If a Canadian does become the next pope and spiritual leader to the world's one billion Catholics, the story of his ascension will begin, appropriately enough, on a hockey rink.
The moment of inspiration where Marc Cardinal Ouellet decided he should pursue the priesthood came as he nursed a broken leg, sustained during a hockey game.
Longtime friend Lionel Gendron, a Quebec bishop, says that at the time the teenaged Ouellet was studying in northwestern Quebec to be a teacher.
He says Ouellet was an excellent hockey player.
He says the 68-year-old Ouellet still plays the game with his nephews when he visits his family in Quebec.
Ouellet is being touted as one of the likeliest candidates — perhaps even the favourite — to succeed Pope Benedict XVI.
Benedict became the first pontiff to step down in 600 years when he declared he would resign Feb. 28, citing a lack of strength to do the job.
A pair of foreign bookmakers have ranked the 68-year-old Ouellet, who heads the Vatican's office for bishops, as one of their three likeliest candidates.
One Canadian who will help elect the next pope said Monday he didn't want to make predictions on Ouellet's chances.
Retired cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte told Montreal radio station 98.5 that Ouellet plays an important role in the church. But Turcotte said he didn't know if Ouellet had a shot at succeeding the outgoing Pope Benedict.
"I have no idea," he said.
"How he is perceived by the Romans? I don't know... We'll see."
Turcotte, Ouellet and Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto will travel to Vatican City to participate in conclaves during which ballots will be cast for Pope Benedict's successor.
Other contenders to be Benedict's successor include Angelo Cardinal Scola, archbishop of Milan, and Christoph Cardinal Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna, while professional oddsmakers have also placed Ghana's Peter Cardinal Turkson and Nigeria's Francis Cardinal Arinze as favourites.
Ouellet, named a cardinal in 2003 by Pope John Paul, hails from the tiny Quebec village of La Motte, nearly 500 kilometres northwest of Ottawa.
He was named by Pope Benedict in 2010 to head the powerful Congregation for Bishops, which vets bishops nominations worldwide.
One expert in the church described Ouellet's resume as one packed with impressive credentials, including his intellectual abilities, his experience as a bishop and the Roman Catholic Primate of Canada, and the fact that, theologically, he is very astute and orthodox.
His relative youth is another element that could work in his favour, said Douglas Farrow, a professor in McGill University's religious studies department.
But his qualifications don't make him a lock on the papacy, Farrow added.
"The church understands these conclaves to be not merely questions of credentials and indeed preferences and political lobbying and all that sort of stuff that goes on," he said, "but as also being an act of God, which sometimes produces real surprises."
Other experts, meanwhile, expressed doubt that the former Archbishop of Quebec City is a contender.
Church historian Benoit Lacroix said Ouellet's experience in Quebec City was less than successful. He said his lengthy time abroad left him unprepared the rapid secularization of Quebec society, and he struggled to deal with it.
"He got there without understanding the evolution of Quebec — that Quebec had changed a lot over 10, 15 years," said Lacroix, a professor at Universite de Montreal.
"Quebec was no longer actively Catholic like it was. He got there with this image from his childhood, I'd say. From that standpoint he was maybe surprised, almost too surprised I believe, with respect to those events."
Decades of experience
Ouellet has decades of experience at different levels of the church.
He has advanced degrees in theology and philosophy from two universities in Rome. He served in Colombia, and as rector at the Grand Seminary in Montreal between 1990 and 1994 and of St. Joseph's Seminary in Edmonton from 1994 to 1997.
In Rome, he was chairman of dogmatic theology at a branch of the Pontifical Lateran University, and from 1995 to 2000 was on the staff of the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy.
Ouellet's name was mentioned as long shot in 2005 to succeed Pope John Paul.
Last year, Ouellet shared his thoughts about whether he had hopes of becoming pope.
"I don't see myself at this level, not at all... because I see how much it entails (in terms of) responsibility,'' he said in response to a question on the subject in an interview with the Catholic news organization Salt + Light TV. The exchange was published online last April.
"On the other hand, I say I believe that the Holy Spirit will help the cardinals do a good choice for the leadership of the church, the Catholic church, in the future.''
Ouellet has been vocal in political debates at home.
Anti-abortion remarks he made in May 2010 solicited angry reactions from a number of politicians and women's rights activists in Quebec.
At the time, Ouellet told media during a pro-life rally in Quebec City that abortion was unjustifiable, even in cases of rape.
In 2005, he testified before a Canadian Senate committee studying legislation on same-sex marriage. He urged lawmakers to block the bill and defended the role of religious people in participating in the debate.
Ouellet said he feared that the adoption of Bill C-38 would inevitably lead to religious people being regarded as bigots and homophobes.
He urged parliamentarians to remember that while Canada's Charter of Rights guarantees equality for all, it also states in its preamble that Canada was founded on principles that include the supremacy of God.
"To ensure a peaceful future for our society, the state must protect the values of marriage and the family," Ouellet told the 2005 hearing. "The state must treat homosexuals with respect and find accommodations that are consistent with their rights, without placing them in a category to which they do not belong, the category of marriage."
His arguments failed to turn the debate. The same-sex marriage legislation, Bill C-38, was approved by the Senate several days later.
In Ottawa, Prime Minister Harper said Monday that he was shocked to hear Pope Benedict was renouncing the papacy due to his declining health.
Harper issued a statement in which he described a 2009 meeting with a man he called "deeply spiritual." He said the pontiff dedicated his life to serving God and his faith and said he will be missed.
Harper noted that two Canadian saints — Brother Andre Bessette and Kateri Tekakwitha — were canonized during Benedict's papacy. Collins, an archbishop, was elevated to the College of Cardinals.
Now Canadians might have another question on their mind: Is one of their countrymen set to become the next pontiff?
Photos: Quebec City Archdiocese, Le Soleil