On the eve of the first elimination game for the 2009 NHL Playoffs I want to bring attention to what I think is the greatest tradition in all of sports...the post series handshake line.
For those of you who don't follow the greatest game in the world, let me paint you a picture. Two teams will play a fierce best-of-seven series. Upon determining which team will advance to the next round (or hoist Lord Stanley's mug) both teams line up at center ice to pay respect to the other team. Both teams will skate toward each other and shake each others hand - the ultimate sign of respect to the other.
No other sport does this. In baseball the winning team storms the field while the losers take shelter in their dugout. In basketball the winning team takes to the court to celebrate with each other while embracing the fandemonium. Football and soccer come close; in football many players take the field and form a center circle to offer a quick prayer. In soccer several players share their game worn jersey with their counterpart on the opposing team. Both of these displays are great signs of respect, but neither requires total team participation. In hockey every player offers his hand to the other (except Martin Brodeur to Sean Avery in the 2008 playoffs - and I don't blame him).
These guys have just waged war on one another, many players having been bloodied and beaten at the hands of their opponent. But once the competition is complete they recognize the hard work that each player put forth. This isn't like getting a participation ribbon in pre-school. This isn't about anything other than a quick "good job" or "good luck next round" from one warrior to another. I would love to hear what else is said. No doubt there are many personal wishes passed from friend to friend...but even strangers will take this opportunity to pass along a respectful message.
In the end this is just a game that is played. Nothing more, nothing less. And it's nice to see that the players can keep things in perspective. Be sure to check out the games this week. And while you watch try to remember that these guys have just played at least four games against one another and have got their "hate on" for each other. Then watch their faces as they shake hands. Try to read their lips or listen closely for the whispered words of encouragement. Do this and you will have to agree that this tradition is unrivalled in the sports world.