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Hockey Playoff Traditions

by Hannah Maier / Washington Capitals
 “Rock the Red” became the signature of the Capitals 2007-08 playoff campaign, as a flood of the color canvassed the Verizon Center stands during the team’s four home games. Fans donned red shirts and waved towels in the air, all to exude support for their home team. Yet, one must wonder: where did these traditions come from? What possessed people to start waving towels in the air during games or growing beards throughout the playoffs? Where did the concept of the white out originate? These superstitions are central to many professional and college sports today, yet almost all the traditions derive from the NHL.

Perhaps the most prominent feature of all post-seasons today is the white out, or some variation thereof. The origins of this concept lie in Winnipeg, when the Jets (now the Phoenix Coyotes) faced the Calgary Flames in the first round of the1987 playoffs. Winnipeg fans wore white shirts to their home games in order to create an intimidating atmosphere, and the Jets ended up winning the series four games to two. The victory cemented the white out tradition, and even after the team relocated to Phoenix, Coyote fans continued to wear their white. 

Another popular tradition is the waving of towels during a playoff series. This concept can first be linked to the 1975 Pittsburgh Steelers, when broadcaster Myron Cope (in hopes of igniting the crowd) encouraged fans to bring yellow dishtowels to the game against the Baltimore Colts. Pittsburgh won the game 28-10, and the “Terrible Towel” is still prevalent in the Steelers community today.  

However, this phenomenon first arose in hockey in Vancouver during the 1982 Western Conference finals, when the Canucks faced the Chicago Blackhawks. In game two, Canucks’ coach, Roger Neilson disagreed strongly with the refereeing, and fastened a white towel to the end of a hockey stick to mockingly signal surrender. For the next home game, Vancouver fans arrived waving towels to show support for Neilson and their team.  This became known as Vancouver “Towel Power,” and now many sports teams across the nation carry out a form of this tradition.

The playoff beard is practiced by most hockey players today as well. The tradition is thought to have originated in the 1980s with the New York Islanders, whose team members refrained from shaving their faces during post-season play. This was done so that the team’s luck would not be disrupted during a series.

Today, many fans participate in this superstition as well, growing beards during their teams’ playoff runs. Also, teams have begun shaving or coloring their hair to show solidarity during the post-season. For instance, in the 2007 NCAA playoffs, the entire University of Minnesota hockey team bleached its hair blonde.


The playoff Mohawk has also become popular recently, as sported by Mike Green during the Caps post-season run this year. The defenseman did the same in 2006 and 2007 for Hershey during its playoff campaigns, and now other teams, such as the Flames, have started cutting their hair in this manner. Seven Flames partook in the Mohawk this post-season, including captain Jarome Iginla.

Whether or not these superstitions prove to be beneficial during a team’s playoff run will never be known, but nevertheless, the traditions help unite fans behind their team during the most exciting times in sports. So the next time the Caps earn a playoff bid, remember to “Rock the Red” and grow out that beard!

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