May 10, 2011

Playoff beards a sign of success

Now growing his playoff beard with the Bruins, Shawn Thornton toasts his Stanley Cup victory with Anaheim in 2007. (Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

When it comes to playoff hockey, there are a number of age-old traditions that will simply never fade.

Touching the Stanley Cup at any point prior to earning the right to do so is an absolute no-no. For many, even laying a finger on either the Prince of Wales Trophy or the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl — awarded to the winners of the Eastern and Western conferences, respectively — is believed to be a jinx.

For more than three decades now, however, there has been one other noteworthy object that many NHL players simply refuse to place in the palm of their hand during the postseason: a razor.

“I don’t know how long the tradition has been around,” Bruins winger Shawn Thornton said when asked about the beginnings of the playoff beard. “I think everyone has different rules. I shaved after the New Jersey game and won’t shave again.

"Some guys started a little bit earlier, after we clinched. Some guys shave the whole playoffs so I don’t know if there’s any set rules, but I’m of the belief that you shave after the last regular-season game and go from there.”

It’s believed that the Islanders of the early 1980s unleashed the playoff beard on the hockey universe, as captain Denis Potvin and the rest of his scruffy teammates hoisted the Cup for consecutive years to begin the decade.

But just as was the case on Long Island back then, not all players are required to partake in the ritual. 

“Guys will talk about it, but there’s no hard rules,” Tim Thomas said, as the Bruins goaltender decided to let his beard grow in around an already-thick moustache to start the playoffs.

“Everybody is on their own and can do what they want. Different guys do different things in different years. You look at  (Flyers defenseman) Chris Pronger, I believe he’s been clean-shaven most of the time.”

While many in New England will remember Ray Bourque and his fuzzy facial hair during the Bruins’ lengthy playoff runs, so too will they recall the fact that star forward Cam Neely’s face remained nice and smooth in the postseason year after year.

According to Thornton, there is no level of clout necessary to pass on participating in the tradition.

“It’s personal preference,” Thornton said. “Some guys, it’s probably more embarrassing if they try.”

Surely enough, the ever-sarcastic forward decided to point out a prime example of a player that fit that description, as Thornton glanced up at goaltender Tuukka Rask from his stall in the Bruins’ dressing room.

“I’m looking at somebody in front of me right now,” he said, pointing at Rask, “if he tried to grow a playoff beard, I think it’d probably be more embarrassing than helpful. It all depends on the individual.”

Rookie Tyler Seguin was free from Thornton’s ridicule that day, but the baby-faced, 19-year-old forward already had got a head start in an effort to keep up with his older teammates.

“This is about a week and a half,” Seguin said, pointing out his patchy growth on the eve of the postseason. “I asked around if I should keep it going or if I should shave it. I feel like the best way to go would be to not shave at all. That way I won’t look like a 12-year-old boy.”

Thornton never had that problem, as the tough-as-nails winger made his first NHL playoff appearance at the age of 29 with the Anaheim Ducks. Just as he did this year in Boston, Thornton busted out a bottle of shaving cream after Game No. 82 of the regular season and put it away until the Ducks run came to an end.

Nearly two months later, Thornton was looking like an Irish mountain man, as Anaheim defeated the Senators to capture the Cup.

“Anaheim was the first time it ever got long enough to really consider it a good beard,” Thornton said. “Dave Lowry, when he went all the way with the Panthers in the ’90s, he had a huge red beard. I said that if I ever won it, I wanted a huge red beard with the Stanley Cup over my head.”

Making it all the way to June with his face becoming more bristly by the day, however, made it tempting to cave in.

“Oh, god, does it ever,” Thornton said. “It gets itchy and uncomfortable. I sleep on my stomach, so it’s tough to sleep on the side of your face with a huge beard. It’s very uncomfortable.”

While Thomas has only made it half as far as Thornton in the postseason, he initially contemplated sticking solely with the moustache for similar reasons.

“I know from experience that the beard feels pretty annoying in the mask,” the netminder said. “It holds water and just makes you feel a little bit different.”

As for whether or not the beard has any influence on an individual or his team’s success, the facts are obvious. Sixteen teams qualify for the postseason every year, but only one remains standing at the end of the war.

“I know Chris Osgood’s got three Stanley Cups, and he’s never grown a playoff beard,” Thomas said of the Red Wings’ longtime goaltender. “I don’t think Dominik Hasek grew a playoff beard when he won.”

But for those who do partake in the superstition, barring a Stanley Cup parade in their immediate future, finally grabbing a hold of that blade is an immeasurably painful experience and the ultimate sign that their quest for playoff glory has fallen short.

“Unless it’s so you don’t show up to the owner’s house with a bad beard for a celebration, it’s tough,” said Thornton, who was clean-shaven when congratulated by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at the Ducks’ victory celebration. “You want to grow that thing as long as possible, that’s for sure.”

So if any of the Bruins look in the mirror and see a lumberjack staring back at them on a hot, humid 90-degree day in June, they can rest assured they are on the right path.

When asked if looking like Grizzly Adams in June is a good thing, Thornton simply responded, “Yeah, definitely,” as he grinned, “I’m all for that.”

Jesse Connolly can be reached at jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com