Playoff beard tradition in NHL continues to grow
Jay Pandolfo’s is dark and bushy, overwhelming the lower third of his face. Johnny Boychuk’s crawls from his sideburns and creeps down to the neckline of his jersey. Tory Krug’s is a notch above peach fuzz.
Nearly every participant in the Stanley Cup Final has grown out his facial hair since the playoffs began April 30. If you’re wondering who started this hair-raising trend, don’t ask the Bruins.
“Oh boy,” laughed Pandolfo, a 15-year-veteran, pausing while stroking his beard. “I really don’t know.”
“I heard a story one time,” Krug, a 22-year-old rookie defenseman, offered, “that someone wanted players to focus on hockey and nothing else. So they allowed them to let themselves go.”
“No idea,” forward Shawn Thornton said. “Happy to endorse it, though. Wife doesn’t agree, but love my big ginger beard.”
Surmised the defenseman Boychuk: “It was probably just some lazy guy who didn’t want to shave.”
It’s hard to blame these Bruins for not knowing exactly. One of hockey’s most celebrated — and itchy — traditions has unceremonious roots.
“It began in about 1980 with the beginning of the New York Islanders dynasty,” said Stan Fischler, a longtime hockey historian, author, and broadcaster.
Fischler, who sports a year-long thick white beard, covered the Islanders throughout their four Stanley Cups and record 19 straight playoff series wins.
“It wasn’t a formal announcement or proclamation to the league,” Fischler said. “It wasn’t even picked up by the media at first. Just an occasional beard here and there. Then more and more guys started doing it. Then other teams picked up on it over the years.”
Really, that’s it?
“That’s it,” said Hall of Famer Clark Gillies, a mainstay on those Islanders teams. “In fact, we didn’t even realize we started it. Only recently did people start saying we were the ones who should stake claim to that. It really turned into something much bigger than I could have imagined.”
Gillies said one Islander — he can’t remember which one — started growing his beard out.
“And everyone just said, ‘Hey, that’s kind of cool,’ ” Gillies said. “So we all started doing it.”
Today, playoff beards have become pop culture phenomenons. Tweeted Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers during Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final: “This playoff hockey is a great watch. #amazingbeards.”
As the playoffs march on, fatigue sets in, injuries worsen, bruises darken, and skin slices open. The only thing growing stronger is facial hair — the ultimate display of team bonding.
Some players add personal flair. Jaromir Jagr, 41, debuted a dyed mutton chop look for the Final, reminiscent of comic book character Wolverine or Civil War general Ambrose Everett Burnside.
Some attempts are better than others. Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask has a few straggly light brown hairs poking from his chin.
“I mean, come on, you can’t even consider that a beard,” Boychuk said. “But at least he’s trying.”
The idea is to let the hair fester and grow to represent the team’s emotional and physical playoff grind, no matter how itchy.
“And, heck, is it itchy,” said 25-year-old Bruins defenseman Matt Bartkowski, who boasts one of the team’s thickest beards.
Bartkowski hasn’t played in the last five games, “but I got a head start by playing 10 games in [the AHL playoffs] in Providence,” he said.
Thornton said his beard is irritating when it rubs against his pillow. But if he slept on his back, he would snore.
“And then my wife would yell at me,” Thornton said.
“Maybe it wouldn’t be as itchy if I cared for it better,” defenseman Wade Redden said. “I don’t really know the best upkeep on a beard. There is probably some lotion or shampoo I should be using.”
Redden reached the Final with the Senators in 2007, and when they lost, he went to a barber. His beard was removed with hot water and a sharp razor.
“It was the most amazing feeling,” Redden said. “The only thing soothing after a playoff loss.”
Defenseman Adam McQuaid said while the added hair is uncomfortable, he is reminded how far his team has come every time he looks in the mirror.
Gillies said superstitions were different in the 1980s. He would trim his beard throughout the playoffs so it would look “neat and tidy.”
Compare that with this year, when Bartkowski’s shag spills behind his ears.
“And Zdeno Chara looks like he came straight out of a Tarzan movie,” Fischler mused.
In the 1980s, Gillies said, some players shaved after the Islanders lost a playoff game, even in the middle of a series.
“Fortunately, we won a lot back then,” Gillies said. “So the beards got pretty bushy.”
It’s unclear when the Bruins joined in. For example, in the 1988 Stanley Cup Final, several players — including captain Ray Bourque — were grizzly. Others, like forward Craig Janney, were clean shaven.
Fischler said there was a movement to ban playoff beards altogether in the late 1980s. Many columnists, such as himself, felt the unkempt look reflected negatively on the sport.
“Hockey is always striving to get more fans, certainly female fans,” Fischler said. “And certainly Zdeno Chara, or any hockey player, would look more handsome without a beard.”
Beards also had negative social connotations. Nobody knows that better than Tom Larson, the former studio host for Bruins telecasts on Channel 38.
Larson grew a beard in 1981.
“At that time, the world was a different place,” he said. “The idea of facial hair for someone, especially someone on camera, meant he might be a communist or politically radical.”
The station received hundreds of letters asking Larson to shave. Only one was signed. A Needham resident told station manager Bill Flynn that Larson should be fired.
Flynn offered Larson a $2,000 bonus to eliminate the beard. Larson obliged, but later left the station for radio — and grew the beard again.
Larson told his audience he wouldn’t shave until Boston won the Stanley Cup again.
“It was one of the stupidest things I ever said,” Larson said. “But I kept my promise for 30 years.”
Today, the NHL has embraced the shaggy tradition. In 2009, eight teams — including the Bruins — launched a “Beard-a-Thon” initiative, with fans pledging to grow beards for charity. Since then, the league, says it has raised more than $2.6 million for charitable organizations.
“The league is always looking for fan engagement,” said Ken Martin, NHL vice president of community affairs. “And we noticed this was a tradition fans really latched on to.”
They’ve also elevated their level of engagement. A Blackhawks fan in Park Ridge, Ill., was reprimanded by his town for trying to grow a “playoff lawn” — i.e. not mowing the grass until the Blackhawks were eliminated.
Perhaps that man just subscribes to Boychuk’s initial assumption: He was lazy and didn’t feel like cutting it.