Flyers: Winning by a whisker gets new meaning
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The hairier things get for the Flyers or the Penguins during the NHL playoffs, the closer they will be to winning the Stanley Cup.
The most grueling tournament in professional sports begins tonight, and the success of the 16 teams involved can be measured by the length of the whiskers on the skaters' faces.
This is the time of the hockey season when the only things players sharpen are their focus, their elbows and their skates, not their razors. Each year, the majority of players follow what has become a time-honored tradition, or, more accurately, superstition: They go unshaven until they are eliminated.
"I started [growing a beard] in New York, so it's almost a week now," Flyers winger Simon Gagne said yesterday as he scratched the growth on his neck. "I think it's a superstition more than anything. You let it grow and you're afraid to shave it or else you might lose your power, or you might lose the next game. If you see one guy shave it in the middle of the playoffs, you're not going to feel right."
Like Gagne, teammate Scott Hartnell, who has a shock of frizzy red hair the approximate size of a cumulus cloud, also got an early start on the beard. If he has his way, he won't be popping the lid off a can of shaving cream until June, when, in all likelihood, some hairy-faced captain will hoist the Cup.
"I'm hoping to grow two-and-a-half months worth, that's what I hope," Hartnell said. "I started when we clinched [a playoff berth] last week, and I hope not to shave until mid-June. The first week it gets itchy, but after that, if you moisturize as much as you can, and, you know, clean it out a little bit, it's not so bad."
Penguins winger Tyler Kennedy, who struggled to muster a lot of growth last season, hopes to have a little more facial hair this year.
"It means a lot. When a guy has a big beard, he kind of looks like a warrior," Kennedy said. "The longer your beard is, the farther you've gone. You want to have a long beard by the end of the [playoffs]."
Winger Pascal Dupuis, who usually has a 5 o'clock shadow before noon, said the beard tradition is mostly for entertainment.
"Maybe the thing behind it is you don't spend time in the mirror looking at yourself," Dupuis said. "You focus on playing hockey and you don't worry about other stuff. It's only hockey that you think about."
No one is exactly sure of the origins of the playoff beard, but it's widely believed that it began with the New York Islanders sometime around the mid-1970s. Most teams began to do it after the Islanders won four consecutive Stanley Cups. An exception was the New York Rangers' '94 Cup champions. They recoiled at the mere thought of doing anything to copy the hated Islanders, so they remained clean shaven.
The tradition of growing a playoff beard has trickled down to hockey's minor and junior leagues. Occasionally, players from other sports will eschew shaving at crunch time. As a sign of unity and at the urging of Brian Dawkins, the Philadelphia Eagles set aside their razors during their late-season NFL playoff push.
But this is a custom that really belongs to hockey. The Web site playoffbeard.com hands out a symbolic Norris Trophy for best facial growth of the postseason. No, it's not the Norris Trophy that's awarded to the NHL's top defenseman. It's a trophy named after Chuck Norris, the bearded actor.
Some clubs even encourage their fans to get in on the act. Both the Flyers and the Penguins have announced beard-a-thon campaigns, asking their followers to pledge donations for charities.
In a way, it seems appropriate that such a tradition would catch on in hockey, a sport that probably rewards hard work more than any other. Even some of the game's terminology connotes the blue-collar work ethic. Skaters are on lines -- as in assembly lines. And they play in shifts.
Curiously, the tradition has taken such a hold that most players simply stop shaving once the postseason begins. There are no meetings to discuss the issue. No captain stands in the middle of the locker room to make any grand announcement. It just happens.
"Nobody says, 'Let's grow a beard,' " Gagne said. "It's just something we all saw when we were younger watching the Stanley Cup playoffs. You'd see players let their beards grow, and now it's the way it is. You're not going to see a group meeting with anyone saying we all have to do it."
First Published April 15, 2009 12:00 am