Growing up, my Methodist parents dragged me to church every Sunday. Like a good only child, I had plenty of quiet ways to entertain myself and keep up appearances, but the whole thing never really clicked with me.
Of course, the basics stick because they just seem like good common sense. The Golden Rule, some version of the Ten Commandments; many tenets of Christianity simply fall under what I would consider civilized behavior.
And of course, there are plenty of good stories from which to learn general life lessons. Believe me, I’ve thought of Job and his unwavering patience quite a lot this season as a Wild fan.
But in terms of having the belief in and passion for something, enough to make it the foundation of my philosophy as a person, I just couldn’t get on board with Jesus. I searched for other religions that felt more relatable, but by the end it, I just had a comfortable mishmash of ideals that felt right to me.
Then in my 30s, I found hockey and I was born again. It’s been the center of my universe ever since.
So, for a long time, I’ve been thinking about the religious-like fervor I and many others have for the sport. Let’s look at the evidence for hockey’s candidacy as not only the greatest sport in the world but one of the most fun religions:
Houses of Worship
From the most lavish, heralded NHL cathedrals to the most humble neighborhood ponds, I don’t think any hockey zealot approaches a clean sheet of ice without a sense of reverence. Much like watching church on TV, it’s difficult to really connect to hockey unless you’re there in person.
Whether you’re on the ice or in the stands, that most inextricable bond we form with hockey happens in these places where we are surrounded by and awash in the sounds, the smells, and the fellowship.
I always try to get to Aeros games early, when it’s just a few media people, scouts, and ushers in the building. It’s empty and quiet and I invariably find myself standing at my seat, taking in a deep breath and soaking all the magic in*.
*Then again, I also do this when I walk into Costco.
Source of Comfort
This is a big one to me, because you often see people turn to their religion in difficult times in their lives. Likewise, I can’t even count the number of times I’ve seen hockey fans and players alike credit hockey with providing solid ground on which to stand when the rest of their lives are an ocean of tumult.
Guys like Jose Theodore and Kurtis Foster, who’ve both lost a child during their careers, found comfort in getting on the ice, in coming to the rink, in going through the rituals. I’ve often heard hockey friends, facing troubled lives at home, expressing solace and renewal in having a game to attend or play.
It goes further than just an escape, I think. Hockey is sanctuary.
As religions tend to have one or more entities to whom sacrifices are made, at whom prayers are directed, and who we sometimes cower in fear of, so too does hockey.
I’m not sure how many hockey gods there are exactly but I know there are several. And I know goalies have a god of their own who is especially punishing (but also extremely generous at times), if my experience in net is any indication. I’ve always assumed the hockey gods are Canadian, and I know for a fact that they appreciate offerings of chocolate frosting. Don’t ask me how I know this.
I remember a couple of seasons ago, I was down in the corner of the arena watching an Aeros game with a friend-slash-game night equipment guy for the team. My beloved Barry Brust was pitching a shutout at the time and my friend actually said the word “shutout.”
He grinned at me, devilishly, as I looked at him with my jaw on the floor. Who DOES that? It’s a middle finger right at the hockey gods! (Brusty still got the shutout, of course, because he’s Brusty, but no thanks to my friend.)
My company gives me 2 floating holidays a year, and I can only assume that these days were intended for me to observe the Trade Deadline and the start of Free Agency.
Of course, the biggest holy season begins in a couple of weeks. Perhaps I and my fellow hockey disciples should erect Playoff trees in our living rooms, with Playoff gifts underneath (I’d like a playoff-worthy team, if you need gift ideas for me). Or Hallmark should sell stacks of well-wishing, cheery Playoff cards we can mail out to friends and family.
But no, let’s not corrupt the season with commercialization or sully it with greed. Except in the case of greed for goals, wins, and ridiculous multiple overtimes, which is totally in the spirit of the season.
The Promised Land
Hockey even has its own form of Eternal Glory. And while it’s nice (okay, it’s amazing) to have your name forever etched into the side of the cup, this isn’t the real eternal glory offered by hockey.
The real eternal glory is what happens along the journey. It is generations of fans and players telling the stories, with awe and reverence, of the sacrifice and miracles that led to winning that trophy.
Given that my strengths as a hockey analyst are goaltending and butt gawking, I won’t pretend to be a philosopher or theologian here. But occasionally someone asks me, “How’d you get into hockey?” and I tell them, “The skies parted and the hockey gods spoke to me. I was called to it.”
Hallelujah and amen.