Follow the leader may sound like a children’s game, but among men, and 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.
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 representing 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,” 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.
You see, at the core of every superstition is the suspension of reality, a naturally occurring trait of the individual psyche that certainly the cerebral Guy Boucher can appreciate, which provides an illusion of control.
The idea then manifests itself in the belief that the players themselves have the ability to exert some level of control over chance outcomes.
So 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.
“They’re just things we do without really even thinking about them,” Lecavalier said. “It may start out that some guys have their own personal routines they like to get into, and before you know it, one of those might turn into a common theme around the locker room that unites the team and brings all the guys in the room together.”
Ryan Malone always takes a shower before he puts on his pads to suit up for a game. St. Louis prefers to have exactly four pieces of gum in his locker stall prior to taking the ice. Stamkos always has to get in his afternoon nap before every evening contest.
This is the uncompromising reality of NHL players, including some of Tampa Bay’s very own.
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.
For example, former Lightning forward Zenon Konopka said he would always hit the guys on the shoulder with a swift right hook as they lined up in the tunnel in the waning moments before the puck drop.
But to simply “hit” each player would be to perform a disservice to teammates as well as Lady Luck, for displays often paying homage to ceremonial convention hardly define uniform simplicity.
Unlike those, however, who revel 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 undergarments because he prefers his own private space in the visitor’s locker room. Likewise, Stamkos, Malone and 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, I’ll change it.”
I do it the same way every time, at the same time every day. And I always try to use the same pair of scissors and roll of tape. - Steven Stamkos on Pre-Game Superstitions
Already, in a hockey sense, things are changing.
After falling just one game shy of the franchise’s second trip to the Stanley Cup Finals just 14 months ago, the organization is moving forward in the right direction under the control of owner Jeff Vinik off the ice, and general manager Steve Yzerman on it.
When it comes to that success, though, it is 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 nonetheless aspiring to add one of hockey’s trendiest superstitions to the list: the playoff beard.
During the 2004 Stanley Cup run, captain Dave Andreychuk sported a nice set of whiskers, while even St. Louis looked a little more grizzly than usual.
For Lecavalier, however, that was one superstition he didn’t participate in.
In fact, he simply couldn’t.
“I just can’t grow one,” the current Bolts captain said. “If I try to grow it, it looks terrible, but I wish I had one.”
Much like his effort, along with that of his teammates, to put the Lightning in a position where they can adopt the theme itself, he’s working on it.