June 22, 2010

Pros prove importance of a fair shake

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

There might be nothing in the sporting world as grueling as a Stanley Cup playoff run: eight to 10 weeks of the most intense, action-packed hockey of the year.

There are games just about every second night, interrupted by potentially long road trips and plenty of nights spent in a hotel. Bumps and bruises pile up game after game from blocked shots, high sticks, errant pucks and bone-rattling checks. Every player walks with a limp and sports a facial bruise or stitches or chipped tooth as a badge of participation.

Each series is a mini-battle in the long journey. The first team to four victories earns the right to keep playing. The loser goes home, faced with a long summer of recuperation and reflection on what could have been and should have been, and how to make it happen the next year.

Each series takes on its own personality, with twists and turns, momentum shifts and rivalries created and rekindled. What starts out as nothing often ends in two teams developing a deep hatred for each other and willing to do anything and everything to beat the guy across from them -- physically and mentally.

Often, the physical part determines the mental advantage. The high sticks, the late hits, the face washes, the well-placed slash and the errant elbow all serve a purpose over the course of the series. While it might not make a difference at the moment, over the course of time the collective effort will. Who wants to be that last team standing? Who will be willing to make the sacrifices to do it?

Then, at the end of it all, after all of the action, intense competition and built hatred, comes … the handshake.

One team moves on. The other moves home. But they both take the time to pay their respect to the other, to signify that what happened on the ice during the games stays on the ice during the games. The competition is over. It’s time to congratulate the winner and console the loser. Then they move on.

It always amazes me how two guys -- or two teams of guys -- can spend so much time and energy beating up on one another and then, when it ends, they stop, turn it off and shake hands. Kind of like the classic Bugs Bunny cartoon, “Hillbilly Hare,” where Bugs has his Ozark Mountain vacation disrupted by two feuding hillbillies. Bugs begins a square-dance routine where he becomes the fiddler and the caller, manipulating the two hillbillies -- complete with playoff beards -- into a frenzied dance that involves plenty of scrumming, rolling about, beard-pulling and beating each other with fence posts.

Just like the playoffs. Then, at the end of it all, they stop, shake hands and it’s over.

In hockey, it is as much about the handshake line as it is about the handshake. Every player is expected to take part, whether he really wants to or not -- and whether he really respects the opponent or not. To not partake is to disrespect the game and the wonderful traditions of those who have played it before you. It’s not even an option.

But it is part of the discipline and respect that are necessary elements of playing the game. If you don’t have it and aren’t willing to play within those cultural boundaries, you really don’t deserve to play. It’s that simple.

Unfortunately, that is not always the case in youth hockey. While there are usually not best-of-seven series that create these incredibly intense rivalries, there are handshakes at the end of every game. To me, that tradition might be just as important as the actual game itself.

A lot of things can happen in a handshake line, many of them bad. Players yipping and yapping at one another can lead to punching and fighting. It can be something as disgusting and immature as players spitting on their hands before shaking the hand of an opponent. Or players pulling their hands back and refusing to shake with certain players. Or players being overly aggressive and smacking an opponent’s hand just a little too hard.

Some leagues have actually altered their rules to prohibit post-game handshakes to avoid any of these occurrences, ones that could easily escalate into a more violent situation. They prefer to have the players shake hands before the game, before emotions run high in the heat of the competition. Then, after the game, the teams go their separate directions so there are no problems.

To me, that is a problem. A huge one.

And it is not the player’s problem, although when we do that we are turning it into a problem for them. They don’t have to have discipline and self-control. They don’t need to have respect for their opponent. They don’t learn to have respect for the game and the traditions of those that have played it before them. We contribute to a complete lack of respect. Then we wonder why the players don’t have any.

It’s not the kids’ fault when something goes awry in the handshake line. That honor goes to the coaches. They are the ones that need to prepare the players for what may or may not happen during the course of a game and interacting with the other team. They are the ones that need to instill discipline and a respectful attitude in their players. They are the ones that need to lead by example and, when the game ends, put their differences aside, smile and shake hands.

Sure, there are times when you don’t want to shake hands with the opponent or the coach of the other team. Maybe you don’t respect how they play. Maybe they just beat you handily. Maybe you just don’t like them. But at the end of the day, it is not really about you and them.

It is about honoring the game.

Lyle Phair can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com