Tracing the Origin of Handshake Lines in the N.H.L.

The Rangers and the Penguins shook hands after Game 7 of their second-round playoff series. The handshake line is a cherished custom in the N.H.L.

One moment Thursday encapsulated the special nature of the N.H.L.’s traditional handshake line after playoff series: The Montreal Canadiens’ Brandon Prust placed his hand gently on the side of Derek Stepan’s head, smiling as he spoke to Stepan, his affection bound with remorse and best wishes as the Rangers were headed to the Stanley Cup finals.

A week earlier, Prust broke Stepan’s jaw with a late hit, but here Prust was, congratulating his friend and former Rangers teammate, his face close to Stepan’s, which was still enclosed in a protective helmet.

“I’m not going to hold that against him,” Stepan said, distilling the handshake line’s healing qualities. “He feels bad about it. He knows it was late. And we move on from there.”

Handshake lines form every N.H.L. postseason even though no rule mandates them. It is simply a cherished custom emanating from deep in hockey’s past. No one knows when this display of sportsmanship started.

In May, however, Liam Maguire, a hockey historian from Ottawa, posted a memoir online that might date the first formal postgame handshakes to more than 100 years ago.

Maguire remembered a conversation he had in 1980 with an Ottawa-area resident in his 80s. The resident, whose surname was Lamb, was a cousin of Joe Lamb, who played in the N.H.L. in the 1920s and ’30s.

Lamb showed Maguire a scrapbook that contained a yellowed newspaper clipping about a game played on Jan. 2, 1908, to benefit the widow of Hod Stuart, a star of the Stanley Cup champion Montreal Wanderers who had been killed in a diving accident. The game featured the Wanderers against a select team of players from other clubs in the Eastern Canada Amateur Hockey Association. It is considered the first All-Star Game in major league hockey.

The old clipping contained several photographs.

“Among them,” Maguire wrote, “was a picture of Art Ross of the Wanderers shaking hands with Frank Patrick from the all-stars. Looked totally normal, something we’d see a million times. But then Mr. Lamb said, ‘Son, do you realize that this is the first handshake recorded in hockey?’ ”

Ross and Patrick were influential figures in early hockey. Ross went on to lead one of the first player strikes and become the founding coach and general manager of the Boston Bruins. Patrick, with his brother Lester, founded the Pacific Coast Hockey Association and originated the blue line, the modern playoff system and other innovations.

Maguire recalled that Lamb told him that Ross and the Patrick brothers participated in all three of the next season’s Stanley Cup challenges, and they and other players who had taken part in the All-Star Game continued to shake hands after those games.

“He claimed he had seen pictures of the postgame on-ice celebrations, but that the players would shake hands more like in the N.F.L., going to players they knew,” Maguire wrote. “It was his contention, backed by that picture and the story, that this was the origin of the tradition.”

In a phone conversation on Friday, Maguire, who is also an author and radio host, said he had spent years searching newspaper microfilm for photographs or accounts to corroborate what he saw and heard 34 years ago, but with no luck. The Society of International Hockey Researchers, a leading group of historians, said the handshake line’s origins still awaited discovery.

“In early hockey, there was so much violence,” Maguire said. “These men literally used their sticks as weapons in those days — I don’t think there were a lot of handshakes going on. The only reason for this one was because it was a memorial game for Hod Stuart. It’s as plausible an explanation as exists, and I’ve done quite a lot of research on it.”

Maguire said he believed that playoff handshakes became a regular feature within a decade of the Stuart benefit game. He also had conversations with Aurèle Joliat, a Canadiens star whose career began in the 1922-23 season, in which Joliat referred to “the handshake,” suggesting that perhaps by the ’20s, it had become a custom.

Whenever the postseries handshake line began, it is now perhaps the winter game’s most beloved springtime moment. It is occasionally marred by incidents like the threat by Boston’s Milan Lucic to kill Montreal’s Dale Weise next season, but those are rare exceptions.

“Look at Prust and Stepan last night,” Maguire said. “That was heartfelt, man. You could feel that through the TV screen. The battle on the ice is so ferocious, and a split-second later, you shake hands and it comes pouring out of you. It’s almost therapeutic. There are so many unique things about hockey, but Prust and Stepan really highlights it.”

Questions After a Head Hit

The flaw in the N.H.L.’s concussion protocol was laid bare last week when the Canadiens’ team doctors allowed Dale Weise to return to the ice 10 minutes after he had been staggered by an illegal check to the head from Rangers defenseman John Moore in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals.

The N.H.L.’s protocol reads, “In all circumstances, the team physician shall assess the player in person and be solely responsible for determining whether the player is diagnosed as having a concussion.” The Canadiens maintained that Weise had not sustained one.

But the incident highlighted the need for in-game concussion evaluations by independent doctors rather than by medical personnel employed by the team.

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