This article was first published in June 2009. The series? Penguins vs. Red Wings. The 2015 edition of the Stanley Cup playoffs will feature the Chicago vs. Tampa Bay and plenty of facial hair:
We are now well into the last round of the NHL playoffs, with the Pittsburgh Penguins once again up against the Detroit Red Wings. Sometime this week, the Stanley Cup will be held aloft and carried triumphantly around the rink by an ecstatic group of players who haven’t shaved in months, and who now look like nothing more threatening than refugees from a Sam Roberts concert.
Most fans are familiar with the sporting world’s more amusing superstitious types, like the baseball player Wade Boggs, who famously ate chicken before every game, or the hockey goaltender Patrick Roy, who liked to talk to his goalposts. Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby gave hockey purists conniptions after his team beat Carolina for the Prince of Wales trophy to make it into the final round: he picked up the trophy and carried it around last week, when even touching the thing is considered bad luck.
Crosby defended himself by saying that he didn’t touch the trophy last year and they lost in six games, so he was simply trying to change their luck. But there is one ritual even he won’t mess with: the growing of the playoff beard.
Legend has it that the NHL’s playoff beard tradition was started by the great New York Islanders teams of the early eighties, when players such as Denis Potvin, Bob Nystrom, and Bryan Trottier decided it was bad luck to shave during the playoffs. It is now standard practice in the NHL for all players to stop shaving until their team is either eliminated or wins the Cup, but in this case it goes beyond mere superstition. With the playoff beard, NHLers have hit upon the simplest and most authentic form of masculine display in all professional sport.
Here is why it is so great. In a sport like basketball, the forms of masculine display the players adopt—such as Afro hair, gold jewellery, and copious tattoos—tend to be borrowed from the sport’s inner-city origins. Whereas the significance of the playoff beard is rooted in standards of success internal to hockey itself. The hockey beard serves as a very visible marker of success: the longer you go in the playoffs, the longer your beard. Everyone can see it, and everyone knows what it means.
Not all beards are created equal. Players like Detroit’s Dan Cleary or Maxime Talbot from Pittsburgh seem more like dispossessed men on skates than professional athletes. Sidney Crosby still looks like a prepubescent with alopecia. But there’s a naturalness to facial hair, in all its forms, that speaks to the fundamental authenticity of the display.
From the peacock’s tail to the Porsche, masculine status display throughout the animal kingdom tends to be a bit of a bluff. But NHLers stand apart from showy birds, middle-aged men, and recession-era rappers, who have lately started substituting cubic zirconia for real diamonds in their increasingly ostentatious bling. There’s no faking the playoff beard. In an era where technology too often seems to have triumphed over athleticism, with the players’ unique physicality constrained by the smooth, hard contours of lycra stretched over armoured plastic, the NHL playoffs signal an atavistic return to the sport’s battle-torn origins, archetypal wild men fighting it out on a frozen wasteland.
Which brings up another kind of status being signalled here, namely, manliness itself. The NHL playoffs provide a bit of much-needed PR for the male of the species at what is shaping up as a very troubled time for masculinity. As the recession continues to decimate the manufacturing industries, men are finding themselves disproportionately shunted to the margins of economic life, a shift that threatens to become permanent. As Margaret Wente argued in a recent essay for the Globe and Mail, jobs in the new economy require female-style emotions, not manly muscle, and so much the worse for men.
Economic downturns tend to produce these crises in masculinity, and unfortunate readers might cringe to recall the “Iron John” craze of the early 1990s. It certainly can’t help that this time around, two of the most alpha-male industries, automobiles and finance, have been effectively gelded by the nanny state, and the gnawing feeling that men are increasingly obsolescent is underscored by some uncomfortable facts: women now outnumber men on Canadian university campuses and hold solid majorities in professional programs such as medicine and law. Only engineering and the physical sciences are still mostly male, and not by much. It is hard to avoid concluding that, after being in demand and in charge for millennia, men no longer have any special skills to offer the world. The writing is on the wall, and it reads: “so long, fellas.”
Sure, the manliest of men are in many ways more in demand than ever—witness the rabid popularity of TV shows like Deadliest Catch or Ice Road Truckers or even Dog the Bounty Hunter. But it’s precisely their exoticism that makes these shows so fascinating, and they give most men the same, vaguely homoerotic frisson they get from seeing hard-core pornography for the first time. There are men who can do that?
All of which leaves regular guys in a particularly sad and lonely condition. It also might help explain why growing a beard is becoming increasingly popular for hockey fans once their team enters the playoffs: it allows them to participate in one of the last symbols of male solidarity.
Not every man can shoot, skate, or throw a bodycheck a tenth as well as the players on the ice, but the one thing they all have in common is that they are men. But where there’s solidarity there is competition, and some men may find a minor satisfaction in knowing that even if they can’t play like their heroes, for a few weeks every spring, they can look like them.