MONTREAL - Quebec's century-long bond to the Montreal Canadiens has been called passion, and even obsession. Now a university theologian has branded it as religion.
The Swiss-born Universite de Montreal professor said the ubiquitous relics and rituals linked to the Habs struck him when he arrived in the city a few years ago.
The similarities prompted Olivier Bauer to launch a crusade - in the form of a university course - to explore the many ties between a team that hails its sweater as La Sainte Flanelle - or holy flannel - and spiritual devotion.
"It was a divine inspiration," Bauer said of the idea for his new French-language class, the Religion of the Canadiens.
"It was clear that the Canadiens were a kind of religion. For me, it was amazing that in Montreal there was a hockey jersey that is holy."
To back his thesis, Bauer refers to nicknames of the Canadiens' most notable "prayer leaders," including Saint Patrick (Patrick Roy), Le Demon Blond - the Blond Demon (Guy Lafleur) - and the team's current saviour, Jesus Price (Carey Price).
He said Canadiens worshippers have long told stories of the ghosts of players past that reside in the Forum - and Bell Centre - rafters, and the many miracles performed by Maurice (Rocket) Richard.
Bauer said while hockey's religious symbols are everywhere in Canada, he believes the faith runs deepest in Quebec's francophone culture.
"The Canadiens are the proof that we have God's blessing," he said of Quebecers' pride in the only major pro sports team that has had a consistent presence in the province over the last 100 years.
"The Canadiens are proof that Quebec is able to win over Toronto, Ottawa, New York or Boston and so on."
The first-ever semester of the 16-week course began earlier this month in a small classroom at the Montreal campus.
Student Mathieu Roy, 22, a native Montrealer who lived in Calgary for eight years, said after experiencing hockey fandom in both cities, he now understands the kind of spiritual weight the Canadiens have on many Quebecers' lives.
"The difference is that over there (in Calgary) it's only just for fun," said the psychology/sociology major.
"There's something more here (in Montreal). Here, everybody plays hockey, everybody's talking about it and people who don't like it, or don't want to talk about it, will feel alone.
"There's not too many people who hate hockey in the province of Quebec."
Rejean Houle, a former Canadiens player and general manager, said the Roman Catholic Church was a big part of his life while growing up in the Quebec mining town of Rouyn-Noranda.
"We were raised with this religion just like we were raised with the history of the Montreal Canadiens - there's a common (thread) there," said Houle, 59, who had the colossal task of trading Saint Patrick, the Hall of Fame goaltending legend.
"People were practising their prayers a lot and going to mass on Sunday, but also listening to the hockey game on Saturday night. That was part of the ritual."
Bauer describes hockey players as the prayer leaders - some are saints and others are traitors.
The toughest of the current lot, who he names as Habs enforcer Georges Laraque, could even be considered the avenging angel.
"He brings some justice on the rink," Bauer said.