Hockey's best player, Sidney Crosby of the Penguins, has endured two years of career-threatening concussions and a puck to the face that severely damaged his jaw and traumatized several teeth. Titanium plates were screwed to his jawbone. When Crosby returned to the ice, all that oral surgery was protected by a large shield—until last week, when it was ceremoniously removed for the Eastern Conference finals against Boston. "It's nice to be able to see a little better," said Crosby, but his coach, Dan Bylsma, recognized the real value of the act: "This does show off his beard a little more," said Bylsma.
But the beards and the pain and the after-market teeth are just a few of the timeless traditions that make the Stanley Cup playoffs sui generis. There's the airborne seafood in Detroit, where the man who maintains the ice, Al Sobotka, retrieves the octopi flung onto the ice and waves them like a lariat to whip the crowd into further frenzy. The two pole stars of Sobotka's life—Zamboni and calamari—could only come together in hockey and even then only in Hockeytown.
When the Panthers went to the Stanley Cup finals in 1996, fans rained thousands of plastic rats onto the home ice at Miami Arena after goals, in homage to Florida winger Scott Mellanby, who had killed a rat with his stick in the locker room before a regular-season game and went on to score two goals with the same stick on the same night. This earned Mellanby—in the memorable phrase of Panthers goalie John Vanbiesbrouck—a "rat trick."
The whiteouts and gold-outs look lovely on TV during the NBA playoffs, giving them a quaint college feel, but nothing unites a community of fans quite like a rat-out.
But the best hockey rituals are those that deflect, in the grand tradition of the game, the spotlight onto others. The postgame stick salute to fans, for instance. Or the bipartisan stick taps to a wounded soldier—as happened last Saturday night in Pittsburgh, when the Penguins and the Bruins paused during a TV timeout to salute an American veteran.
The very best tradition, of course, remains the handshake line at the end of a series. Most of the time, removing one's gloves is an invitation to fight—hockey's dumbest tradition, to which the league inexplicably clings in a world newly enlightened about brain trauma.
But the handshake is the opposite. As the rest of the world abandons it in favor of the knuckle bump or the finger-shoot—as Purell-pumping stations appear anywhere that human contact cannot be avoided—a few men have drawn a line against our increasing alienation.
And that line is the playoff hockey handshake line.
That's how all this will end, of course: with a series of handshakes and the hoisting of a Cup.
But what's the hurry? These playoffs have been blessed and deserve a little breathing room. After the lockout-shortened season—after that self-imposed deluge of stupidity—we've seen a series of rainbows and doves. Each of the league's Original Six teams made the playoffs. The four teams still playing this week happen to be the last four Stanley Cup champions.