Religion in the Making:
Hockey as Ritual
By George Hermanson
What is religion, anyway?
Religion is not simply about belief. That’s a Protestant fallacy. It consists of core experiences (awe, wonder, fear, forgiveness, peace), beliefs, stories, rituals, community life, ethical guidelines, sounds, and visible realities woven into the lives of people in different ways.
At the heart of religion is the weaving itself. Religion is really an activity, a verb not a noun. Whitehead calls it concrescence or self-creativity.
It may or may not be guided by aims received from God, it may or may not be accompanied by a sense of the holy. In the weaving there is nevertheless an activity we can call ‘self-formation’ or ‘self-creativity’ or ‘religion.’
In our time many people undertake this activity with help from, and by means of, popular culture: sports and popular music, for example. Their primary religious communities can be music communities or sports events, in which they experience touches of transcendence and develop a sense of identity.
Thus understood, religion is not confined to churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and sanghas. It happens. among other places, on the hockey rink. George Hermanson explains the ritual aspect. In watching his grandchildren play hockey, he sees religion in the making.
-- Jay McDaniel
Over the Christmas season, we visited our grandchildren in Vancouver. In Canada, over the season, there are kids' hockey tournaments; so we spend many hours at hockey arenas. In a sense hockey holds a place of secular religion. And in Canada, whether you play or watch, it is one of defining rituals of life. It is most clear during the Stanley Cup time when the conversations are about what happened to your team? The conversations can be passionate. We saw this at the Olympics when the national TV watching went up and there was a collective cheer when Canada got the gold.
The enjoyment of the games and watching the kids have fun did make me think about how we are a ritual based people. As I watched the games this Christmas, I was struck by the role of ritual in forming the kids. Both my granddaughter and grandson were prepared through ritual activity. They had learned this from both watching games, especially the pros on TV and from their experience. The role of a coach is crucial to this formation.
Ritual is an expression that is the outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace. There is a sense of character formed by these ritual activities.
Ritual activity may seem minor and some might call it magical thinking but it does form identity. I learned there were different ways of taping the stick. It mattered to the position one played. My grandchildren are defence so they had white tape. I wondered why? The logical is the puck is seen better when one passed to the forwards. Forwards had black tape to hide the puck. Of course there is an aesthetic aspect because some want a more colorful tape. So there were rational reasons but the important act was how to tape? Much debate was had, where to begin and why. At the foot of the stick was the tradition. How to tape the top of stick so it could be handled. Not too much and not to little. Again tradition was brought in. But it was ritualized taping. It was not just personal opinion but a debate on what expert one could call up. My information was rejected as out of date because “grandpa things change”.
The ritualized behavior begins in the taping, then in the dressing room. The coach gives the “talk” and out they come. If you watch a professional game the pre-skate time has a rhythm. The kids I think have picked it up because I was struck with how they went through preparation. Almost like a return from solitariness to society (RM 132). The rhythm of individual shooting the pucks, skating in a circle to the team gathering to begin.
The goalie had an individual ritual. Keeping his back to the goal he hit the posts with his stick. Always looking forward, banging the posts in a rhythm, he skated back and forth in the front of the net, always in sideways movement, never looking back. I played goalie as a child and I don’t remember doing this, but in any junior or professional game all goalies do this. The ritual again was both aesthetic valuations which stretches far beyond words (RM 138) and practical. The ritual located the goalie in his context, prepared him by knowing where the goal posts were and his area of concern was. The ritual prepared him to respond to the shots that would come his way. After his perpetration the team took turns to test him. Again the ritual that prepared him for what would come.
When a player scored the team would tap her on the head. At end of the game they would skate to their goalie and tap her with their sticks. At tournaments both teams would line up and shake the hands of opposing team, a tap with a stick, a glove on the head, and some times shaking the hand. Then there are times of a hug when you have played the other team more than once. The ritual taking them back to daily life.
I think Religion in the Making can be applied to all ritual activity. When we pay attention we see this in all athletic behavior. Character is created. Identity is formed. This March in the USA it will be writ large in the College Basketball tournament, March Madness. We can see this in soccer and football. Thank of the World Cup or the Super Bowl or the Grey Cup. The dark side of this was shown on HBO Last Week Tonight's John Oliver's piece on March Madness.
Not all ritual, though, is life giving. There can be a dark side. I saw this in the mother of one of the boys on Will’s team. Her support and enthusiasm moved into aggressive behavior and I was glad we were not next to the parents of the opposing team. For one of the issues in the world of sports is aggression of the fans. Parents have been banded because of their behavior. Riots have taken place. Again ritualized behavior.
Ritual and emotions need reflection. The myth that underpins the ritual is brought to critical examination. When rituals go wrong we modify them and modify the myth. It goes the other way too. Modify the myth and new rituals emerge. So ritual is a way we create a sense of self and others. And we change them to modify our behavior. Ritual can carry both good and evil. “Particular evils inflict the world,particular goods point to the way of escape” (RM 85).
We learn much from our everyday rituals. Watching the kids reminded me of the important role of ritual in music and church. Not to be taken granted.