The handshake line at the end of each post-season series is a long-standing hockey tradition that few players dare ignore.
By DAMIAN CRISTODERO
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2001
Slowly he approaches, the guy who knocked you to the ground, held you down with a stick and, for good measure, punched you in the face.
You get closer, your eyes lock and you ... extend your hand in a gesture of respect.
Welcome to the NHL, where at the conclusion of every playoff series, the players, some of whom have kicked each other's butts for seven games, line up single file and shake the hands of their opponents.
It is a ritual like no other among major professional team sports, and one that soon will be on display as the league opens the playoffs tonight with three conference quarterfinal matchups.
"I believe it's one of the best things that can happen," Maple Leafs defenseman Dave Manson said. "Especially after a hard-fought series."
"It's great," Bruins forward Bill Guerin said. "It shows a respect for the team you just did battle with. I think it's something the league can take pride in."
No one is certain when or how the tradition began. But Bob Duff, who covers the Red Wings for the Windsor Star in Ontario and contributes to Total Hockey, the NHL's official encyclopedia, said it probably goes back to Canada's ties to Great Britain.
In almost all British sports, there is a tradition of post-game handshakes, Duff said. And because many Canadians in the late 1800s -- when the Stanley Cup was first awarded -- were British immigrants, their customs transferred to hockey.
But there is no questioning the sentiment.
"The main thing behind the handshake," Panthers forward Len Barrie said, "is it is saying the war was on but now it's over."
For most, but not all.
Former Islanders goaltender Billy Smith and former Bruins goaltender Gerry Cheevers never took part in the tradition because they said they could not shake the hands of people trying to take money from their pockets.
"They were trying to take pieces out of me for six or seven games, so I never understood (the handshake)," Cheevers said.
He did, however, shake hands with the other goaltenders.
There was so much bitterness after the 1954 Cup final series between the Canadiens and Red Wings, only Montreal's Gaye Stewart, a former Red Wing, stayed on the ice for handshakes.
And after the 1997 Western Conference final, Detroit's Darren McCarty refused to shake hands with Colorado's Claude Lemieux, whose check from behind in the previous year's playoffs seriously injured Detroit's Kris Draper.
But the lineup did occur, and hands were shaken.
"Of course guys get under each other's skin," Guerin said. "But I think there's still a respect there."
"You don't forget battles that have gone on through the series," Manson said. "They say hockey players have memories like elephants. But it's part of the tradition, and it's something that should be upheld no matter what."
Rick Dudley agrees.
The Lightning's general manager recalled a particularly rugged playoff series of which he was a part in the early 1970s, when he played for Cincinnati of the American Hockey League.
"There was a guy from Baltimore, I must have fought him 15 times in a six-game series," Dudley said. "At the end of the series I looked forward to shaking his hand. I admired him.
"The people who battled the hardest are the people I looked forward to shaking hands with the most because I respected them."
No players interviewed said they had seen an NHL handshake line deteriorate into a brawl.
"There's too much respect for the game," Barrie said. "Even if you have a score to settle, that's not the place to settle it."
Said Manson: "Even guys who don't like you will say, "Good game' or "Good series.' "
Dudley said NHL players do their best to keep almost all emotions to themselves when going through the line.
"It's very solemn," he said. "You don't want to look too happy. You don't want to show how happy you are because you know how devastated they are."
Tonight's playoff previews
WHO: Flyers (No. 4 seed) vs. Sabres (5).
RECORDS: Philadelphia -- 43-25-11-3; Buffalo -- 46-30-5-1.
SEASON SERIES: Flyers 4-0.
THE LOWDOWN: Philadelphia's Roman Cechmanek faces Buffalo's Dominik Hasek in a battle of Czech Republic goaltenders. Injuries (especially to John LeClair), the Eric Lindros sideshow and a change in coaches before Christmas couldn't knock the Flyers from among the league's elite. The Sabres pulled off key trades for Donald Audette and Steve Heinze. They play a tight-checking system that made them the NHL's best defensively.
KEYS TO VICTORY: Philadelphia -- The forwards must continue their aggressive play to offset the loss of injured Keith Primeau; Cechmanek must maintain stellar play in face of stepped-up playoff intensity. Buffalo -- The best regular-season penalty kill unit must keep Philly's power play under wraps; stay sharp in front of Hasek and let him hoist the Sabres on his shoulders.
DAMIAN CRISTODERO'S PREDICTION: Flyers in seven.
WHO: Red Wings (2) vs. Kings (7).
RECORDS: Detroit -- 49-20-9-4; Los Angeles -- 38-28-13-3.
SEASON SERIES: 1-1-1.
THE LOWDOWN: The Red Wings are tough, tough, tough at Joe Louis Arena, going 27-9-3-2, including a team-record 19 straight without a loss (17-0-2) to end the season. Star center Sergei Fedorov struggled late, but Brendan Shanahan (31 goals) and Martin Lapointe (28) picked up the slack. The Kings have been much better defensively since trading defenseman Rob Blake and trading for goaltender Felix Potvin, who is 12-4-2 with five shutouts.
KEYS TO VICTORY: Detroit -- The oldest team in the playoffs must stay fresh; lean on defenseman Nicklas Lidstom and a power play that scored a league-high 85 times. Los Angeles -- Luc Robitaille and Ziggy Palffy must put points on the board; Potvin must stay hot, and a solid defense must hang tough against a high-powered attack.
CRISTODERO'S PREDICTION: Red Wings in five.
WHO: Stars (3) vs. Oilers (6).
RECORDS: Dallas -- 48-24-8-2; Edmonton -- 39-28-12-3.
SEASON SERIES: Stars 3-1.
THE LOWDOWN: This is the fifth consecutive season the teams have met in the playoffs; Dallas leads 3-1. The Stars ended the regular season as the league's hottest with a 13-game unbeaten streak (10-0-3), and Mike Modano is back on track. So is the team, which struggled while dealing with nagging injuries and the sensitive personality of goaltender Ed Belfour. The Oilers, one of the league's best-skating teams, have ridden goaltender Tommy Salo and a commitment to disciplined play that grew stronger as the season went on.
KEYS TO VICTORY: Dallas -- Keep the defensive pressure, the hidden key to the team's success, turned up high; Modano and sniper Brett Hull must take advantage of a very ordinary Oilers penalty kill. Edmonton -- Get playmaker and scorer Doug Weight going early; use speed and relative youth to keep the pressure on and hope Salo stays hot.
CRISTODERO'S PREDICTION: Stars in seven.