[Vision2020] Religion in Canada

Art Deco deco at moscow.com
Thu Jun 2 05:58:04 PDT 2011

Bending a knee in Lord Stanley's church: hockey as Canada's national religion
By Shannon Proudfoot, Postmedia NewsJune 1, 2011

The faithful gather in cathedrals with aisles of ice, pray for miracles performed by gap-toothed saints and undertake pilgrimages to visit holy relics made of vulcanized rubber, metal or sweat-stained fabric.

Even at this secular, diverse point in the country's history, Canada does indeed have a national religion and that faith is hockey, a researcher argued this week at Canada's largest multidisciplinary gathering of academics - but the Stanley Cup finals kicking off Wednesday night don't quite qualify as a feast day.

"You can really see a lot of similarities between the attention paid to holy relics of the saints and spiritual heroes and the way Canadians, in particular, have treated their hockey heroes and the products they've created," said Denis Bekkering, a PhD candidate in the Wilfrid Laurier-University of Waterloo, Ont., joint program in religious studies.

He bases his theory on previous research suggesting Americans rally around the "unifying civic religion" of politics, including sacred places (Washington, D.C.), martyrs (Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy) and objects (the Liberty Bell).

Lacking this larger-than-life political mythology, Canada has built its collective religion around the rink, Bekkering says, and specifically around international competitions such as the Olympics, which turn a Team Canada jersey into a national talisman.

"It's a real point of integration," he said. "It's a way for us to have markers along our shared Canadian history."

Like any faith, the "national church" of hockey has its holy relics, or items believed to be imbued with the powers of the heroes connected to them, he said. From Paul Henderson's 1972 Summit Series jersey - which fetched $1.2 million at auction last summer - to the "Lucky Loonie" hidden beneath centre ice at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games, where the Canadian men's hockey team netted the country's first Olympic hockey gold medal in 50 years, Bekkering said these relics are revered just like those in traditional religions.

The latest addition to the Hockey Hall of Fame pilgrimage is the "Golden Puck" Sidney Crosby fired into the net in overtime at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, to give Team Canada another gold-medal victory over the Americans.

"It's a way to connect the state and politics to something transcendent," Bekkering said of this religion on ice.

But lest anyone think this makes National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman the Pope, he said NHL hockey doesn't work the same way traditional religions do. Team Canada provides a raucous revival tent where all Canadians can worship during events such as the Olympics, but NHL devotees are otherwise divided by the "tribalism" of the different teams they support, he said.

"When you have the national Canadian men's hockey team, it allows hockey fans and Canadians in general, to go above any tribal allegiances they may have to particular teams," he said, noting that a star such as Crosby literally sheds his usual tribal markers and trades a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey for a Team Canada sweater in international competition.

And while Montreal Canadiens' fans will spend the Stanley Cup finals wishing a hex on the Boston Bruins for eliminating their team in the first round, Bekkering said the factionalism of NHL hockey as a religion means there's no guarantee Canadians will cheer for Vancouver simply because they're the only Canadian team in contention.

"Tribal allegiances may actually keep many Canadians from supporting the Canucks," he said.

Bekkering presented his research this week at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, hosted this year by the University of New Brunswick and St. Thomas University and expected to draw more than 6,000 delegates to Fredericton.

Wayne A. Fox
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Moscow, ID  83843

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