By Dan Bauer for Wausau Pilot & Review

The epic Armageddon known as the Stanley Cup Playoffs continues their march to the finish line.  While most will relish the hoisting of the legendary Cup, the greatest moment for me is the picture-perfect exchange of handshakes between dream achievers and dream chasers that will officially end this grueling marathon.  It is the absolute pinnacle of sportsmanship at any level of organized sports.  

We could all learn a lot from this rare display of genuine respect between intense rivals.

On the major sports pedestal of popularity, the National Hockey League finds itself a distant fourth in the United States and probably lower than that internationally when you add the crazed soccer nation.  For many the game moves too fast and its basic rules are too confusing for the casual fan.  In spite of those obstacles the professional game showcases the greatest and most challenging post-season tournament in the Stanley Cup playoffs.  There is no road to any trophy that is more grueling and demanding.  After playing an 82-game season, you will be required to win sixteen more games that could stretch into as many as twenty-eight more games.  With each step, the attrition rate is staggering, the sacrifice palpable and the nightly battle gladiator worthy.

As great a spectacle and tribute to perseverance as it is, it is the final handshake line before the Stanley Cup is awarded that is the marquee event of all sports.  The separation of emotions between the two teams could not be any more distant than at this moment.  The unbridled elation of achieving that lifelong dream and the crushing disappointment of coming up short are face-to-face with each other just minutes after the final horn or overtime game-winner.  You won’t find anyone leaving the ice early or anything that resembles a disingenuous or anger driven exchange as they shake hands.  It is an eye-to-eye, deliberate and sincere convergence of congratulations and condolences.  It is a straight from the heart appreciation for the effort and sacrifice both teams have offered.  The loser, which seems a completely inappropriate label, is somehow pleased for those who have conquered that Holy Grail.  It is an honest appreciation for a monumental accomplishment.

We could all learn a lot from this simple, yet time-honored tradition that is unique to hockey.  In a day and age where compromise is a forgotten word and every cultural, political and moral debate is separated by a chasm between the far left and far right, respect borders on extinction.  There is only the chest pounding winners and the excuse making, rule changing, take my ball home losers.  They might shake hands in the political arena, but their pat on the back includes a knife.  

It isn’t that the NHL playoff marathon is void of vicious hits, intense battles and fights.  The mental and physical price paid is well documented when it is over.  While other athletes are often chastised for “maintenance days” or questionable injuries, the Stanley Cup Finals bring out the true gladiator in every player.  No broken bones, zipper lines of stitches, or puck inflicted dental work will keep players off the ice.  The Plexiglas encased “war zone” is a real test of each player’s resolve.  

The battles in our society take a similar toll as the opponents look to discredit and destroy the lives of each other.  We have no respect for others opinions anymore, because we stick to the far right or left lane as we both stream toward opposite goals.  The mythical referees, once governed by our moral code, have been replaced with a vast land of uncharted gray area.  The Stanley Cup is the common goal, but we have no such mutual destination in society.  Never has “united we stand, divided we fall” been so appropriate as we follow distinctly different paths.

The extremism on both sides is representative of a small portion of each political party.  There is common ground between us, but we are afraid to explore it for fear it will show our weakness.  We don’t trust each other to do the right thing, mostly because we have redefined right and wrong.  We circulate our intelligence insulting social media snippets to make it clear how little respect we have for each other.  Comparing a planted seed or truck chassis to a fetus or professing that no gun laws will help stem our epidemic of gun violence are both demonstrations of our propensity to spread ignorance.  You are all smarter than that, or at least you should be.  If you tell me my 32-week, premature twin daughters, just over three pounds each at birth, were not a person, you clearly have never witnessed, nor understood the miracle of life.  Can you honestly tell those families in Uvalde or Nashville whose children never came home from school that we can’t do more to make purchasing guns more secure?  Both arguments are clearly centered on defending the sanctity of innocent life, yet we can’t see that through our rigid political allegiances.  

There is compromise on both issues that I truly believe the majority of Americans could agree upon.  There is a common goal, if we would only force those elected to represent us, to pursue it.  If we can’t find those common goals, we are a country headed for a catastrophe that this deep divide will ultimately produce.  

Politics should not be driven by a winning and losing mentality.  There should be common goals that we strive for as a country.  Those goals are clearly spelled out in our constitution, but even that document is under fire.  It has guided our country for well over two hundred years, yet now some believe it is outdated.  We need political leadership that keeps us on Route 1776 and strives to seek compromise as a win for our country and not a loss for our political party.  

The two teams that battle for the Stanley Cup each have a plan on how to achieve that goal.  As in most things there is more than one singular path that can lead you to the same result.  One plan of attack will be successful, the other will fail, but the difference is they are both chasing the same goal.  When it is over, they sincerely congratulate the winners and console the losers.  

Bad politicians are like bad coaches, they care more about winning than their own player’s well-being.  Too many politicians today are more concerned with their party’s political agenda than the direction and welfare of our country.  The “win at all costs” mentality is deadly in both athletics and politics.  Bad teams are filled with selfishness and distrust among teammates.  Good teams work hard at building relationships with each other and establishing trust.  Name me a politician today that is truly trying to reach across that political Grand Canyon to understand the other view on anything.  Team America is suffering from poor leadership across the political line-up and our intolerance of each other is disgraceful.  

John F. Kennedy took us to the moon when nobody thought that was possible.  Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery despite heavy opposition.  Principled and steadfast political leaders are in short supply today and the last time we seemed to truly care about each other as Americans was the weeks following the tragedy of 9-11.  It is something we should all be ashamed of, but instead we just keep adhering to our political platforms and believing there is no middle ground of compromise.  Throwing stones has always been easier than mending fences.

Every summer we witness the zenith of what a handshake truly means.   What it means to give something everything you have and when you come up short, you have the decency and character to congratulate those who triumphed.  Sport does imitate life, and right now this country is on an extended losing streak.  

The question is will we ever find another politician with the courage and common sense to bring our country back to that singular path of moral decency that united us for centuries?  Someone who can, win or lose, reach across the aisle and deliver an honest handshake.  

I believe the future of our country depends on it.

Dan Bauer is a freelance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach.  You can contact him at

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