Hockey's Top 10 Traditions: Why the NHL Leaves Other Major Sports in the Dust

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Hockey's Top 10 Traditions: Why the NHL Leaves Other Major Sports in the Dust
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

While all four of the major North American sports can claim long and storied histories, the National Hockey League is in a class by themselves when it comes to great traditions.  The sport of hockey is absolutely dripping with tradition. 

Before jumping into the Top Ten, here is the honorable mention list that just barely didn’t make the cut.

Fighting Etiquette

Although on the surface, fighting in the NHL might appear barbaric to the uneducated observer, there is a strict code that all NHL tough guys follow.  For example, if one of the combatants happens to end up in an awkward position towards the end of the fight as the officials are stepping in, rarely will you see his opponent get in one last cheap shot.  There is a recognition of the potential for serious injury and that line just isn’t crossed.

 

Tossing Various Items on the Ice

While the tossing octopi in Detroit is legendary and made the Top Ten, there is a long history of tossing various items onto the ice at various rinks.  Who could forget Florida’s rat pack back in 1996?  A couple of neat college hockey traditions go way back at Cornell and Harvard.  They toss chickens at Harvard (to mock Cornell’s agricultural school) and dead fish at Cornell (to mock fisherman in Boston).

 

Getting One Day With the Stanley Cup

Since 1995, each member of the winning organization gets to spend one day with the Cup during the summer.  Oh the stories Lord Stanley could tell!  Stanley has spent time on top of mountains, in pools, served as a baptism fountain, an ice cream bowl, and also been pooped and urinated on.

 

Taunting Goalies

Sieve, sieve, sieve, sieve, sieve, sieve.  It’s all your fault.  It’s all your fault.  It’s all your fault.  You just suck.  You just suck.  You just suck. 

I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

And now, without any further adieu, lets have a look at the ten greatest traditions in the sport.

 

10. Kate Smith signing “God Bless America” in Philadelphia

When the Philadelphia Flyers came into the league as one of the “Second Six” in 1967, the club was looking for gimmicky ways to generate attention.  On December 11, 1969, the club decided that a tape of Kate Smith’s signing “God Bless America” would take the place of “The Star Spangled Banner” to kick off the game.  The Flyers happened to win the game (which was something that didn’t happen too often in the early days) and a legend was born.

The Flyers were able to convince Kate Smith to give her famous rendition of the song live at the Spectrum to open the 1973-74 season.  Smith’s famous song became commonplace during the great run of the Broad Street Bullies in the mid to late 1970s.  At one point, the Flyers were an incredible 29-3-1 when Smith sang “God Bless America” to open a game.

Even today, during the playoffs, the Flyers frequently will turn to taped versions of Smith’s stirring rendition of “God Bless America” in a duet with Lauren Hart, the current anthem signer and daughter of longtime Flyers broadcaster Gene Hart.

 

9. Cheering Through American Anthem in Chicago

Back in 1985, the Blackhawks dropped the first two games of a playoff series at Edmonton.  Wanting to get their team hyped up even before the puck dropped, the Chicago Stadium faithful started cheering all through the American Anthem.

The tradition has grown immensely since then.  It gained national notoriety during the 1991 Gulf War when Chicago Stadium played host to the NHL All Star Game.  I get chills just thinking about it.

While some might say that the cheering during the anthem is disrespectful, I really don’t think they have a complete grasp on the tradition.  Quite to the contrary, the cheering during the anthem is as much for this great country we live in as it is for the almighty Indian Head.

To be in the United Center while Jim Cornelison belts out “The Star Spangled Banner” these days is one of the most special treats in all of sports today.

 

8. Octopi on ice in Detroit

Eight wins to win the Cup back in the days of the Original Six in the 1950s.  A win for each leg of the octopus.  What symbolism.  Octopi are frequently seen on the Joe Louis Arena ice during the Stanley Cup playoffs to this day.

 

7. Winter Classic

A relatively recent tradition that has just taken off over the last few years and shows no signs of trailing off.  New Year’s day is no longer solely about college football anymore. 

The setting at Fenway Park in Boston was absolutely perfect for hockey.  Plus, the game lived up to the hype, with Boston nipping the Flyers in overtime.  The Fenway game came on the heels of memorable Blackhawks-Red Wings game at Wrigley Field in 2009 and Sabres-Penguins game at snowy Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo in 2008.

 

6. Tossing Hats to Ice Following Hat Trick

It is an automatic reaction these days whenever the home team is fortunate enough to have a player score three goals in one game.  The ice surface is littered with all kinds of hats.

A few teams these days, including the Flyers and Blue Jackets collect the hats from historical hat tricks and put them on display in cases in the concourse of their arenas.  Other teams offer the hats to the player that scored the hat trick.  Some give a portion of the hats to charity.  Some put the hats in a lost and found. 

Not surprisingly, the Great One, Wayne Gretzky, leads the NHL in all-time hat tricks with 50.  Super Mario Lemieux is second with 40, followed closely by Mike Bossy with 39.

 

5. Don’t Touch The Cup Unless You Win it

I know that almost all athletes are superstitious about certain things.  But, there is something really magical about the effect the Stanley Cup has on hockey players.  The tradition is that you don’t touch the Cup unless you have won it.  In fact, some players take it to the extreme and don’t even want to be in the same room with the Cup—until they win it, of course.

I just don’t think there is any remote parallel to this type of thing in any other sport.  The other trophies are handed out each year and they just don’t have the same aura that surrounds the Stanley Cup.

 

4. Playoff beards

Hockey players are a tough bunch.  They have been known to take a stitch or two or loose a tooth or two every so often.  Well, nothing helps protect the face against those nasty nicks and cuts like a good, thick, full playoff beard. 

The deeper into the playoffs a team gets, the thicker and more scraggly the beards.  I love to see the range in facial coverage come late May.  You have the spotty beards of guys like Jonathan Toews and Sydney Crosby to the full coverage of Peter Forsberg and Scott Niedermayer.

 

3. Sudden Death Overtime

I believe that the NHL Playoffs are the best sporting event on the yearly sports calendar.  One of the many special aspects of the quest of the Cup is that when you sit down to watch a game that begins, say at 7:00, you could be in for a very long night. 

If the game is tied after 60 minutes, the sudden death overtime(s) begin.  The overtime could last a few seconds (like Chicago–Calgary Game 1 last year) or many, many hours (like Pittsburgh–Philadelphia Game 4 in 2000 that went five overtime periods).  The drama elicited from overtime in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is unmatched in sports.

 

2. Playoff Handshakes

It takes four wins out of seven games in a series to move on in the playoffs.  More often than not, two teams will savagely attempt to beat the living daylights out of each other during a playoff series. 

Things will happen on the ice that might not even be obvious to the casual observer.  There will be hits, scuffles, face washes, punches, fights, maybe some cheap shots, trash talking, penalties, and literally plenty of blood will be spilled.  Yet at the end of it all, both teams will line up and shake hands with the opposition—man to man. 

This tradition is such a big deal that when a player doesn’t go through the handshake line, it is a big story all unto itself.  See Sydney Crosby last year following the Cup-clinching win in Game 7 over Detroit.  Although the Wings patiently waited, Crosby never found his way to the handshake line and he took plenty of flack for it.  I doubt that it was anything intentional on his part.  He just got caught up in the moment of winning the Cup. 

However, this is such as big issue with hockey players, my guess is that Crosby learned a valuable lesson from last year and he will be sure that it doesn’t happen again.

 

1. Engraving names on Stanley Cup

There is no doubt that the Stanley Cup is the most famous trophy in sports.  This trophy alone is so steeped in history, dozens of books have been written about it. 

What is the most special part about the Stanley Cup to me?  The fact that all members of the winning team, including players, coaches, management and staff actually get their names engraved on the Cup to last for all eternity for all to see.  I just don’t see any remote comparison to any of the other trophies in sports. 

The baseball championship trophy looks like those flag poles could fall off at any time.  The Lombardi Trophy and NBA championship trophies are tasteful looking, but only the name of the winning team is typically engraved on the trophies. 

Prior to 1977, only players who had played in the Stanley Cup playoffs got their names on the Cup.  However, today players appearing in 41 regular season games or one Stanley Cup Final game get their names on the Cup.  The league can make exceptions on a case by case basis because of injury or other extenuating circumstances.

It takes 13 years to fill a ring on the Stanley Cup.  Once a ring is full, an older ring is removed from near the top of the Cup and displayed at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

 

So there you have it—the greatest hockey traditions in existence today.  I hope that this article is able to draw in a few casual hockey fans, so that more fans get a glimpse of how great this sport actually is.

 

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