The arena is their temple, the players are their saviours, and those who worship them pray that the sacrifices made on the ice — of blood, sweat and tears — will lead them to glory.
They are the fans of the Montreal Canadiens.
In Prof. Olivier Bauer's class at the Université de Montréal, worshippers can argue that their team is their religion.
"It's a divine inspiration," Bauer said of the idea behind the theology course that begins in January 2009.
Two years ago, shortly after the minister moved to Montreal, he and one of his students decided the university should offer the opportunity to study whether the Canadiens are, in fact, a faith.
"When we learned about the 100th anniversary, we thought it was a good time to talk about the relationship between sport and religion, especially between the Habs and the religious context in Montreal and in Quebec," Bauer said.
The graduate course is open to students in all faculties and those in undergraduate programs. Bauer expects to see more than his usual 10 to 20 people in the class.
"I hope I have enough students to make two hockey teams. Maybe enough to fit the Bell Centre," he joked.
In addition to the class, Bauer has launched an essay contest asking the question, "Are the Montreal Canadiens a religion?"
Submissions are due Dec. 12 and the top three essayists (determined in a "playoff round") will present their papers at a symposium on Jan. 16. Three others, including Bauer, will make presentations.
Others include Denis Müller from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and the University of Winnipeg's Tom Faulkner, author of More Than a Game, Less Than a God: Canadian Hockey.
"I wanted to invite Don Cherry, too. I think it could be interesting.… He would probably have a lot of things to say about it," Bauer said.
Jennifer Guyver, Bauer's research assistant, is helping to co-ordinate the symposium and said she was "really excited" to hear that Bauer was organizing the event, titled La Religion du Canadien or The Habs Religion.
"We really want to see what everyone wants to say.… When you have a lot of people passionate about hockey, and not about religion, it's interesting to see people's reactions to the question," she said. "If they can make connections between religion and sport, it helps get people involved; there will be a lot of diversity."
In Bauer's class, students will compare and contrast the Montreal Canadiens and other religions.
Bauer said he might demonstrate his neutrality on the subject by lecturing in a referee jersey.
He knows the class will attract students who are unfamiliar with religious studies and says that's okay. He noted, however, it's still an academic course.
"We don't just want to look at some games and drink beers. You have to work, but even if you're not a theologian student you can follow the class," he said, adding that those who don't believe the team is a religion can still earn high marks.
Course assignments include studying media coverage of the Canadiens, reading chapters from the book La religion du Canadien de Montréal (co-edited by Bauer and Jean-Marc Barreau), and writing essays.
Bauer's book has six chapters, one of which was written by Benoît Melançon, author of the book Les Yeux de Maurice Richard (The Eyes of Maurice Richard, which will be published in English in April 2009 as The Rocket: A Cultural History of Maurice Richard).
Melançon said he's pleased that Bauer is bringing attention to the topic.
"[Bauer] has really touched something deep in Quebec society, something that is so obvious nobody has taken the time to mention it," he said. "It really strikes something, and it's really fun too. Serious, but with some humour."
Students in the class might have some fun with a pastoral activity Bauer plans to assign.
"Maybe invite Guy Carbonneau to speak at your church, or maybe you can create a hockey team in your church. Maybe organize a hockey tournament with different ethnic or religious communities," he said.
Topics will change each week. Students will find themselves examining religious metaphors, behaviours and ethics, and drawing links between them and the Habs.
Certain religious behaviours, like praying, surround the Canadiens, Bauer pointed out.
"The fans, they pray for two things. The first is that the Canadiens will win. The second thing is that they pray for the Canadiens to crush the Maple Leafs, but I think you don't need any God for that," he said with a laugh.
Another example of religious behaviour is an expectation of sacrifice, Bauer said.
"You know, you have to suffer if you want to win. Jesus had to die and resurrect. That's the kind of thing we expect from our players. You must be ready to suffer in order to win or earn us some victory. You must risk everything and sweat and fight or be knocked out," he said.
Other parallels can be taken from various media, Bauer said. Newspapers, for instance, have called Patrick Roy St. Patrick, and referred to Carey Price as Jesus Price.
Ethics also offers an interesting study topic.
"Charity has been the function of the church. Now it's the team who is taking charge of the social life, visiting children in hospitals, inviting children to see a game or giving money to charity… Does that mean they have kind of a religious role?" he asked.
"I hope [people] will be moved by what I teach them," he said.
Bauer, who is from Switzerland, has lived in France, French Polynesia and Washington, and said discovering sport has been a way to discover society.
"Sport is part of culture and a good way to learn about another country… To discover why people are so passionate about it, it's like, 'Tell me what your sport is and I'll tell you who you are,' " he said.