If hockey is Canada's religion, then the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto is its cathedral.
The sweat-stained gear, the chipped sticks, the tattered jerseys and all of the other artifacts that are on display are looked upon by visitors in awe as if they were relics of the saints.
French Canadians already know this to be true. They call it Le temple de la renommÃ©e du hockey, the literal translation of which would be the temple of the renowned.
Many of those same francophone fans are no doubt fans of Les Canadiens, a team which has plenty of representation in the museum, including a faithful reproduction of the club's dressing room from the old Forum where they won so many championships. The locker stalls are lined with jerseys of the many team members who have been enshrined in the hall and visitors are encouraged to sit where they want and pose with the sweaters of their favourite players.
Of course, no team is left out at the Hall of Fame. There are exhibits for every team playing in the NHL today and plenty of which are long defunct or have relocated to other cities.
There are exhibits on minor league teams, women's teams, university teams, international teams and representatives of leagues you didn't know existed.
Individual stars are also honoured in the foyer where you first enter. There are displays for legends like Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Maurice Richard and many more, including the latest inductees to the pantheon like Brett Hull and Steve Yzerman.
For statistics fanatics, there are artifacts that are important for different milestones set in the league, including a popular display of 802 pucks stacked in the actual net where Wayne Gretzky, the player who has the record for the most NHL records, scored that record-setting goal. He went on to score 894 regular-season goals during his career.
When you are done supplicating at the relics of the stars, there is the Great Hall to visit. It contains the Holy Grail of the sport, the Stanley Cup. Visitors eagerly pose to have their photos taken with the cup and fathers and mothers, but mostly fathers, point out to their children the names of teams and players that they worshipped when they themselves were kids, passing down the religion from one generation to the next.
It's common to see visitors come to the hall wearing team jerseys with the names of their favourite players emblazoned on the back to tell the world what denomination they worship and who is their patron saint.
The Great Hall even features a roof of stained glass to make the trophies it contains seem all the more holy. And what a gleaming collection of trophies it is. You can look at the Hart Trophy for the most valuable player, the Art Ross Trophy for the scoring leader, the Norris Trophy for the best defenceman and every other major award the league bestows on its best players.
For the kids, and for plenty of the grown-ups, the museum offers virtual reality games that test your hockey skills. You can pick up a stick and shoot plastic pucks at a computerized goalie or strap on a mask and let avatars of Wayne Gretzky and his teammate Mark Messier take shots at you.
There are also some Nintendo Wii consoles set up with hockey games for you to battle opponents electronically or you can check out a display from sports network TSN where you can take control of mock TV switching equipment to pretend you are controlling the televised production of a game.
Many fans have relics of their own at home that they have worshipped since they were children in the form of hockey trading cards, ticket stubs or other souvenirs of the game. These are well represented in a display in which you will no doubt recognize some of your own possessions.
Long-suffering Maple Leaf fans have been waiting for the Stanley Cup since 1967, but they have the good fortune of being able to visit the Hockey Hall of Fame whenever they want to see it while the rest of us must make long pilgrimages to see this shrine. It is a visit every hockey fan must do at least once in their life in order to truly call themselves fans.
If you go:
-- The Hockey Hall of Fame is located in downtown Toronto. It's easily accessible by subway which is the preferred way to get there as the cost of parking in the area is very high and will easily cost more than your admission to the hall.
-- Visit the HHOF's website at www.hhof.com for their hours of operation, admission prices and a virtual tour of their many exhibits.