DETROIT – There is almost nothing Matt Cooke wouldn’t do to win a playoff series. And there’s always one thing he’ll do whether he’s successful or not – line up and shake hands with the opposing players.
The hockey handshake pre-dates the NHL and remains part of the game today because guys like Cooke swear by it.
Even though the Pittsburgh Penguins agitator has found himself in plenty of playoff battles over the years, he’s never once considered skipping the line and going straight to the dressing room. He respects the tradition.
“We all know what kind of a gruelling schedule (it is), the toll the playoffs take on you,” Cooke said Friday morning before Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final. “You have a mutual respect for the guy on the other side. You shake the hand to say, ‘Hey, great job. We’ve pushed each other to the limit. There’s no more games.”‘
Essentially, it’s a chance to wipe the slate clean.
Every elbow and slash and hook is left behind. All of the unkind words are replaced by a few nice ones as players file through the line, one by one, at centre ice.
“I think that’s showing respect,” said Detroit Red Wings forward Mikael Samuelsson. “You play a game out there and obviously you play your hardest, when that’s over you’ve got to look at it as a game. Everybody’s trying to win.
“If you whack someone on the calf or whatever you do out there, it’s trying to help your team hopefully. I think it’s a matter of respect that you shake hands.”
Every once and awhile, someone skips the line.
Martin Brodeur and Sean Avery famously refused to shake hands a year ago after battling one another throughout a playoff series. The same thing happened a decade ago between Detroit’s Kris Draper and Colorado’s Claude Lemieux.
It was just two years ago that Red Wings defenceman Chris Chelios skated off the ice immediately after a losing the Western Conference final to Anaheim. However, he wasn’t trying to summon the spirit of noted handshake-haters like Billy Smith or John Ferguson; instead, he was completely overcome by emotion and wanted some privacy.
The veteran apologized the next day and made it clear he wasn’t trying to make a statement about the Ducks. He believes the handshake sets an important example.
“It’s all part of the game,” said Chelios. “I guess it shows good sportsmanship. As hard as you battle against your opponent and sometimes as tough as it is to shake some of their hands, at the end of the day the majority of guys in this league are really good guys. You play hard.
“It’s something that kids should learn, it’s a very good tradition. I don’t know when it started but I think it’s one of the greatest traditions in all sports.”
Like the Stanley Cup itself, the tradition ties players to those that came before them. Sidney Crosby and Nicklas Lidstrom exchange handshakes in the same manner Mario Lemieux or Gordie Howe would have before them.
It’s not always easy.
There might not be a feeling worse than watching another team celebrate a series victory before having to line up and shake their hands. Many of the Penguins have listed that as the toughest part of their loss to the Red Wings in the 2008 Stanley Cup.
“When you lose a series, the last thing you want to do is congratulate the other team or wish them good luck,” said veteran Detroit forward Kirk Maltby. “But it’s kind of the nature of the beast. It’s just part of our sport and something that’s carried over.
“I think it’s one of the few things that we do that maybe other sports don’t.”
Cooke can think of at least one where it does.
“You can go to one of the roughest games that’s out there in rugby and they do it after every game,” he said. “And most times they’re going for beers after with each other.
“They put their egos aside and know that they’re out there trying to win. That’s what it’s about.”