"I thought it was a good look for the playoffs, my grey beard and no teeth. I was the poster boy for that kind of look. When I retired, I cleaned up and got some dental implants. You didn't think I was going to walk around looking like that for the rest of my life, did you? I've got no problem admitting it -- I was getting pretty gruesome looking."
-- Ex-Devils defenseman Ken Daneyko
While the Islanders of the 1980s generally are credited with starting the practice of NHL players growing beards during the playoffs, their tradition started almost a decade earlier, when a player from a different team was first to wear a beard as he hoisted the Stanley Cup. No Cup-winning team for nearly a decade after the Islanders had a mostly bearded lineup.
In fact, it appears that either the 1993 Montreal Canadiens or the 1995 New Jersey Devils resurrected the Islanders' superstition.
Dave Lewis, a defenseman, joined the Islanders in their second season, 1973-74. The Islanders made the Stanley Cup Playoffs the next season, their third in the NHL. Lewis said that's when the superstition began. Well, that and another quickly abandoned "tradition."
"I recall that playoff beards were an important part of every playoff we were in," Lewis said. "Part of the rationale was that it was a symbol that this was a different time, separate from the regular season. It was the championship season. It was also part of the unity of our team and I think we thought we probably looked a little more rugged with beards.
"After that, we played the Philadelphia Flyers and by now the elephant dung was getting really fragrant. We had that Madison Square Garden aroma around us all the time from when we beat the Rangers. And you thought playoff beards were weird? Our poor trainers!"
"I don't know if we started playoff beards but we continued to do it in all the years that we were in the playoffs," said Hockey Hall of Famer Clark Gillies. "That went back to my rookie year, 1974-75, and I could barely grow a beard in 1974. Gord Lane could grow a beard overnight. If you didn't know it was Gordie, you'd think it was me if not for the numbers. Butch Goring had a scraggly beard that really completed his grungy look. John Tonelli had a great beard and Ken Morrow had one of the all-time beards. Kenny is the hairiest guy I've ever known. I think he shaved his face out of his body hair.
"There were a couple of good reasons for playoff beards. You had less of a chance of getting cut up with a beard, but if you got cut and needed stitches, a beard was hell. You also get lazy about shaving when you're away from home and your wife for six weeks. I kept the beard when I played on Team Canada in the 1981 Canada Cup. I kept my beard after we won our first Stanley Cup and had it for a couple of years. It saved me from having to grow a playoff beard.
"It turned out to be a tradition that has lasted for many, many years. Now you turn on TV during the Stanley Cup Playoffs and everyone has a beard. In our day, I think it was more of a superstition. If you were playing well, you didn't want to change anything. I know this is gross but it was the same thing with underwear. Some guys would wear the same clothes for six weeks if they kept on winning. Our coach, Al Arbour, never said much about it, but our wives didn't like it.
"If we didn't start the tradition, I don't know who did. I don't remember them when I was playing juniors and watching the NHL."
Gillies' memory is good. Most veteran hockey observers remember the late "Cowboy" Bill Flett wearing a beard year-round. Flett was a member of the Stanley Cup-winning 1973-74 Philadelphia Flyers, thus becoming the first player that people remember wearing a beard during a Stanley Cup celebration.
"Yeah, but he didn't just grow it for the playoffs," said teammate Gary Dornhoefer. "I never saw Bill without a beard and I can't recall anyone in the NHL wearing a beard before Bill. I think I had a beard during the playoffs one year but I don't remember which year. I don't like to shave. If I shave every day, my face gets raw. That year, I went a few days and thought I might as well go a little longer. Now, every player grows a beard unless he has a baby face.
"I know I wore a beard against the Russians. There weren't many beards among my teammates, which is funny because they can make you look mean."
Edmonton native Ken Daneyko remembers the Oilers didn't wear beards because they didn't desire to continue a "tradition" or entertain a superstition started by the Islanders, the team they eventually overthrew as the powerhouse of the NHL. The 1985-86 Montreal Canadiens and 1988-89 Calgary Flames didn't embrace the Islanders' tradition, with the exception of the Flames' Lanny McDonald. The Pittsburgh Penguins were clean-shaven, but there are pictures of Eric Desjardins and Ed Ronan bearded in the Montreal Canadiens' 1992-93 Stanley Cup Playoff photos. Nor were beards part of the Rangers' 1994 Stanley Cup -- that old anti-Islanders thing again.
Daneyko believes his 1994-95 Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils resumed the tradition and he was a big part of it.
"Edmonton didn't want to run with the Islanders' tradition thing and we started doing it in 1988 when we made the playoffs for the first time," Daneyko said. "It was just one of those traditions or superstitions or whatever. We seemed to adopt it, most of the players. I liked doing it. One of the big reasons was the way it made me look. I looked in the mirror and thought, wow, I've got to clean up. I look like Grizzly Adams in the wilderness. My wife already knew I was old school but my kids said I looked old and angry.
"I thought it was a good look for the playoffs, my grey beard and no teeth. I was the poster boy for that kind of look. When I retired, I cleaned up and got some dental implants. You didn't think I was going to walk around looking like that for the rest of my life, did you? I've got no problem admitting it -- I was getting pretty gruesome looking.
"Now, it's a big tradition to grow a playoff beard. You know if your beard is long that you've gone a long way in the playoffs. Our teams would be rolling along and I was glad to be part of it. Some guys would go three or four weeks and couldn't stick it out because they couldn't get past the itch."
"We grew beards every year that we were in the playoffs," recalled Daneyko's teammate, Bruce Driver. "It started in 1988 and a lot of the guys started growing them the week before the playoffs. In some years we started growing them before we clinched a playoff spot, but that was part of the process of getting ready for the playoffs for most of the guys."
In their Stanley Cup championship run of 2008-09, Pittsburgh Penguins veterans Bill Guerin, Brooks Orpik and Craig Adams grew full, thick beards on a mostly youthful team. Twenty-one-year-old captain Sidney Crosby received just as much attention from the media for his meager attempt at growing a beard.
"It doesn't look pretty, but there's a little more hair," Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. "He's pretty greasy. Just patches."
"I don't care how ugly or how hairy or how greasy I am," Penguins center Maxime Talbot said. "It's the playoffs. You have a reason to do it.
"(Crosby) doesn't look his best with it, but he still does it. It's great."
Last season the Penguins used the playoff beard superstition for spreading good cheer. The team's charity playoff "Beard-a-thon" raised more than $96,000 for the Mario Lemieux Foundation. Since the start of Pittsburgh's Stanley Cup Playoff run, fans participated either by growing playoff beards of their own, or pledging other beards. Other NHL teams ran their own "Beard-a-thon" as well.
Contact John McGourty at firstname.lastname@example.org.