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Monday, May 24, 2010

Honoring the Game

There might be nothing in the sporting world as grueling as a Stanley Cup playoff run.
Eight to ten weeks of the most intense, action-packed hockey of the year. Games almost 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 honor of participation.

Mind over matter
But once they are on the ice, it is full steam ahead. With everything they’ve got. Injuries that would keep them out of the line-up during the regular season are shaken off. Players have played with pulled muscles and even broken bones. It is mind over matter. Mental toughness begets physical toughness. Whatever it takes to soldier on.

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, what should have been, and how to prepare to make it happen the next year.
Each series takes on its own personality, with twists and turns, momentum shifts and rivalries created, re-created and re-kindled. What starts out as nothing often ends in two teams developing a deep hatred for each other and the willingness to do anything and everything to beat the guy across from them physically and mentally.

Oftentimes 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 just then, 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?

The Handshake
Then at the end of it all, after all of the incredible end to end action, the intense competition and the horrendous hatred that gets built, comes the handshake. One team moves on. The other moves home. But they both take the time to pay their respect to their opponent, 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 move on.

It always amazes me how two guys or two teams of guys can spend so much time and energy beating upon one another in hopes of beating one another and then when it ends they stop, turn it off and shake hands. Its kind of like the classic Bugs Bunny cartoon "Hillbilly Hare" where Bugs has his Ozark Mountain vacation disrupted by two feuding hillbillies. Those of you who are Bugs Bunny aficionados will know that Bugs then assumes the role of a coach and 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 which involves plenty of scrumming and 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.

The handshake at the end of the series is one of the greatest traditions of the Stanley Cup playoffs. No other sport has anything like it. Football can compare in terms of competitive intensity, but not in longevity. Baseball and basketball in longevity, with best of seven series, but with nowhere near the competitive intensity. At the end of it all, some of the players shake hands with one another, but not all of them.

In hockey, it is as much about the handshake line as it is about the handshake. Every player is expected to take part. Whether you really want to or not. Whether you really respect your 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.

But in youth hockey
Unfortunately, that is not always the case in youth hockey, where while there are typically 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 can happen in a handshake line. Especially bad things. Like players yipping and yapping at one another that can lead to punching and fighting. Or 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 opponents hand "just a little too hard".

Some leagues have actually altered their rules to prohibit post-game handshakes to avoid any of these kinds of occurrences 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.

Not the kids fault
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, a smile on their face 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 they just beat you barely. Maybe you just don’t like them. But at the end of the day, it is not about you and them. It is about honoring the game.