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Hockey fervour: Worshipping the Montreal Canadiens from afar

Montreal Canadiens paraphernalia hangs on the wall at Kilgour’s Bar Meets Grill in Toronto before Game 1 of the Canadiens’ playoff series against the Boston Bruins on May 1, 2014.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Across the land they are lurching out of their lairs again, pilgrims preceded only by the sheen of their arrogance and the stench of their unbearable holiness.

I am speaking of the refugees of the Great Canadian Diaspora – Montreal Canadiens fans who do not live in shining Montreal and must worship la Sainte-Flanelle, as the team is sometimes called, more humbly, wherever they are.

Now that Montreal – the only Canadian team in this year's Stanley Cup playoffs, for the first time since 1973 – have begun their quarter-final (and possibly fatal) playoff against the despised Boston Bruins, the true princes of darkness, these acolyte fans are everywhere. In Toronto at Kilgour's, an Annex bar packed with Habs-jersey-wearing fans a full three hours before the puck is dropped. In Vancouver. In Iqaluit. In Winnipeg.

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Hockey this exalted – the hockey of les Canadiens, the game washed in the waters of the St. Lawrence – may be the closest thing we have to a religion. This is a cliche so well-worn you could hang it on a key chain, except that it's true. Our game has all the formal elements of a religion: a central belief (the Canadiens are best), a mission (hockey worth seeing), sacrifice (remembering stats) and rituals. "Ritual is important to convince the gods to help with your team," says Professor Olivier Bauer, a hockey-studying theologian at the University of Montreal. "That's why you have to sit in the same chair in front of the TV, and drink two beers."

Montreal is no longer a Catholic city, but Habs fans still feel the spiritual woo-woos. Adam Gopnik, the New Yorker writer who blogs about hockey for the magazine, was 12 when his family moved to Montreal in 1968, rooting his love of all things Canadiens and especially Yvan Cournoyer. "He was short, he was fast, he was brilliant," Mr. Gopnik says, "and he had that amazing face, that beautiful round, radiant, rapt face whenever he was playing." This is the ecstatic way diasporic Habs fans talk when they are a long way from the object of their passion.

Mr. Gopnik lives in Manhattan now and tries to watch every Habs game on TV. "I watch them in my living room in a state of high emotion," he admits. "Traditionally my wife and daughter leave the house when the Habs are coming on, and particularly when they're playing the Bruins. They go to a little café. It's too intense for [his wife] to bear."

He forgives his wife's disdain because her great-uncle was Tom Johnson, a legendary Habs defenceman in the 1950s. "And she didn't tell me this until we'd been dating for about two years. I was overwhelmed. I would have proposed marriage to her immediately had I known."

Guy Gavriel Kay was born in Weyburn, Sask., but he moved to Winnipeg at an early age (he later went to Oxford, where he helped the son of J.R.R. Tolkien edit The Silmarillion) and has since become a prize-winning author of fantasy novels.

His hero was Frank Mahovlich, who played for the Leafs under the abrasive coaching of Punch Imlach. Mr. Mahovlich – a well-read, bridge-playing outlier with whom the young Mr. Kay felt a deep affinity – eventually jumped to Detroit and then Montreal, where Mr. Kay saw Guy Lafleur and thought, "That's my next favourite player." Everyone else in Winnipeg "was mostly a Leafs fan," but you worship the hero you have to. "You had your guy on the team the same way girls had their favourite Beatle. It's a kind of personality test."

It's also a test of faith. During the 1971 Montreal-Chicago Stanley Cup final, another playoff series with only one Canadian team, when Montreal was losing late in the second period of the seventh game, Mr. Kay, then 17, crossed the street to finish watching the match with a friend. "He didn't say a word, just scootched over to make room on his bed, where he was watching." Then Henri Richard scored two goals in a row to win the series.

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"That walk across the road to find a luckier TV" – the Damascus road! – means that today, as a grown man, Mr. Kay won't switch TVs if Montreal starts winning. "Non-believers think this is just a superstition," he says. "But we know we make a difference."

Theirs can be a lonely path. Suzanne Norman, an instructor at Simon Fraser University, grew up in Gander, where Protestants supported the Leafs and Catholics worshipped Montreal. But she knows of no other true Habbite in Vancouver, except her son. "When the Canucks are doing well, you don't wear your Habs jersey outside." She has, in her desperation to see Montreal play, watched games in Punjabi.

In Toronto, these Habs believers are everywhere. There's one now, across the table. His name is Martin Levin – a former Books editor at The Globe and Mail, a rational, cultured man in his late 60s in a No. 9 Montreal Canadiens hockey jersey (the vestment of St. Maurice, and if you have to ask, you are a sinner).

Mr. Levin is sitting with two other Habs supporters in a bar – not Kilgour's, it was full. One of them is me; I was born in Montreal, although by comparison I'm just an enthusiast. We aren't talking much, because we're trying to watch the game. Montreal fans do this. When you watch a Canadiens game, you watch a proxy of every Canadiens game that has ever been played.

After all, this is the oldest team in professional hockey (105 this year) and (arguably) the winningest professional sports franchise in North America. The Canadiens have 24 Stanley Cups to their name, five of which they won in a row. (The Maple Leafs are second, with a piddling 13.) The team's players are household names: Plante, Béliveau, Richard, Lafleur, the list is endless. They're also the last Canadian team to have won the Stanley Cup, back in 1993.

As with most DHFs (Displaced Habs Fans), Mr. Levin's obsession began early, and for unusual reasons – as a boy in Winnipeg, listening on the radio to the 1954 Stanley Cup final between Montreal and Detroit in which (he will tell you unbidden) "tiny Tony Leswick scored in overtime of game 7." Note the easy factual assurance of that statement. But his favourite was Jean Béliveau.

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Why Mr. Béliveau? Because he liked the sound of Mr. Béliveau's name. "I thought, Jean Béliveau of the Montreal Canadiens – that's just beautiful." Supporting an exotic and winning French team in a mostly English country in a sport that rose above the divide of language and ethnicity was a foolproof path to devotion.

"I loved them," he says simply. He still tries to watch every game, but "as you get older, it matters less."

Not to worry. If your faith wanes, you can always consult the website For a dollar, the Roman Catholic Church of Montreal will light a virtual candle to "encourage the Habs."

It may not help the Canadiens, especially against Boston. But you'll feel you've done everything you could.

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