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 centerfield, 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, 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 course.
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.