The NHL playoffs are almost two weeks old, and you know what that means: playoff beards! Yes, this is the time of year when the majority of NHL players whose teams are still in the hunt for the Stanley Cup stop shaving. By the time NHL
Commissioner Gary Bettman passes the Cup to the captain of the winning team,
the players look like Grizzly Adams—if he sprinkled his face with Miracle Gro.
The idea behind the playoff beard is simple: once the playoffs start, you stop—shaving, that is, until your team either hoists the Stanley Cup or is knocked out of the playoffs. What's not so simple is figuring out why players do it, or where it came from. Most people credit the New York Islanders teams of the early 1980s with starting the tradition. When the Islanders hoisted the Stanley Cup for the first time in May, 1980, a handful of players sported beards they didn't have in the regular season. John Tonelli, Clark Gillies and Gordie Lane were most prominent.
No one, not even the players from those Islanders teams, can remember exactly why they started it. Was it the show of a team united in a single goal? Was the beard supposed to serve as a reminder of the playoffs, every time a player looked in a mirror? Was it just the result of playing four games in five nights, not having time to shave, and then thinking, "Hey, I haven't shaved for a week and we just won our playoff series—I can't shave now!" Knowing the way athletes think, I tend to believe that last one comes closest to the mark. Athletes are both creatures of routine and incredibly superstitious. I can easily believe something like a playoff beard was an accidental 'discovery' (though it would have been unthinkable in the 1950s, say, when teams were much more strict about the professional appearance of their athletes).
Of course, nothing encourages imitation in sports like success, and the Islanders had lots of it. Four straight Stanley Cup wins, five straight appearances in the final. When the Edmonton Oilers finally knocked the Islanders off in 1983, at least as many Edmonton players had beards as Islanders. Over the years, the beard became a little less trendy, then it came back in a big way. Some day, it may fade in favor of some other crazy tradition. For now, let's bask in the glory that is the playoff beard. What a great time of year.