CADILLAC, Que. - Canadians have long considered hockey sacred — and soon they might actually get a holy hockey site.
In a life-changing event, a Canadian cardinal now viewed as a contender for the papacy once broke his leg on an outdoor hockey rink in the northwestern Quebec village of Cadillac.
Cardinal Marc Ouellet was a talented 17-year-old forward when his skate blade got caught in a deep crevice during a game. While nursing his aching leg over the following weeks, Ouellet made up his mind to pursue the priesthood.
The birthplaces, childhood abodes and hometown churches of past popes have become hallowed terrain for pilgrims and tourist stops for history buffs.
In Cadillac, wedged between the community's 30-year-old indoor arena and a row of mobile homes, there are no clues an outdoor rink ever existed on the site.
One local, however, remembers the old ice surface well.
Normand Caron, 91, was in charge of maintaining the rink for years, a span that covered the early 1960s — when Ouellet broke his leg. Caron said the future cardinal, from nearby La Motte, often laced up in Cadillac to play against his son's team.
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.
"I'm not the one who decides that... But at the same time we would be very happy to see it."
The rink was a popular gathering point in the tiny village, which was merged with the city of Rouyn-Noranda in 2002.
Roch Ouellet told The Canadian Press he was peering over the rink's boards watching the game when his older brother went down.
"There was a crack in the ice and his skate got caught in the crack and the force was too strong — he broke his leg," said Roch Ouellet, who was 11 or 12 years old at the time.
Marc Ouellet was taken to a woman who was known as the local bone-setter — or ramancheuse — despite her lack of formal medical training.
She set his leg in rudimentary fashion and braced it with homemade, wooden splints.
"I lost my season," the cardinal recalled in a 2005 interview with The Canadian Press.
"I started to pray and to read a little more spiritual things because I was unable to play. It was decisive for my vocation."
Marc Ouellet, the third-eldest from a brood of eight kids, honed much of his hockey know-how with his siblings on homemade rinks at a neighbour's place and inside his own family's chicken coop.
Roch Ouellet remembers how the boys weren't allowed to play hockey on the neighbour's rink when the girls wanted to skate.
But inside the chicken coop, the boys made the girls into goaltenders.
"(The girls) took a few pucks — they took pucks on the head," Roch said with a laugh, adding he's pretty sure Marc was a participant.
"Marc was pretty much my idol. He was a good hockey player."
As an adult, Ouellet continued to play the game and joined a men's league in Val-d'Or, shortly after he became a vicar at the city's St-Sauveur Church.
An old teammate and longtime friend says Ouellet was blessed with a rare combination of God-given attributes: size and soft hands.
Not only could Ouellet pass the puck, he could bury it, says Yvan Boucher.
"He was real good," said Boucher, who first met Ouellet more than 40 years ago.
"He probably could've had a very good career (as a player) because of his size. He was very good on skates, very deft."
Ouellet and Boucher, himself a stout blueliner, helped lead Les Canadiens de Butch Shoe Store to the 1969 regular season championship of the city's men's league.
Boucher invited Ouellet, then 24, to join the team a few months after they first met, shortly before the young vicar baptized his daughter.
Their lasting friendship was cemented thanks, at least in part, to their shared love of hockey.
Boucher and his wife, Claudette, say Ouellet stays overnight at their Val-d'Or home once or twice per year, usually at the end of his visits with family in the region. His hometown is less than an hour's drive away.
Ouellet last spent the night there in the summer, but they saw him in La Motte on New Year's Day.
Ever the hockey fan, the cardinal will sometimes watch Montreal Canadiens games during the NHL season in the Bouchers' living room.
The Bouchers have a recent photo that shows Ouellet sitting with his feet crossed on their ottoman. He has an intense look in his eyes and he appears to be fidgeting nervously with his fingers, transfixed by the game.
Boucher says the image shows his friend watching a Habs game, something he rarely — if ever — gets to do in Rome.
"Oh, he adores hockey," said Boucher.
He adds, however, that they've talked less about the game in recent years.
Ouellet, now 68, holds a powerful Vatican position in which he oversees the selection of bishops and recommends his choices to the pope. With the papal conclave starting Tuesday, there is a chance he will be the next to inherit the throne of St. Peter.
"The higher he rises (in the church)," Boucher said, "we have plenty of other things to discuss with him."
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