeking: “Church is Out!” – The Spirituality of Hockey

January 27, 2009

CBC’s Ron Maclean signed off at the 2009 NHL All-Star game with an unusual comment: “Church is out!”

And while Maclean’s non sequitir followed comments about wearing uncomfortable clothes on a Sunday, he is not alone in casually comparing Canada’s cherished sport and traditional religion.

Photo by Borman818 (Flickr's Creative Commons Attribution License)

Photo by Borman818 (Flickr's Creative Commons Attribution License)

During the All-Star weekend, Vincent Lecavelier responded to trade rumours that would transport him to the sacred ground of Montreal’s Bell Centre. “It’s basically like a religion here. Everybody loves the Canadiens,” said the Lightening captain.

CBC’s George Stroumboulopoulos went even further in the Globe and Mail: “hockey is my religion, the Canadiens are my god, so this then was my cathedral.”

As strange as such comments may be, they reflect a Canadian fascination with comparing hockey and religion, particularly for fans of Les Habitants. Over the past year, numerous papers have reported on the religiosity of Canadiens fans, including a recent feature in the New York Times, as well as Canadian Press and Globe and Mail reports about a University of Montreal course (and book) on hockey and divinity.

But media reports about the religiosity of hockey extend well beyond La Belle Province. Doug Todd, The Vancouver Sun spirituality and ethics writer, recently breached the subject in his post, “Are Trevor Linden and Mats Sundin Bigger Than Jesus?” After looking at the fawning coverage of two Canuck heroes last year, Todd answered in the affirmative: “In popular secular Canadian culture, these hockey celebrities draw much more devotion, more psychic energy, than Jesus Christ.”

While all these examples are recent, there are hosts of “puckish” reflections from revered journalists on the deeper meanings of the game. Longtime Morningside host Peter Gzowski used to wax eloquent about the game, while prolific columnist Roy McGregor continues to do so.

Photo by Joe Shlabotnik (Flickr's Creative Commons Attribution License)

Photo by Joe Shlabotnik (Flickr's Creative Commons Attribution License)

But what do these kinds of stories really mean? Are they really news?

I think the answers are “not much” and “not really.”

Except that many people, like me, really, really, REALLY like hockey.

Many Canadians follow hockey on a daily basis, scrutinizing box scores or standings like scriptures or prayer books. Many Canadians get caught up in the euphoria of the game, much like the feelings associated with worship. And when people participate together in sports, they experience a church-like connection with other people.

Oh yeah, and puck-heads are asked to give until it hurts. For many, hockey is synonymous with financial sacrifice, a show of true devotion and faith in difficult economic times.

But that’s hardly the same thing as ascribing ultimate meaning to the game.

Perhaps the reflexive Canadian comparison of hockey and religion is a vestige of a disappearing formal religiosity. As institutional religion continues to give way to a broader, more fractured, individualized spirituality, people naturally ascribe religious characteristics to other parts of life.

Maybe there’s a little bit of residual guilt: sports fandom is hard to explain or justify (particularly for Leafs and Canucks fans). I’m speaking from personal experience. Invoking religious passion and good old patriotism at least makes it seem a little less ridiculous.

Photo by Starbuck (Flickr's Creative Commons Attribution License)

Photo by Starbuck (Flickr's Creative Commons Attribution License)

Then again, the sports and religion angle might simply be an easily filed story for a type of journalism known for stretching puns and metaphors beyond the point of disintegration. It would go a long way in explaining why the Canadian devotion to the hockey gods is by no means exclusive. While hockey (in the broader sense) is also a religion for Latvians and Tamils, American sportswriters frequently muse about the religious dimensions of baseball, football, and basketball.

Church is out.

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