Aude, Wikimedia Commons

Les glorieux Catholic

  • May 21, 2014

A colleague and good friend of mine is an intractable Leafs fan, meaning he is generally unaware that NHL hockey exists after the palest first quarter moon of April.

As we grow older, we make increasingly wider allowances for the foibles of those we like. I am, therefore, tolerant of his affliction and say little about it beyond cutting teasing that gusts to remorseless taunting.

Beyond his perpetual adoration for a team that not even St. Jude as a first line centre could help to regain the Stanley Cup (47 years and counting), my friend has a fall-back team that comes close to being a sore point between us.

“My second favourite team after the Leafs is any team that is playing against the Montreal Canadiens.”

I do understand that when you are in love with a sporting franchise eternally overflowing with thoroughly unlovable losers, you do what you must to bring peace to your heart. It is all the more understandable if the franchise has the word “Toronto” attached to it in any way.

This year, however, he took things to the brink not only by following the playoffs but cheering lustily — well, chastely lustily; he is a Calvinist after all — for the Boston Bruins.

When my glorious Habs humiliated the much-hyped Big Bad B’s in the second-round series, I offered my friend the deeply satisfying philosophical wisdom that the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor put in a character’s mouth: “Haw-haw.”

While our friendship survived, our conversation has begun shying away from sports and fixing on more neutral topics such as how to change the oil on a piano and affordable dentistry for cats.

Still, in solitude, I find myself pondering how any hockey fan could cheer for any team that is not the Montreal Canadiens (24 Stanley Cups and counting). I can understand the heartstring tug of local pride and similar vanities. But it strikes me that not cheering for the Canadiens is the sporting equivalent of praying to a god whom you know isn’t truly great. Or truly God. You can do it. But why would you when the real thing is present?

This is doubly mystifying when it comes to Catholic hockey fans. I grant that nothing in the magisterium requires Catholics to keep faith with Montreal. I even acknowledge that the “hab” in Habemus Papem is a coincidence, not a declaration that every new pontiff must cheer for les Habitants.

Still, the bond between Holy Mother Church and la Sainte Flanelle is historically indissoluble and so has meaning for Catholics everywhere, not just for Quebecers.

As my colleague on the Montreal Catholic web site Ville Marie Online, Alan Hustak, wrote at the start of the playoffs, if not for the Church, there would be no Canadiens.

In the late 19th century, the locus of hockey power in Montreal — and therefore in Canada — was the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association, a Protestant sporting club that refused to admit Catholics. Two Irish priests, Frs. Joseph Quinlivan and Bernard Devlin S.J., organized groups of young Catholic students — first English, then French — into hockey teams at College Ste. Marie and later Loyola after 1896. A feature of the teams was coach-priests who, rather than chawing wads of gum, walked behind their charges with rosary beads in hand.

Quickly a team called the Shamrocks emerged that won the Stanley Cup in 1898 and 1899.

Quoting a newspaper report of the second Cup win, Hustak writes: “There was a wild scene. People cheered and danced. Matronly women fairly hugged their escorts. As for the young people, why they were all beyond control. On the ice, wild scenes were being enacted. Supporters had jumped on the ice and the victors were lifted off their feet.”

A decade later, the new Canadian Hockey Association awarded a franchise to the French Canadian team that emerged from the Catholic-rooted Shamrocks. It’s name? Le Canadien. “The rest,” Hustak writes, “is history.”

Indeed, it is. And what a glorious history les glorieux have amassed. You can cheer for, say, Toronto, cheerless as that pursuit may be, but with Montreal you live and die in the faith of a team that has the CH — an acronym I know really means Catholic Heart — emblazed on their chests.

(Stockland is the Director of the Cardus Centre for Cultural Renewal in Montreal.)

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