We can’t say for certain, but we’re pretty confident ‘Sugar’ Jim Henry is spinning in his grave this morning. For that matter, so is Rocket Richard.
Back in 1952, the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins played in an epic seven-game series in the first round of the playoffs. In Game 7, Richard took a highstick that left him so concussed that he had to ask his teammates what the score was an how much time was left in the game. Then he scored, by historical accounts, one of the most spectacular goals of his career on Henry, who was standing in the Bruins net with his own two black eyes because of his own broken nose. (Legend has it that after that game, Richard went back to the Canadiens room and went into convulsions and had to be sedated.) That goal sealed the game and the series for the Canadiens, but what was more memorable was what followed. The photo of Henry and Richard in the handshake line remains one of the most iconic photos in the game’s history and embodies everything that is good about the post-series handshake ritual.
Fast-forward 62 years to Game 7 of the Canadiens and Bruins playoff series Wednesday night. It was a seven-game series filled with nastiness and skullduggery on both sides, but it was also another classic series between two Original Six teams. During the handshake after the Canadiens won, Milan Lucic of the Bruins had some choice words for Alexei Emelin and Dale Weise, something to the effect of, “I’m going to (expletive) kill you next year.”
To be sure, there have been many, many worse transgressions than that one and Lucic’s actions will undoubtedly blow over pretty quickly. Many viewed what Lucic did as yet another example that modern-day players have no respect for one another, but that would ignore the fact that even during the days of Rocket Richard and ‘Sugar’ Jim Henry, that there was stick work and dirtiness in the game that was far more outrageous than anything we see in the NHL today. It just wasn’t out there for everyone to see the way it is now. From the time the game was first played more than a century ago, players have displayed almost no regard for their opponents. That hasn’t changed one iota.
What Lucic did, however, showed an enormous amount of disrespect for the game and its traditions. The post-series handshake is one of the truly magical moments in the hockey season. Sometimes it’s just as memorable as anything that happened on the ice. It boggles the mind sometimes that players who have competed against each other as though their lives depended upon it for two weeks can line up and extend their hands to each other, but that’s what hockey players do. It’s one of the many things that make the game unique and wonderful. It’s one of the reasons we watch and love it so much.
Lucic should have known better that, of all places, that was not the venue to start settling scores for everything that happened in the series. He’s way smarter than that and he’s been playing this game for too long not to know what the post-series handshake means.
Is Lucic as guilty as something as nefarious as Andrei Markov pitchforking Zdeno Chara in the privates in Game 6 or Shawn Thornton spraying P.K. Subban in the face in Game 5? Not a chance. As much as people want to paint the Canadiens as the good guys and the Bruins as villains, the Canadiens gave every bit as good as they got in the series. And it’s not as though the Canadiens have not have had their fair share of shady characters over the years. As skilled as the Canadiens have been at times in their history, they’ve always had players who knew how to do the dirty work.
But Lucic did step way over the line when it came to preserving the game’s traditions. The Bruins and Canadiens don’t like each other. We get that. In fact, we love that. But part of what makes hockey so special is that for time immemorial, players have been able to put that aside at the end of even the most hard-fought playoff series. Lucic denigrated that tradition and I’m guessing he feels pretty badly about that right now and would probably take back what he did if he could.