Banners hang from Scotiabank Arena in Toronto that tell the tale of the former glory of the Toronto Maple Leafs. When another banner will be hoisted is uncertain at best. Photo from Wikipedia

Leafs Nation united in faith and hope

  • November 30, 2019

Advent is a time of hope during a season of darkness. As a steadfast member of the Catholic Church and Leafs Nation, Dennis Patrick O’Hara can see parallels these days between his faith and favourite hockey team.

“Our faith calls us to be hopeful even at times when there’s little that suggests that things are going to work out well,” said the theologian, retired head of the Elliot Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology at Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College and lifelong Leafs fan. “You hold onto your faith, it gives you direction. It gives you a sense of how to persevere.”

At a time when faith is waning — again — in the Toronto Maple Leafs following the firing of coach Mike Babcock, it might be said that the team’s ever-hopeful fans are not unlike the Christians, and in particular the Catholic Christians, who maintain hope in even the darkest of times. 

 The secular world in which Christianity moves is not the friendliest locale to those of faith. Religion and its adherents are often pilloried, condemned for “backward-looking ways” that offend the so-called enlightened.

 O’Hara taught theology at St. Mike’s for 18 years. He looks at the Leafs much like he does the faith.

“Our faith calls us to be hopeful even at times when there’s little that suggests that things are going to work out well,” he said. “You hold onto your faith, it gives you direction. It gives you a sense of how to persevere.”

It may be hard, but O’Hara has a long history of defending his beloved Leafs and his adherence to the Catholic Church.

“I’m never OK with losing, but this year isn’t going to defeat me,” said O’Hara, before adding with a laugh, “but if it happens next year I’m really going to be upset.”

It’s the same with the faith. Countless times he’s been asked why he remains faithful to the Church as an inquisitor lists any number of its faults.

“You persevere because there’s something there that you think is worth holding on to. And in the face of that struggle, you persevere,” he said.

 Each new NHL season brings that hope for the Leafs and their fans, not unlike Advent when we await the coming of Jesus. It’s not just hope that Jesus will be born — you know that He will. Likewise, ever-faithful Leafs fans believe that, one day, captain John Tavares or a successor will hoist the Stanley Cup — just as it was last done in Toronto in 1967.

Perhaps it will even come out of this year’s Advent for the Leafs, as new coach Sheldon Keefe reboots the team and instills faith that all will be well.

“Our faith is about hope, it’s not necessarily about optimism,” said O’Hara. “It’s an expectation based in hope, not entitlement.”

That hope is one of the biggest things in the Catholic Church, said Deacon Steve Pitre, co-ordinator of the permanent diaconate with the Archdiocese of Toronto. 

“In Advent one of our things with all the negativity that’s going on is about being hopeful,” said Pitre. “And that’s a Leafs fan. Being hopeful.

“As disgusted as people can get with the Leafs, they’re still fans.”

The blue-and-white faithful need only look to the New York Rangers, jokes Pitre. When the Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994, they ended 54 years of futility, “so Leafs fans, we still have a couple years to go.”

Pitre sees the divisions in the Catholic Church — the conservative-liberal divide — and detects a lesson for Leafs fans.

“Despite all the abuses and scandals and what not, there’s still so many people who are living the faith, who are trying to live the faith to the best of their ability,” he said.

That lesson can’t be lost on Leafs fans, said O’Hara, who sees poor management decisions like tying up half of their salary grid in four players and not addressing a weakness on defence. In the classroom he tells his students that you may lose faith in the institution of the Church, but don’t lay that at the feet of God. Likewise with the Leafs, the faithful stay true.

“When I look at a game, and it’s a horrible game. Then I stop watching the game and I start watching individual players and individual plays and I say, ‘Ah, there’s something good,’ ” said O’Hara.

Despite his ever-optimistic faith, O’Hara can’t see the team fixing this year’s mess. 

“But I’m always willing to be proven wrong,” he said. 

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