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Show of hands

During and after Game 7, it’ll be shaking in the Garden

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / April 25, 2012
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We know how Game 7 ends Wednesday night at the Garden between the Bruins and Capitals. When the final second ticks off the clock, or the overtime goal gets fired into the net, one of the clubs will rejoice wildly, the other will grimace in pain, and within moments, they’ll all line up on the ice for the customary end-of-series handshake.

Players and coaches alike, no matter how elated or bitterly disappointed, will fulfill one of the game’s great, charming traditions. It’s the Stanley Cup playoffs. For four, five, six, or seven games, two teams fight one another ferociously, the sport’s beauty and brutality mixed into the same bubbling cauldron. Then when it’s over, they immediately morph back into gentlemen, shaking hands, exchanging pleasantries, connecting them with their playing brethren through the decades.

“Yeah, I’ve had guys out there tell me, ‘You’re a little rat,’ stuff like that,’’ said Bruins winger Brad Marchand. “But mostly it’s, ‘Hey, good series,’ or ‘Good job, bud.’

“In a seven-game series, things happen out there that you don’t like, and maybe you want to kill the other guy sometimes. But you also have to realize it’s a game, that you’ve got to leave that stuff at the rink, and you’ve got to respect each other. It’s mostly about respect.’’

Hockey differs greatly from other North American sports, and one of the unique differences is the closing handshake in the playoffs. For decade upon decade - almost assuredly back to even before the NHL opened for business in 1924 - hockey playoffs have concluded the same way, with handshakes and back slaps, tradition and respect.

One of the game’s iconic photographs, taken April 8, 1952, by Montreal news photographer Roger St. Jean, depicts Boston goalie “Sugar’’ Jim Henry pitched slightly forward in his bulky gear, as if bowing in reverence, when shaking the hand of Montreal’s Maurice “Rocket’’ Richard at the end of that year’s Stanley Cup semifinals.

Concussed earlier that night at the Forum, a dazed Richard was on the bench in the third period but re-entered the action with some four minutes to go at the request of coach Dick Irvin.

The scored tied, 1-1, Richard bolted the length of the ice with the puck. First steered into a corner by the Boston defense, he then muscled his way to the net to knock the winning goal by Henry, who was playing with a broken nose and two black eyes.

St. Jean’s classic shot captured Richard with a bandage over his left eyebrow, a trickle of blood running down his cheek as he shook hands with the battered and bruised Boston goalie.

“The essential image of hockey,’’ said Dick Johnson, curator of the Sports Museum of New England. “That’s the hockey we all love and appreciate. A couple of guys who’ve just battled beyond belief, shaking hands, respecting each other and the game. No sport has anything like it.’’

Johnson so admires the photo that some 20 years ago, he commissioned an artist to make a large painting of it, some 3 feet by 4 feet, and hung it in the foyer of his home.

“Now it hangs in the museum,’’ said Johnson. “My wife got tired of looking at the Rocket and all the blood.’’

The Hockey Hall of Fame was unable to provide details of when the traditional handshake originated.

“It’s an interesting question, how it started,’’ said Craig Campbell, who manages the Hall’s research center and archives in Toronto. “But it’s not something we have a file on, to be honest.

“Pictures, yes. But not text. And nothing jumps in my head, so I’d only be speculating. I suppose it could go back to the first days the game was ever played, right? Sort of, ‘Hey, nice game’, and you shake the other guy’s hand. But I’m sorry to say we don’t have that information.’’

Rarely does anyone skip the good show of sportsmanship. Islanders goalie Billy Smith was among the few to disdain it. In 2007, Red Wings defenseman Chris Chelios bolted the ice after Detroit lost to Anaheim in the Western Conference final, causing a bit of a flap. The next day, the hard-rock defenseman apologized. Wrapped up in the emotion and disappointment of it all, he said, he just wanted to be alone for a while in the solitude of the dressing room.

“It’s something that kids should learn, it’s a very good tradition,’’ Chelios explained back in 2007.

The Bruins, in capturing their first Stanley Cup last June since 1972, shook hands with the Canadiens, Flyers, Lightning, and Canucks en route to the title. The series with Vancouver grew particularly bitter, in part because the Canucks’ Alex Burrows bit Patrice Bergeron’s finger, and Aaron Rome knocked Nathan Horton out of the series early in Game 3 with a concussion from a blind-side hit to the head.

But when the series wrapped up, the teams lined up and respectfully shook hands, with Boston goalie Tim Thomas even taking a moment to tell Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo how much he respected his talents and congratulate him on a very good season. Days earlier, Thomas deadpanned, “I didn’t know it was my job to pump his tires,’’ after Luongo groused that Thomas hadn’t lauded his efforts during the series.

“Win or lose,’’ said Bruins center Greg Campbell, “the comments in the handshake line are usually gracious. You tell a guy he had a good series, wish him luck. It’s pretty basic.

“Sure, you develop a hate for guys during the playoffs, but on the flip side of that, guys know that it’s business, and business is, I’d guess you say, impersonal.

“You’re out there for two weeks against each other, doing anything you can to win, and then it’s over. So the right thing to do is show that degree of sportsmanship.’’

Bruins tough guy Shawn Thornton has won the Cup twice, with the Ducks in 2007 and last year with the Bruins. Nothing better than four rounds of happy handshakes. But he also knows the disappointment of the losers in that line, having been here for three seasons of playoff runs that fell short prior to last year’s Cup.

“Is it easy to do sometimes? No, it’s not,’’ he said. “When you lose, it’s pretty emotional. But it goes to show the mutual respect guys have for each other, despite how hard everyone’s playing all the time.

“The times we’ve lost, I’ve taken an extra second to get my emotions in check before I’ve gone through the line. Not easy, but I do it.’’

No matter the outcome in Game 7, no matter the hour, the dejection or the jubilation, the Bruins and Capitals will form a line on Garden ice Wednesday night and honor a tradition held through the ages, from the Flying Frenchmen to the Big Bad Bruins, to the Broad Street Bullies to the Broadway Blueshirts . . . to beyond.

Gordie Howe did it. Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr, too. The greatest, the great, and the game’s stocking stuffers all have lined up at the end of every playoff series. For as crazy and out of control as the game may be at times, hockey deserves a hand for its handshake.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.

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