The handshake at the end of each Stanley Cup series is the best
tradition in sports, hands down. After two weeks of trying to
squish opposing players against the glass like june bugs, of
acting out with sticks, two teams swallow their anger, or at
least their adrenaline, and then line up like grade-schoolers to
offer congratulations or condolences in a ritual that blends
sportsmanship and hypocrisy. The handshakes are displays of
respect--not necessarily for the opponent but for the sport--and
they can be poignant enough that they become the lingering image
of a series. Like when the Philadelphia Flyers dispatched the
Pittsburgh Penguins in this year's first round. The Penguins'
shy and retiring Mario Lemieux leaned in close to the Flyers'
young captain, Eric Lindros, offering his hand and his blessing.
No other sport is as clear as hockey in its law governing
interpersonal relationships: Play now, schmooze later. When a
linebacker levels a wideout over the middle, the defensive
player may help the poor receiver to his feet and, if so moved,
give him a pat on the rump as if to say, "No hard feelings." The
Stanley Cup playoffs are hard feelings--a hockey player would
never help an opponent to his skates after knocking him down.
When a batter lines a single to center-field, he and the
opposing first baseman routinely engage in so much chitchat that
the first base coach should send out for lattes and blueberry
scones. During the NHL playoffs opposing players rarely speak to
each other in a civil tongue. Before the tip-off to Game 1 of
the 1987-88 NBA Finals, the Detroit Pistons' Isiah Thomas
actually planted a big wet one on the cheek of the Los Angeles
Lakers' Magic Johnson, which was a bit much even for the clubby
NBA. While basketball players generally confine themselves to
touching fists or slapping hands before a game, hockey players
wait until the battle is over and done before acknowledging any
collegiality. Even then they do it formally, quickly and often
brusquely, not with a high five or forearm bash or chest bump or
whatever is the latest fashion in salutations, but with a
handshake and a quiet word.
Those verbal exchanges are generally brief and banal, consisting
mostly of "Good luck" or "Nice job" or, from a particularly sore
winner, "Have a nice summer." No great truths are spoken, though
small ones sometimes are. "We'd beaten the Soviets in the '72
Super Series, then we'd won the first Canada Cup in '76," says
Bob Clarke, the former Flyers great who played on those two
victorious Canadian teams. "Boris Mikhailov was their captain--a
terrific competitor, a nasty son of a gun. In the '79 Challenge
Cup they beat us two out of three and really bad, 6-0, in the
last game, and we're shaking hands at the end. I was captain of
that club. Mikhailov grabbed my hand, pulled my face close to
his and went, 'Ha, ha, ha, ha!' and then he kept going. You've
got to love a guy who was just saying, 'After all these years, I
got you, you bugger.'"
Some players elect not to stick around for the last laugh.
Goalies Gerry Cheevers of the strong Boston Bruins teams of the
1970s and Billy Smith of the Stanley Cup-champion New York
Islanders teams of the '80s would make a beeline for their
dressing rooms after each series. John Ferguson, the legendary
Montreal Canadiens enforcer of the '60s, could handle anything
the NHL threw at him except having to shake an opponent's hand.
Following this year's Western Conference finals, the Detroit Red
Wings' Kris Draper spurned the handshake of the Colorado
Avalanche's Claude Lemieux. "He looked away and stuck his hand
out; that's not sportsmanship," says Draper, who was the target
of a Lemieux cheap shot in the '96 conference finals. But even
for players who can't work up much enthusiasm for the ritual,
the handshake can be cathartic: a public moment when the mind is
cleansed and refocused on either the next series or the golf
Baseball players pile on top of each other after winning the
World Series, football has the Gatorade shower and basketball
has the net-cutting ceremony, but nothing is quite so perfect as
two parallel lines appearing at center ice--like those the
Flyers and the Red Wings formed last Saturday (above)--to bring
closure to the most demanding tournament in North America.
You take the seventh-inning stretch. Give me five.
COLOR PHOTO: CARLOS OSORIO/AP [Detroit Red Wings players and Philadelphia Flyers players shaking hands]