Ask any die-hard hockey fan, and they’ll tell you that NHL players have a tradition of not shaving during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Yes, it’s true: the beards grow, the moustaches come out to play, and the players start to look more like urban hipsters than professional athletes. But what you might be more interested to know is why it happens. What is the reason behind these burly beards and unruly mustaches? Why do NHL players not shave during the playoffs?
How it Started
Today known commonly as the “playoff beard”, the tradition of growing facial hair during playoffs, and not shaving until your team either wins or is eliminated, can be found in various sports leagues throughout the world. However, this practice has its roots in the National Hockey League, and it has become a tradition that both NHL fans and players have come to accept, and even look forward too.
As with many traditions, it can be hard to trace the playoff beard back to one sole individual, though most agree it started in the 1980s with the New York Islanders.
According to former Islanders forward Bob Nystrom, going unshaven during winning streaks and the playoffs was “just something that happened.” Nystrom has said that those Islanders teams had many superstitious players. When they were playing well, they avoided changing things up.
Denis Potvin, former Islanders defenseman and Hall of Famer, has suggested that the playoff beards emerged more out of convenience than anything else. He attributes the unshaven look to the busy playoff schedule, like having to play four games in five nights during the first round.
Others have noted that the those Islanders teams of the 1980s had two Swedish players, Stefan Persson and Anders Kallur. It is possible that they got the playoff beard idea from tennis champion and fellow Swede Björn Borg. He had a custom of not shaving his beard during Wimbledon, possibly inspiring Islanders players.
Whatever the true reason for growing a playoff beard, the practice seemed to work. The Islanders would win four straight Stanley Cups.
The Tradition Catches On
In 1984, the Islanders would ultimately lose to the Edmonton Oilers and some guy named Wayne Gretzky in their quest for a fifth consecutive championship. The Oilers would win four of the next six Cups, but would not adopt the Islanders playoff beard tradition. The Oilers had many young players, including Gretzky, leading some to believe that they were either uninterested, or unable to grow them.
The tradition might have been abandoned altogether if not for the 1988 New Jersey Devils. The franchise had been pretty mediocre for most of its history, but that changed when the team clinched a playoff spot during that 1988 season. Not wanting to change anything about their team, and as a bit of a nod to the Islanders, the Devils did not shave during the playoffs, but would ultimately lose in the Conference Finals.
The Devils would make it back to the playoff in 1995, deciding not to shave once again. This time, it worked. The team won the first of their three Stanley Cups. After that, the playoff beard became a yearly tradition for the Devils.
Since those Islanders teams of the 1980s, various NHL teams have chosen, or not chosen, to grow playoff beards. Some players opt to not grow beards, even though they have teammates doing so, like Martin Brodeur, the Devils’ goaltender. Some players grow moustaches instead, like the 2011 New York Rangers.
The tradition continues to live on for many teams though. Today, some players see the beards as sign of unity. For others, the beard is seen as a reminder of what is at stake during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The beard gets players thinking about hockey the moment the look in the mirror each morning.
Ultimately, playoff beards remain a symbol of persistence and dedication. If nothing else, they help usher in a different time of year in the hockey season. A time when a player must really hone in on their focus and commitment. A time where the game takes on a whole new meaning for both fans and players alike.
Speaking of weird traditions, ever wonder why the Montreal Canadiens are called the Habs? You can find the answer in this Blog post.