This is an argument that a primary highlight to every hockey playoff series doesn’t happen until it’s over: The traditional handshake line between the victor and the vanquished.
The sport’s handshake rite — the date and specifics of its origin are unknown — is especially appealing because it isn’t logical. After all the unruly intensity between opponents, the gratuitous post-whistle shoving and barking, the cheap shots and occasional fisticuffs, there is this counterintuitive postscript — would you say “denouement” when the games are in French-speaking Quebec? — that is thoroughly polite and downright heroic. The formal handshake line at mid-ice, after it’s all over but the shouting, apparently has been standard since at least the early 1920s.
There is this gentility in the wake of relentlessly stormy deeds. There is this disorienting twist on the old boxing cliché — Fight and come out shaking hands. All the Mr. Hydes exit as Dr. Jekylls. Intimidation tactics give way to gentlemanly behavior. Watch: It’s going to keep happening throughout the pursuit of the Stanley Cup.
No other sport condones fighting as “part of the game.” Punch a guy in the mouth and all you get is five minutes in the sin bin. Yet no other sport pivots so dramatically to a public display of sportsmanship, a final demonstration of healing. The message, most involved have come to agree, simply is: When it’s over, it’s over.
Not that all potential participants agree. Among the minority who have skipped the routine over the years was Islanders goalie Billy Smith, a four-time Stanley Cup champion in the 1980s. He claimed that he was inspired by Boston goalie Gerry Cheevers, Smith’s hero, who eschewed the practice before him. “I saw that and I said, ‘He is so right; there’s a guy who’s smart,’” Smith said. “I didn’t have the right feeling doing it, so why should I do it? I won’t shake hands when I lose, so I won’t shake hands when I win. I’d be a — what’s the word? — hypocrite.”
Cheevers once justified his non-participation to the Toronto Sun by asking, “Do you really mean it? Do you say: ‘Thanks for bashing my brains in the past seven games and taking $15,000 out of my pocket?’” (That would be closer to $200,000 now for Cup champions.)
Muzz Patrick, who had played on the Rangers’ 1940 Cup winners, long ago observed that there are “some human beings who wouldn’t shake hands with their mother. If you were the losing team, you really had to grit your teeth and go out there and do it. But a lot of guys made excuses. We’d go into the locker room and say, ‘Why didn’t you shake hands with those guys?’ and they’d say, ‘Well, I got my hand hurt on that last shift and couldn’t shake.’ Baloney.”
Smith’s former goalie mate, Glenn Resch, argued that the point of the handshake is “more idealistic than hypocritical. It’s the kind of thing that raises sport to being a sport. It raises us above just animals.”
Hockey rivals in fact can resemble animals, producing the occasional broken jaw, dislocated appendage, a little spilled blood. Yet they routinely conclude their version of survival-of-the-fittest with what amounts to a show of respect, or at least a mutual understanding: What you do to me in the name of your team, in the pursuit of victory, honors you — and thus do I honor you. Shake.
If the act of shaking hands indeed came into fashion thousands of years ago as a demonstration of peaceful intent, a way to show that the hand holds no weapon, hockey’s custom at least signifies that the weapons have been laid down.
“It’s not compulsory,” Resch said, “which is fine, and it’s different not to do it, so I think that maybe those guys who don’t do it feel they look more intense, or that they wanted it more. But it’s like an argument. Even if you never see the person again, it’s good for your own peace of mind to know how you left it. It’s more for yourself.”
One rationale for maintaining the observance, as Resch thoughtfully put it, was that “anyone who wins enjoys being congratulated, and the loser who doesn’t congratulate the winner is trying to steal a little satisfaction from the winner. Even sore losers don’t like so losers.”
Another justification, sometimes noted by players who join the handshake line reluctantly, is: Those guys might be your teammates the next season.
Resch again: “It’s human relations. It’s learning to control your emotions. It’s maturity, being able to put things in perspective. When you’ve lost, it’s one of the toughest things in the world to do. But that’s the beauty of it. Anyone can do something that’s easy.”
The point of playing the games is, by definition, to win. That done, the consequence of hockey’s handshake line is to blend winner and loser together, making one as good as the other again.