Culture  God on ice

Olivier Bauer explains Habs culture as religion

Olivier Bauer is an Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Sciences at the University de Montréal. He is currently teaching a course called La Religion du Canadien de Montréal (The Religion of the Montreal Canadiens). Next spring, he will be releasing his second book on the subject, entitled Une Théologie du Canadien de Montréal. He spoke with The McGill Daily about the relationship between religion and hockey.

The McGill Daily: How do you define religion?
Olivier Bauer: Religion is a relation between human beings and an absolute sacred one: god, divine principle, or something like that. It is a transcendent relation between someone or something where he or she is sacred…you can name it what you want; maybe it’s God, or the absolute, the divine architect, and so on.

MD: How is sport a religion?
OB: In general, things don’t happen every time as they should. You can be the best player and one time you can score a goal and the day after it could be impossible for you to score…so it seems that there is something more than human in sport in general. It’s not just the skill of the players or the quality of the [equipment]; there is something we don’t know involved in sport. There is a supernatural power that is involved in sport that can help you; it can play with you or against you. It’s a religion because you have to please this supernatural being to make it play with you, not against you.

MD: What factors lead to the creation of a sport-religion?
OB: With the Habs religion, what is very particular is that it is a religion of Montreal and of Quebec. It’s the same as in every other sport; to make the gods play with the Habs. But it’s in a very Catholic way and in a very Quebecker way. For the Habs, the way you pray is the Catholic way because the culture of Quebec is very Catholic. For example, during the playoffs, there are people who go to the Oratoire St. Joseph and they [kneel] because it is the Catholic way to ask for something from God. It takes a Catholic face because we are in Montreal. But probably if you are Jewish or Protestant or atheist you can have another kind of a relation [to the sport].

MD: Religion offers its followers a moral code, does hockey do this as well?
OB: That is very interesting, because in hockey you have a moral code. It’s the man you should be – it’s a very specific kind of virility. You have to be a man and you have to be very strong and you have to be ready sacrifice yourself and you need to fight and you need to be hurt. It’s this kind of morality. It’s very interesting because of the motto of the Habs: ‘Nos bras meurtris vous tendent le flambeau (our bruised arms are holding the torch). I think there is a kind of moral dimension here. It’s not very unusual in Quebec; you know there is this mentality “Nous sommes nés pour un petit pain (we are born for a small loaf of bread).” You have to suffer if you want to win, if you are a Quebecker you have to suffer because everyone is against you. It’s the same on the ice.

MD: What drew you to this topic?
OB: When I arrived in Montreal in 2006, I thought it would be very interesting to work on this topic: the link between the most important cultural phenomenon in Montreal – the Habs – and the religious dimension…my interest was to discover some religious aspect of cultural life and to explain it [through theology].

MD: What has the reaction been to your course?
OB: It was amazing. I remember it was in 2007 and I gave an interview for the newspaper of the Université de Montreal. The day after I got two, three phone calls for interviews… and over the past two years I’ve given, I think, 150 interviews. I was very interested to discover how important it was for people in Montreal. Everyone was saying that the Habs are our religion but nobody had really explained what that means.

MD: By studying sport as a religion, what do you hope to achieve?
OB: Some celebrity, of course, and to be interviewed by The McGill Daily. The first thing is I want to understand. For my part I wanted to understand what that means: the Habs in Montreal. I got a lot of testimonies from people [saying] “I’m part of this religion”, and so I’m a little bit afraid because I think it’s not a very good religion. It’s a very tribal religion. There is a lot of violence and hate, for example between Flyers and Habs. You have to hate Philadelphia and also to hate the people from Philadelphia…I think a religion should promote love and not hate. That’s why it’s not such a good religion. It’s a very selective religion. If you don’t have money you can’t be part of it. You need money to go to the Bell Center, you need money to buy some jerseys. It is also a selective religion on the ice: you have to be the best player. And the last thing is it’s not a very solid religion. The team could be sold and in ten years there won’t be any Habs in Montreal like in Quebec, the Nordiques. So what is there left? That is three critiques I can address to the Habs-religion. That’s why I think it could be better to put your faith and your hope in another religion and maybe in another god.

—Compiled by Misha Schwartz