The NHL playoffs, the annual battle for the most storied trophy in sports, the Stanley Cup, features a rich array of traditions. Some have stood the test of time and in the process woven themselves into the fabric of the sport, while others have enjoyed a brief shelf life and then fade away, never to be seen again.
Some short-lived, long-gone and largely unmourned playoff traditions include an invention by Florida Panthers fans that featured the tossing of plastic rats on the ice when an important goal was scored. During the team's run to the Stanley Cup finals in 1996, the ice would be completely covered with rats every time Florida scored. Opposition goalies had to hide in the net to prevent themselves from getting hit with rats.
Another came in 2006, when the Edmonton Oiler fans responded to the Detroit Red Wings’ custom of tossing an octopus on the ice by hurling Alberta raised beef to the playing surface during their first round playoff series against Detroit. Oilers fans continued throwing steaks, even at away games, resulting in several arrests at the away cities. The Oilers dispatched the Red Wings in six games and, with the beef raining down, advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup finals against Carolina, where the beef, and the Oilers, were ground up in seven games.
Some playoff traditions, however, have stood the test of time. They are a recurring part of NHL history, as familiar as your home team colors. Most notably, there is the famous Detroit Octopus.
On April 15, 1952, Red Wings fans and brothers Pete and Jerry Cusimano threw an octopus on the ice at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium. The eight tentacles on the octopus were symbolic of the eight wins needed to capture the Stanley Cup at the time, when the league consisted of six teams and the playoff format was two best-of-seven series. The Red Wings swept the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens to win the Cup and a Detroit hockey tradition was born.
But as unique as they may be, each of these traditions fall by the wayside when measured against the playoff beard, a ritual so universally accepted in hockey that it has spread to the front office and the fans.
But where did the custom of the playoff beard begin and what has it come to symbolize? Why do players maintain a clean-shaven demeanor for 82 regular season games only to put away their razors and sprout some strange-looking growths on the day the season ends? The answer lies hidden in the deep recesses of Stanley Cup history, almost 37 years ago.
The season was 1974-75, and the fledging New York Islanders had snared a post-season berth for the first time in their two-year existence. Facing the mighty New York Rangers in a best-of-five first-round series, the Islanders, in an effort to foster team unity and look a bit more intimidating to their nearby rivals, stopped applying blade to face and let the whiskers grow. Another tradition with, thankfully, a briefer life, which the Islanders began during that series owed its origin to the circus, which was in residence at Madison Square Garden while the two teams battled. Billy Harris, a forward with the Isles, gathered up some elephant dung in some plastic bags and gave the package to the team trainers for safekeeping. Once the upstart Isles dispatched the Rangers in three straight games, the beards and the elephant dung were along for the rest of the ride. Their surprising playoff roll continued when they roared back from a three-game deficit to defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins with four consecutive wins. The magic run eventually ended when the team lost the semi-finals in Game 7 to the Philadelphia Flyers. By that time, the beards had grown straggly and the elephant dung was extremely fragrant.
The beards, and the elephant dung, were both absent from the playoffs after 1975 and remained missing until 1980 when the Islanders, en route to four consecutive Stanley Cups, revived the tradition. When the Islander dynasty ended, the custom of the beards ended too, seemingly resigned to the category of an interesting oddity. Indeed, when the Edmonton Oilers defeated the Islanders for the Cup in 1984, they intentionally played with closely shaven faces in an effort to distance themselves from a superstition favored by the Islanders.
Again, the playoff beard went missing, this time for 11 years, until the New Jersey Devils put away their razors away for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 1995.
“We seemed to adopt it, most of the players,” longtime New Jersey defenseman Ken Daneyko recalled. “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.’ I looked old and angry. I thought it was a good look for the playoffs.”
Since then, the beard has never looked back and growing one makes a variety of statements on behalf of the players. One important symbol is an indication of perseverance and unity. The players are all in this together, the beard announces, and nothing will stand in the way of their quest. Not comfort, not vanity, not family. Nothing matters except the pursuit of the Cup, which hopefully will last for the next two months. The beard stands as a symbol of just how much players will endure to win, since the playoffs normally stretch into the warm spring months when sporting an unkempt and itchy beard is about as appealing as being smashed head first into the boards.
In recent years, the playoff beard has grown beyond just the players and, in a display of solidarity, has expanded to the front office and fans. For team enthusiasts who have a boss that might frown upon the sporting of several months of unruly facial growth, there is now the “beardo”, a knitted hat with an attachment that covers the face like whiskers.
Women, too, have begun to participate by not shaving the hair on their legs for as long as their team remains alive in the playoffs.
Some players, restricted by youth to a more wispy facial growth, have begun to compensate for their peach fuzz by growing a playoff mullet. Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks grew one in response to the teasing of his teammates in 2010. Since the Blackhawks continued forward to claim the Stanley Cup, look for the emergence of the mullet to appear on several of the younger players this season.
Lately, the tradition of the playoff beard has spilled over into other sports, like the NFL and Major League Baseball. Additionally, members of the NBA and the Canadian Football League (CFL) have grown playoff beards and even members of the County Tyrone team of the All-Ireland Senior Gaelic Football League have gone shaveless as they sought to capture the all-important Sam Maguire Cup.
Everybody is getting in on the action. It’s time for the playoffs and the Lightning are in. So put on the jerseys, fill the St. Pete Times Forum and put away those razors. And may your playoff beards grow long and unruly.
And by the way, bringing elephant dung to the rink is probably better left in the past.
Welcome back to the playoffs Tampa Bay.