roman curio

His Hockeyness: Pope John Paul II visits St. Louis in 1999.If when the white smoke wafts over the Vatican this week, Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet comes out pope, here’s what we’ll say: hockey was his first choice. The Globe and Mail’s Ingrid Peritz was onto this back in mid-February, right after the Joseph Ratzinger formerly known as Benedict XVI announced he was stepping down. Profiling the pride of La Motte, Quebec as “a top prospect” to become the new Vicar of Jesus Christ, she fashioned a portrait of Cardinal Ouellet’s youthful self:

He had been an athletic, hockey-loving boy who hunted partridge, worked summer jobs fighting forest fires and even enjoyed the company of young women on occasion.

Then came the day where everything changed.

The future cardinal’s road to Damascus began on an  outdoor hockey rink in Abitibi town of Cadillac, when during a friendly match the 17-year-old’s skate got caught on a crack on the ice.

A younger brother, Roch, recalled:

“My brother was the star of our team. He was a good scorer. When he fell to the ice, we knew it was over. As soon as he took off his skate, his leg swelled right up. We could tell it was broken.”

And that was it, no looking back. The ice was behind him, now.

During his convalescence, the injured player began to read Saint-Thérèse of Liseux, to pray and to contemplate. “There was a calling. A search for meaning,” he told the newspaper Le Soleil in 2005. “I wanted to give my life to something important. And faith had always been part of my world.”

That’s some solid stuff. But the blue ribbon for reportorial enterprise in papal/hockey research goes to Andy Blatchford of The Canadian Press who actually travelled nearly 600 kilometres northwest of Montreal hundred to Cadillac to visit the rink the could-be pontiff’s hockey career came to its earthly end.

It’s genius, I have to say. Could be the best hockey article of the year. A follow-up on the outdoor rink at St. Peter’s Square might give it a run for its money, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Blatchford couldn’t find any trace of the fatefully cracked outdoor rink. He did track down the man who made it, though, 91-year-old Norman Caron to put him on the spot about the condition of his ice 51 years ago.

He’s not surprised his ice sheet would have had a skate-snagging fissure in it.

“For sure, at that time it’s possible that there were cracks in the ice,” Caron said of the rink, which, in the early ’60s, was resurfaced the old-fashioned way: shovels and a firehose.

Caron flashed a big grin when asked about the possibility that his choppy ice may have helped put a young man on the path to pope-dom.

“Well, I think that’s wonderful, that’s beautiful,” he said, while adding he doesn’t actually remember Ouellet’s injury.

Blatchford was able to press Roch Ouellet for more details, too. He was 11 or 12, watching from rinkside when his brother fell. Medical aid was rendered by a local woman known as a bone-setter — ramancheuse — who applied wooden splints to the wounded leg.

Roch’s other hockey remembers a neighbour’s rink in La Motte where the boys played, occasionally giving way to the girls, when they wanted to skate. There was also hockey in the family chicken coop, which brings Blatchford to this arresting sentence:

But inside the chicken coop, the boys made the girls into goaltenders.

“They took pucks on the head,” Roch tells him, laughing. And he’s almost certain his brother Marc took part.

**

If Cardinal Ouellet is the next Pope does it naturally follow that we’ll eventually see him at a Canadiens game? He’s a fan, we’re told, follows the team’s fortunes, prays for — that’s not something we’re told, actually. Maybe, though?

For now, the pontiff with the best hockey credentials remains John Paul II — whether he wanted them or not. In 1999, on the way home from a visit to Mexico, the 78-year-old pope stopped off in St. Louis. The big event there was at the home of the NHL Blues, the Kiel Center — now the Scottrade, where he addressed what The New York Times described as “ a raucous, strobe-lit youth rally.”

The crowd of 20,000 teen-agers waved yellow scarves, screamed and chanted ”We love you” as the Pope drove into the arena in a white golf cart blessing the crowds. Before the Pope entered the arena, he was greeted by Mark McGwire, the St. Louis Cardinal, who is a Catholic.

John Paul urged the youths to train for their vocation as Catholics the way McGwire and Sammy Sosa would train for the World Series.

He also got a Blues sweater to take back to the Vatican, a number one, with “John Paul II” across the shoulders, as well as a stick, which (said The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) “swung playfully on the stage.”

The Reading Eagle reported that he also turned his cane upside down at one point and pretended it was a hockey stick. Baseball, schmaceball: promising to come back, he said, “Now I am prepared to return once more to play hockey.”