I can give you a long list of things, compiled from more than a half-century of watching hockey, that drive me nuts about the NHL. Beards are not really at the top of the list.
Players in beards — some of whom, I am convinced, are actually wearing clip-ons, like Woody Allen spoofing Fidel Castro — have been part of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the last 30 years or so. The Islanders turned them into haute coiffure at the start of the 1980s. For Original Six purists, that’s not really a very old tradition, but there are very few purists left in a game that only vaguely resembles its wood-and-leather era that now is preserved in display cases at the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Things have changed in the NHL in the last 30-plus years. A lot. Some for the better (player helmets, unanchored nets). Some for the worse (shootouts, arena audiporn). Some of little measurable consequence (removal of the red line, a second referee).
Beards became a hot topic last week when Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Sports, told Chicago Tribune columnist Ed Sherman that he wishes players would drop their follicle facades. Lazarus believes the game would better market itself, especially in the playoffs, and especially on TV, if fans got to know the players’ faces.
“These are the most-watched games,’’ Lazarus noted to Sherman, “and they’re all bearded up.’’
Not a popular opinion, of course, because such a notion messes with that not-so-age-old tradition forged in Uniondale, N.Y., a town that no longer has an NHL team. I bet a lot of true blue Islanders fans would shave their playoff beards if it meant their team were still in Uniondale and not doing business as clean-shaven expats in strip-mall-deprived Brooklyn.
Players like beards as a team-building and bonding element. They grow them as a message, a devotion to duty. They’re in it to win it, disposable razors and cheap locker room aftershave be damned. Fans like beards, presumably because, well, they like whatever players like. Team owners and GMs like beards for the obvious reason: the longer the beards, the higher the profits. It’s a true growth economy.
All of which means beards will stay, even those like the motley patch of Chia fuzz that Tyler Seguin sprouted in his Boston days. Chicago star Patrick Kane has some bad cabbage, too. Maybe there’s a correlation there between great hands and bad beards. It’s possible. If so, I am certain an NHL analytics devotee will discover the formula and build it into a website, if not a front office career, before the Blackhawks and Lightning meet Monday night in Game 6 at Chicago.
I’m with Lazarus, not that I give a hoot about NBC’s playoff ratings or the players’ ability to turn increased Q factor into more cash. I’m on board because I like personalities. I like to know who these guys are, what makes them unique, what defines them, and their faces are the most obvious part of that package. I like to sit in the stands or watch on TV and know who Player X is without the need to spot his number or read the name stitched across his shoulders.
But let’s examine what has happened to the NHL in the thirtysomething years since the likes of Islanders Clark Gillies, John Tonelli, and Denis Potvin helped turn postseason hockey into an on-ice witness protection program:
■ Helmets were made mandatory in the summer of 1979, a rule that was grandfathered in, turning the ’80s into the decade of identity transition. We once knew the players for their flowing hair (Guy Lafleur, Ron Duguay), sideburns (Derek Sanderson), or the their advancing baldness (Bobby Hull). Soon, they all looked like Pez dispensers. Ex-Bruin Craig MacTavish was the last to go helmetless. Everyone in every rink knew MacT. If only because they couldn’t identify anyone else.
■ Visors were added. Goalies smartened up in the 1950s and ’60s with the use of masks, but it took until the ’80s and ’90s for defensemen and forwards to add visors for eye protection. They are the rule and not the exception. Yet another layer of anonymity. Like in Butch Cassidy, we ask, “Who are those guys?’’
■ The cutback in fisticuffs. No one was better known for their looks (or lack thereof) than the fighters. We knew the pugilists for their faces, their strategies au combat, and their prolonged tirades in the penalty boxes. With fewer fights (a good thing), the game has lost another of its up-close-and-personal opportunities.
■ The trend toward speed. The game is in its go-kart era. Everyone dashes back and forth. Rarely do we get to see a player with the puck on his stick, controlling or dictating play. Scoring is increasingly difficult. The top scorers in 2014-15 collected points at the same rate of those in the early ’60s, a Jurassic step back of 50 years. Give me a league with 8-10 players who crack the 100-point plateau, and everyone will know what they look like.
“Let’s get their faces out there,’’ said Lazarus amid his shave-the-beard screed, later adding, “This is one tradition I could do without.’’
Bring me the Noxzema girl from the TV ad of the 1960s. Boys, take ’em off . . . take ’em all off. You’re the key component in an industry that once oozed personality and player identity (“Clear the track . . . here comes Shack!”). All that has been lost in a game layered in safety equipment and coached to the point of near robotics. Shave those beards and let’s see what you’ve got.