The Healing Power of the Hockey Handshake / by Travis Baker

The Hockey Handshake – Respect and Healing


Later tonight, somewhere around 10:30 EST, either the Boston Bruins or the St. Louis Blues will toss their gloves in the air, mob their goalie and rejoice in being the champions of the NHL. But before the captain hoists Lord Stanley’s Cup, both teams will meet at, or near, center ice to shake hands.

The Hockey Handshake Line is often cited as one of the great traditions in all of sport. It occurs most publicly at the conclusion of a National Hockey League playoff series after a fortnight of bashing, beating, and even biting each other. The players extend bruised hands and the occasional pat to the mid-section. But this ritual is not unique to the NHL. It happens at every level, at every rink, and, at the youth level, after every game. It is more than tradition to the sport, it is part of its very nature and fabric.

Handshakes happen in other pro-sports but they are often sprawling, haphazard affairs. Football teams have to fight through a mad press of media while basketball players mingle with fans and rap stars (or both) and soccer players writhe on the pitch in a seething cauldron of emotional distress. They might get up, eventually, with the help of a trainer, and exchange a jersey.  And baseball players only shake hands with each other like a pack of businessmen that just concluded a successful motivational luncheon as the other team slinks down the tunnel to play some more Fortnite. It’s different in hockey.

Hockey players make a line. A captain or the goalie is usually first, the coaches are last. They shake hands and go their separate ways. The ritual is respected by media, fans, family and supporting personnel. When the ritual is ignored or infringed upon or dishonored consequences are swift and unified.

Hockey is a hard game. It’s hard to skate. It’s hard to score. It’s hard to win. Hockey hurts. Whether checking is allowed or not, collisions happen and pucks take crazy bounces. Tempers flare. Every inch is fought for, and every slight is acknowledged with snarls, barks, face-palms and, sometimes, fists. The handshake is an act of respect, yes, but it’s more than that. It is the first step in a healing process for both victors and vanquished.

Last spring, my younger son and his 10U Maine Jr. Black Bear teammates played an end-of-the-season tourney in Rockland. They ended up winning the whole thing 4-3 in double-OT against a game squad from Hanover, NH. Imagine being a 9 or 10 year old kid, a goalie, having been beaten on that last shot? But remember, that kid is a hockey player, not just a kid playing hockey, but a hockey player. That kid stood first in line and held out his hand. Every player, every coach, every parent on our team and theirs understood how well the kid played, how many chances he denied, how worthy of respect he was. Making yourself available to receive that respect, to know whether it was by one goal or twelve that everyone out there is proud of you for lacing up the skates and doing your best, that’s how healing starts. It was one shot, on one kid, in a small town in Maine and, anyway, lacrosse season starts next week.

Equally important, however, is the healing necessary for the victorious. Hockey is not war but, many vets speak of survivor’s guilt, not only for their countrymen but those they fought. We may thump our chests, yell at our heroes to step on the necks of their opponents, take no prisoners, win or die trying but the definition of humanity is our sympathy and care for those in pain. We see the devastation in an opponent’s red-rimmed eye and we want to offer some level of comfort. A handshake helps. It tells the winner that the other player is going to be okay. There will be ice-cream on the way home. There will be sunshine. It’s okay. Go get your trophy. We’ll win one next time. Or not. Where’s the snack packs?

I want the Bruins to win tonight because hockey is my favorite sport and the Bruins are my favorite team. We’ll watch the game together; my boys, Holly, the dog, the cats and I, with some Black Bear Brewery beer and Pat’s Pizza strewn about. We’ll stay up very late if we have to and even if it’s 4-3 in double OT, Bruins or Blues, we’ll stay for the handshake line. That’s hockey.