Among playoff hockey’s manly charms is its barbarism. And, more than that, barber-ism. Herewith, a consideration of the traditional “playoff beard.”
It long ago became ritual that, as the Stanley Cup tournament stretched into May, the rugged souls still playing look increasingly like a bunch of lumberjacks in the wild. That’s competitive success displayed on the players’ faces.
Beard scholars—there is such a thing; they are called pogonologists—theorize several roots for the playoff beard, which has spread (though patchily) to other sports: The solidarity component of teammates—one for all and all for one—going into battle together with a unified look. The notion that players’ full attention is on games and practices, with no time for such trivialities as grooming. The Samson thing, that being hirsute equals supernatural strength. The idea that, as employees doing the indispensable work for their companies, players have the unique privilege of disregarding dress codes.
Also, there is the sports version of an old wives’ tale. New York Islanders Hall of Famer Clark Gillies, sometimes credited with being the Father of the Playoff Beard, figured there is nothing more mysterious about it than being “like every other superstition. You win, you don’t change anything.”
Just as a bonus, he noted, the playoff beard means that “a lot less cuts and bruises show.”
The anecdotal evidence is that Gillies and his Islanders mates of the late 1970s—on the verge of winning four consecutive Stanley Cup titles—initiated the custom of not shaving until either being eliminated from post-season action or hoisting the Cup in triumph.
At the time, a scruffy five- or six-day razor avoidance was not yet in fashion. Men were either clean-shaven or, less often, committed to a Grizzly Adams look. So, while there is a danger in beard overanalysis—revolutionaries and iconoclasts like Trotsky and Che Guevara had beards, but so did Freud, Abe Lincoln and Hemingway—hockey players subscribe to the exhibition of facial hair as a pride in competitive prosperity.
That explains such lampoons as the “Maple Leafs Playoff Beard” meme, a depiction of a player without a hint of whiskers, just to make it clear that the Toronto Maple Leafs were absent from 10 of the past 12 playoff seasons and were dispatched in the first round this year.
Not to split hairs, but there are cases of wildly accomplished hockey stars who have succeeded in winning championships without a corresponding abundance in the beard department.
For reasons of youth or, with such fellows as Pittsburgh’s two-time Cup champion Sidney Crosby, there are examples of what 12-year NHL veteran Brad Boyes once described this way:
“A couple of guys, for whatever reason—well, you know when your uncle says, ‘You eat this and it’ll put hair on your chest.’ I guess they didn’t eat those things.” Boyes, by the way, acknowledged that his playoff beards were “just OK,” and barely cultivated in three brief trips to the post season.
Anyway, a personal P.S.: When I had a beard, which was entirely unrelated to the hockey playoffs, I nevertheless razored it away minutes after the Islanders won the 1980 Stanley Cup. Because, while watching the Cup’s final game on television, I was feeding my infant daughter her bottle of milk, and she somehow developed a reflex of reaching up and grasping my whiskers. And pulling. When her meal was finished, so was my beard.