Follow the leader may sound like a children’s game, but among men, specifically hockey players, it’s all business. The ritual is carried out in the same way before every period of every Lightning hockey game. No exceptions, no special cases, no misunderstandings. Starting goaltender first, followed by Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, and Steven Stamkos.
I'm pretty hyper before the game, so I like to go around and hit all the guys before they take the ice" - Zenon Konopka
For as formal as this hockey hierarchy may seem, there is actually no rhyme or reason to explain such an odd, preordained precession. And yet, to the participants proudly presenting the Lightning sweater, this is normal.
“That’s just the way it is,” St. Louis said. “It’s always been like that.”
And if the tradition is broken?
“Things don’t go well,” rookie defenseman Victor Hedman said.
Indeed, to break the single-file mold of hockey’s ritualistic conga line is to cross check the hockey gods. The stars don’t align, the heavens explode, and the universe unravels. And, that doesn’t even begin to explain what happens on the ice. But before the Bolts even jump onto the rink, the long litany of superstitions sets in, as much a part of storied tradition and necessary preparation as it is individual idiosyncrasies.
Antero Niittymaki always eats salmon and pasta before every game. Todd Fedoruk performs the same series of stretches in the locker room at exactly the same time before taking the ice. Hip flexor right, hip flexor left, hamstring right, hamstring left. Steven Stamkos always has to get in his afternoon nap before the big game.
This is the uncompromising reality of hockey players. For while every superstition might be a unique trait that is individual to a single player, the long history of pre-game fabled folklore doubles as a universal theme in the sporting lexicon. But if the Lightning players serve as a model for athletes in all sports, then hockey just might serve as the best indication of sports stars’ obsession with the occult.
“I’m pretty hyper before the game, so I like to go around and hit all the guys before they take the ice,” Zenon Konopka said.
But to simply “hit” each player would be to perform a disservice to teammates as well as Lady Luck, for Konopka’s ceremonial convention hardly defines uniform simplicity.
“I rub Bubba’s [Equipment Manager Rob Kennedy] head first, usually on the way out. Then I literally hit Steph [Stephane Veilleux], then Wrighter [James Wright], he usually cries, then I give a handshake to Vinny [Lecavalier], a fist bump to Marty [St. Louis], then I hammer Stammer [Steven Stamkos], and give a nice high five to Bugsy [Ryan Malone],” Konopka said.
Unlike Konopka, who revels in the practice of collective ritual, others prefer to keep tradition with that of another: isolation.
When playing on the road, St. Louis is always the last to change into his undergear because he prefers his own private space in the visitor’s locker room. Steven Stamkos, Ryan Malone, and Vincent Lecavalier always tape their sticks heel to toe in the solace of their own locker.
“I do it the same way every time, at the same time every day,” Stamkos said. “And I always try to use the same pair of scissors and roll of tape. Obviously if something works for a while and then we lose a game or something, things change.”
Already, in a hockey sense, things are changing. So far, the team is headed in the right direction, but it’s difficult to pinpoint whether the results on the ice are a tribute to the rituals off of it, or just good hockey. Either way, come April, the Bolts are hoping to add one of hockey’s trendiest superstitions to the list: the playoff beard.
During the 2004 Stanley Cup run, Dave Andreychuk sported some whiskers and Martin St. Louis even looked a little grizzly. But facial hair was one superstition that Vincent Lecavalier didn’t participate in. In fact, he simply couldn’t.
“I just can’t grow one. If I try to grow it, it looks terrible,” he said. “But I wish I had one.”
Much like his effort to put the team in a position where they can adopt the theme itself, he’s working on it.