Holy Night in Canada

The other weekend, 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.  Nigella Lawson, 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, various Taoist scriptures. I’ve been trying, lately, not to get lost while reading the Bhagavad-Gita. Often, though, I slip. Instead of meditating, I find my mind drifting back to Martin Brodeur’s sliding save percentage, or why Evgeni Malkin 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 people’s 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?”

Again, some perspective is needed.

CNN, with its gleeful constant countdown to war and its glorification of U.S. domestic mass murder, is violent. Bugs Bunny, with its cartoon depictions of Daffy wearing buckshot, is violent. Our involvement in Mid-East wars? Air strikes on civilians? The decimation of Indigenous Peoples? All violent.  It’s awfully hard, sometimes, to wipe our hands of history.

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 normally 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.

I will admit this:  The cheaphots, the headshots, the stickwork – they need to be addressed.  And soon.  But fans who truly love the game – I mean the ones who appreciate the prettiness of a pass, the thrill of speed and precision – they’re mostly on board in seeking out meaningful change.  Heck, a lot of them would love to see fighting and thuggery banished altogether.  And through serious suspensions, this could easily happen.

There are unrepentant goons, of course. They make up a small portion of any league. But, then, the world is full of goons. They infiltrate every profession and every walk of life. Cops shoot innocent black kids, but we don’t wish for a world without law. Teachers, priests, and babysitters get caught molesting, but we don’t wish away learning, faith, or care. 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 annual paycheques.

Which raises another 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 so, then, 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 recent Hobbit movies. Now that is big money.

But back to religion. Religion is supposed to bring people together. Back in 2002, 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 that Pope John Paul II 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 children practicing on frozen fields in the Prairies. I’ve watched a New Canadian 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 sapphire surface of Lake Louise. On the ice, they are all just players.

Off the ice, the bond often remains.  While there is much that has been written about bullying in sport, I can also attest to the support that being part of a hockey team can offer.  I recall a tear-filled return to the ice of a 12-year-old house-league teammate who had survived an almost tragic brain aneurism.  There wasn’t a dry eye on either player bench when he climbed over the boards – nor was there one in the stands full of parents.  I remember a whole team’s worth of sleepover invitations when a fellow player’s parents were going through a nasty divorce.  And I recall always having much larger teammates watching my (very small and slight) back whenever a true bully in the schoolyard decided to pick on me for my size.

For me, hockey was – and is – a community.  As a child, it was my passion.  No matter that I was an absolutely abysmal player.

As an adult it now offers a unique aesthetic:  a blend of awe, calm and beauty. I never fail to be astounded when a play unfolds in complex orchestration. I cannot watch Sidney Crosby – 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. And I know that I am sharing this moment with countless fans across the country and around the world.  I can only hope that others feel such way in a church, mosque, or temple.

By the way, Montreal won that game the other night. 4-2. There was incredible skating. Max Pacioretty put on a stick-handling display. There was one fight, lasting roughly fifteen seconds.  And the final goal was an absolute beauty.

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

Now that is a faith I think we can all truly get behind.