By Ken Reed

I’ve been a long-time critic of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his NHL cronies. The league’s stance on fighting and gratuitous cheap shots resulting from “Hockey’s Code” is so ridiculous it would be laughable if a multitude of current and former NHL players weren’t suffering the effects of brain damage as a result.

Given what we know about concussions and brain trauma today, one has to wonder why there are still goons employed in the NHL for the primary purpose of playing Macho Man enforcer.

However, those topics are for another day. Today, I want to focus on a few positive aspects of Bettman’s league. The report card on the NHL certainly isn’t all bad. In fact, the NHL has some traditions that trump anything the other three major professional sports leagues have.

For one, nothing comes close to the trophy that goes to the champion of the NHL. The Stanley Cup is probably the most sought after trophy in all of sports. Players are willing to make numerous personal sacrifices for the honor of hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup above their heads after winning the NHL championship. After the final playoff series is over, the Cup is first presented to the winning team’s captain, who after parading it around the ice a bit, hands if off to another key player on his team — often a teammate having the most seniority in the league, or with his current team. Eventually, every member of the winning team gets a chance to raise the Cup above his head during the on-ice celebration. Adding to the specialness of this skate, is the knowledge that the Cup is the same trophy that past champions have hoisted. The NHL doesn’t make new trophies every year to hand out to their champions, like the other pro sports leagues do. The Cup is the same trophy past champions have clutched — and sipped champagne from.

Another thing that makes winning the Cup special for hockey players is the NHL tradition of engraving the name of every member of the winning team on the Cup. To have one’s name placed on the trophy — alongside the names of teammates — is the ultimate hockey honor.

One of my favorite Stanley Cup traditions is the impromptu team photo after the final game, in which sweaty — sometimes bleeding — teammates gather on the ice, surrounding the Cup, for a victory celebration photo shoot. These poses have created some of the coolest pictures in sports history. They depict the ineffable joy of shared sacrifice, camaraderie, and brotherhood among a group of men who have developed an incredibly close bond over the course of a long season and playoff run.

Finally, as a big fan and advocate of sportsmanship, I love nothing more than seeing the handshake line formed by the two teams after the final game of the Stanley Cup series. After the hard-fought battle, combatants line up facing each other for this grand tradition. Players from each team go through the line feeling dramatically different emotions. It’s the ultimate “joy of victory and agony of defeat” moment. Nevertheless, the players, now fellow warriors, proceed to exchange heart-felt hand shakes, words of congratulations, pats on the back, and sometimes emotional hugs. There’s a genuine recognition of the effort each player put into the competition.

“Hockey’s tradition of the post-game handshake is the epitome of sportsmanship,” says Brian Jennings, NHL Executive Vice President of Marketing. “Competitors line up to look each other in the eye, acknowledge each other’s efforts and extend a hand of congratulation or condolence after a hard-fought series. This very honest and authentic moment shows the mutual respect our players have for each other, the sport of hockey and the Stanley Cup.”

On that point, I couldn’t agree more, Mr. Jennings. But you’re just a corporate suit. What does the handshake tradition mean to a player?

“As much as you hate them when you’re playing against them, at the end of the day we’re all out there trying to do a good job and play the game we love,” says Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand. “To show each other that respect at the end and realize that everything that’s happened is just because we both want to win — it’s definitely a great tradition.”

Due its reluctance to let go of some violent traditions in this era of concussion awareness, the NHL has a long way to go before they can join the 21st century.

But the Stanley Cup traditions and rituals are at once priceless and timeless.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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