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Playoff handshake line a winning tradition

Bruins, Maple Leafs will carry on post-series custom following Game 7

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

The only sure thing about Game 7 of the Eastern Conference First Round between the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs at TD Garden on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVAS, NESN) is what will take place on the ice after the game. The post-series handshake line is one of the NHL's great traditions, a few gentlemanly moments following four, five, six or seven punishing Stanley Cup Playoff games.

In many ways, the handshake line is a contradiction: Players who have been bruising each other in every second of every game line up to shake hands and wish each other well. One team has advanced to the next round or has won the Stanley Cup; the other is vanquished into the offseason. The handshake tradition has endured, evolved, and today it is a compelling scene at the end of hard-fought playoff series.

It may seem like the perfect opportunity for the winning team to gloat, rub salt in the losing team's wound, but Maple Leafs legend Dave Keon, who won the Stanley Cup four times in his 18-season career, said that's not the case.

"You don't want to be, for want of a better expression, jumping up and down while you're doing it," said Keon, who played in 18 Stanley Cup Playoff series in his career, 17 with the Maple Leafs, the other with the Hartford Whalers. "Your opponent played hard, and you respect that. In my day, all you said, basically, was, 'Good game.' I think that sometimes, not even a word was spoken. You'd just nod. And you might not shake the other guy's hand, you'd just touch it.

"You're either very excited or you're down. You just wanted to get it over with quickly."

Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who has won the Stanley Cup three times and won his ninth straight series on Sunday, said the handshake line is also the chance to clear the air with your opponent.

"If something happens, just clarifying, 'Hey, I didn't mean to do that,' or 'Sorry about this or that.' It's not really a time to get into a full conversation regardless of what side of it you're on, but I think it's a mutual-respect thing," Crosby said. "It's a cool thing that hockey does that. Over the years, it's pretty standard. It's not casual, but it's cordial."

Watch: "Handshake - 2013 Stanley Cup Final video"

Vegas Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, a three-time Stanley Cup winner with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009, '16 and '17, suggests that not just every playoff series, but every game in the postseason is difficult to win.

"At the end, I think you gain a lot of respect for your opponent because you see them a lot," Fleury said. "You know what they go through, the hard time they go through. It's always easier when you're on the winning side. You can keep your head up, walk around and say 'good job.' When you lose, you just want to get out and go home."

Fleury's first Cup-winning handshake came in 2009, capped by a seven-game Final against the Detroit Red Wings.

"It was a blur, definitely," Fleury said. "I've always been a big fan of goalies, so I got to shake [Red Wings goalie] Chris Osgood's hand because the year before he did it to us. That time around, he said, 'Good playoffs, good series.' So, I thought it was really nice of him."

There is no exact point to show where or when the handshake tradition began. But by the 1930s, players routinely shook hands in casual, informal post-series gatherings that bore no resemblance to today's formal line.

In the Original Six era from 1942-1967, when teams played each other as often as 14 times per season before the playoffs, genuine hatred was stoked before everything was on the line in the two-round postseason. Legendary Canadiens defenseman Doug Harvey, and Bert Olmstead, a ferocious forward for the Chicago Black Hawks, Canadiens and Maple Leafs, routinely skated off the ice rather than shake hands with their opponent, win or lose.

Decades later, Boston Bruins goalie Gerry Cheevers and lodge brother Billy Smith of the New York Islanders famously weren't fussy about the meet-and-greet, either.

Enforcer Dave "The Hammer" Schultz led the NHL postseason in penalty minutes in 1973, '74, '75 and '76, racking up 412 in 73 career playoff games with the Philadelphia Flyers, Los Angeles Kings and Buffalo Sabres, but said he always wanted to wish his opponent well.

 "Well, um, there were a few times when I wish we could have had a brawl in the handshake line," Schultz said with a laugh. "It wouldn't seem right, I don't think, to play a series, no matter how many games, and just skate off the ice.

"I'll never forget, and I even have a photo of it, in the first round in 1974 when we beat the Atlanta Flames in four straight. I had a fight in the fourth game, in Atlanta, with Bryan Hextall Jr., (Flyers general manager) Ron's dad. Bryan got bloodied up a little bit but we shook hands. He probably didn't really care to do that but it's the way to end things.

"It just seems right. I've got to be good friends with a lot of the guys I played against and fought against. The handshake is a good thing, a nice thing. And it's the right thing."

Hall of Fame center Jean Ratelle, one of the most gentlemanly players in NHL history, played in 25 series between 1967-81, never winning the Stanley Cup. Ratelle took 24 penalty minutes in those 25 series, so surely no player held a grudge against him in the handshake line.

"You'd just say, 'Good series,' that's the bottom line," Ratelle said. "You didn't say much. You were going so fast, you didn't really have time to talk to anyone, even if you might have known some players pretty well. … If you got beat, you'd just say a quick congratulations and keep going. You didn't wait around, you didn't want to be talking too much, unhappy you'd lost. But if you won, you didn't want to rub it in, either. Once the series is over, it's over. The handshake happened every time, win or lose."

Scotty Bowman won nine Stanley Cup titles behind the bench of the Canadiens, Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings between 1973-2002, making him the winningest coach in NHL history. Add five more to his resume as a front-office executive.

"If it wasn't the Final, you'd just give the other coaches your best wishes to keep going," said Bowman, who doesn't recall joining the handshake queues with Montreal or Pittsburgh, but rather greeting his counterpart on the ice between benches. "It was very brief. You thanked them, or you wished them the best in their next series if you didn't win. It was only years later that the coaches and their assistants joined the line."

Larry Robinson won the Stanley Cup five times with Bowman in Montreal in the 1970s, winning another in 1986 under coach Jean Perron and three more times coaching and in the front office of the New Jersey Devils.

"It was certainly a little bit easier for me because most of my handshakes in the lines were on the winning side," said Robinson, who won 32 playoff series against 14 losses between 1973-92, never missing the postseason during 17 seasons with the Canadiens and his final three with the Los Angeles Kings.

"In all honestly, I think the handshake is the greatest tradition there is, and I don't know why more sports don't do it. It separates the reality of the game from its sportsmanship. Whenever you play in a series, one has to win and one has to lose and it's great that you have to acknowledge each other at the end of it, an ending to either a vicious series or a great series. You leave the game on the ice and you shouldn't take it with you. That's the great thing about having a handshake line."

Tempers can boil over in the heat of the moment, as they did after the Canadiens had eliminated the Bruins in a seven-game second round series in 2014. Widely reported were then-Bruins forward Milan Lucic's less than gracious words for Canadiens forward Dale Weise, who had been a thorn in his side throughout.

Montreal forward Brendan Gallagher laughs at the memory of it today, then and now a summertime training partner of Lucic, who plays for the Edmonton Oilers, in Vancouver.

"The whole seven-game series, we never said a word to each other," Gallagher said of Lucic. "We were out there competing, exactly what you do, two competitive guys playing to win, not worrying about friendships. He shook my hand and didn't say much. He's a guy who hates to lose. He got to (Weise) and reacted the way he did.

"Both of our first days of training that summer, we saw each other across the gym and we started laughing. You put it behind you, joke about it as you go. That's how hockey players are in the heat of the moment, they're going to react based upon their emotions. After a couple months to settle down, it's a non-factor. That's the culture of our game."

Gallagher, whose next Stanley Cup Playoff series will be the eighth of his career, views two sides to the handshake processional.

"My first playoff series in 2013, five games against Ottawa, I was shaking hands with Daniel Alfredsson. He stopped in the line and gave me a couple of compliments, told me that he appreciated the way I worked and competed. He's a guy I'd never really met, and something like that sticks with you throughout your career.

"And I've done the same thing. The series after we beat the Bruins (in 2014), we lost to the New York Rangers, having had a chance to go to the Stanley Cup Final. I got to play against my boyhood idol, Martin St. Louis. It was unbelievable, the way he competed. Getting the chance to say a couple words to him in the handshake line even though we lost, as disappointing as it was, I could see why guys like that are able to win playoff series.

***

 

Complete Coverage of the Stanley Cup Playoffs

Round 1

Bruins vs. Maple Leafs

Capitals vs. Blue Jackets

Round 2

Capitals vs. Penguins

Predators vs. Jets

Golden Knights vs. Sharks

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