holy night in canada

montreal_canadiens_jose_theodoretoday in the blog, a repeat of sorts. new to you, old to me.

i wrote this back in the fall of 2002. i dashed it off when a local publication asked me for a piece on hockey. i composed it in an hour and a half — without time for an edit — and sent it off.

i offer it up again today because, well, the habs are playing the leafs on hockey night in canada tonight. and it seems suiting.

happy hockey watching.

and to my dear left-wing cook friends: i’ll be boycotting the first intermission.

Holy Night in Canada

The other night the Montreal Canadians hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs on that most storied of Canadian Television institutions, Hockey Night in Canada. This, I should tell you, is as close to heaven as I can get on a Saturday night. It’s as close as I can get on most nights, actually.

Oh, you must be saying, this has got to be an exaggeration. Heaven doesn’t arrive on ice skates. It doesn’t enter a home riding on the sonic ferocity of a slap shot. Heaven has nothing to do with hockey.

It’s a matter of perspective, I suppose. There are some who believe that the secret to heaven comes in the shape of a stale wafer of bread or a sip of cheap de-alcholized wine. Martha Stewart, setting out zebra-striped origami napkins for her dinner-party of lawyers, would hardly call such fair worthy of a home, let alone an afterlife. So who is to say?

Others believe that the way to heavenly bliss is through the wiping away of conscious thought. I believe that I’ve almost mastered this technique. Proof of my Zen thoughtlessness comes in the number of items forgotten when I make my weekly trip to the grocery store. I wonder if the Buddha had to go without toilet paper on such a regular basis?

I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with other faiths. In fact, on a fairly regular basis, I subscribe to the teachings of almost all of the great world religions. I’ve been known to crouch, lotus position, in front of my little alter in the living room. In this position, I wander through works of many beliefs: Saint Augustine’s Confessions, the Sacred Pipe by Black Elk, the Taoist Road. I’ve been trying, lately, not to get lost reading the Bhagavad-Gita. Often, I slip. I find my mind drifting back to José Theodore’s sliding save percentage, or why Mats Sundin has been playing on the periphery of late.

Afterwards, when my legs are sufficiently bent and my mind sufficiently straitened, I tuck my little alter away under the sofa. I’m a bit self-conscious about leaving it out in plain sight.

Oddly, though the alter gets put away, my small Montreal Canadian’s flag remains proudly in place on the wall – it’s a reminder of when Saint Patrick led the Canadiens to the Promised Land, way back in 1993. I guess that some faiths are difficult to hide under a bushel. Or a chesterfield.

Now, don’t think that my love of hockey doesn’t draw the attention of others. There is a prejudice against our national sport in parts of this country. It’s true. You can hear it peoples voices. “I didn’t know you watched…(slight intake of breath) hockey.”

Often, friends will look at me as if I were a brute. “Isn’t it a bit, um, violent?”

Hockey is not violent. I will say this again to stress the point. It is not violent. CNN, with its gleeful countdown to war, is violent. Bugs Bunny, with its cartoon depictions of Daffy wearing buckshot, is violent. The Crusades? The Inquisition? The decimation of indigenous peoples? All violent.

In hockey, you may see the odd fight break out. Two guys – each wearing enough padding to make a small mattress – flail away at each other for usually under a minute. While there are exceptions to the rule, these guys usually don’t hate each other. After the game, they might join each other for a beer.

Body checking? It’s part of the sport. I’ve seen hits as ferocious in women’s recreational soccer. No word of a lie.

There are goons, of course. They make up a small portion of the league. But, then, the world is full of goons. They infiltrate every profession. Cops shoot innocent black kids, but we don’t wish for a world without law. Teachers and priests get caught molesting, but we don’t wish away learning or faith. Bad apples are a fact of life. The truth is that it is the goal scorers and goaltenders who are most glorified. You don’t hear about too many brawlers earning multi-million dollar paycheques.

Which raises the other common complaint: that hockey players make too much money. I’m hard-pressed to argue this point. In fact, I couldn’t agree more. They’re spoiled. But, then, so are pop stars and actors and pseudo celebrities cast away on islands. For every person who complains about the salaries paid to pro hockey players, I’ll show you two that watched the Lord of the Rings movies. Now that is big money.

But back to religion. Religion is supposed to bring people together. Last February, when Canada was looking for double gold in men and women’s hockey, the CBC showed a view of Yonge Street during the 3rd period of the men’s gold medal game.

There was no traffic to be seen.

You could have played road hockey for an hour without having to yell “car!” And this was the middle of the afternoon.

I happened to have been out and about the day the Pope was in Toronto. During the highlight of his trip, the Youth Mass, traffic seemed as normal as could be. While I’m sure there was a fine television audience for his Holiness, he did not come close to drawing the Nielsen ratings of, say, Mario Lemieux.

Hockey, in a way that great religions often aspire to, acts as a leveler of people. It gives a commonality. I have seen Native kids practicing on frozen fields in the Prairies. I’ve watched a skinny Asian kid trying to raise his wrist shot off the ice, over and over again, against the boards of Moss Park Arena in the crumbling heart of Toronto. I’ve seen exhilaration personified as a 12-year-old girl stick-handled alone under the shadow of Victoria glacier on the frozen emerald surface of Lake Louise. On the ice, they are all just players.

Hockey also offers, to some, a blend of awe, calm and beauty. I never fail to be astounded when a play unfolds in complex orchestration. I cannot watch Lemieux – the same way I could not watch Gretzky – without thinking that I am seeing some form of perfection in motion. When the game is right, I feel a joy that is indescribable. I can only hope that others feel such way in a church, mosque or temple.

Toronto won that game the other night. 3-2. There was incredible skating. Alexander Mogilny put on a stick-handling display. There was one fight, lasting roughly five seconds, and the final goal was scored in overtime.

The icing on the cake? I didn’t have to get up on Sunday morning