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hockey ritual

Calgary Flames' Lanny McDonald raises the Stanley Cup in Montreal, May 25, 1989, after Flames defeated Canadiens.BILL GRIMSHAW/The Canadian Press

Upon careful inspection, there is a scrubby population of whisker-like sprouts on the chin and upper lip, but on the whole it's pretty pathetic.

Fresh-faced Brendan Gallagher, 20, has a long career ahead and time to reach the bushy plenitude of a Lanny McDonald or a Ken Morrow, men whose luxuriant facial hair is the stuff of legend and lore.

For now, Gallagher revels in failure.

"I'm confident I'm going to have the worst playoff beard in the NHL," the Montreal Canadiens' forward said with a laugh.

The trying, it appears, is the thing.

In the hockey postseason, almost everyone sets aside the razor, with results that range from disturbing to unintentionally hilarious.

Teammates still give Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby the gears for his sparse playoff thatch during the Stanley Cup run of 2009. There are occasionally snickers in Chicago over the ill-fated homage to mutton-chop sideburns attempted by Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. Hockey players are equal-opportunity razzers.

While NHL players are generally loath to intellectualize their actions, the curious ritual of the playoff beard may well have a deeper meaning.

According to sports sociologist Suzanne Laberge, a University of Montreal professor whose expertise includes athletes' physical habits, it's mostly about girding for frightening and unpredictable prospects.

"There's the obvious symbolism of masculinity and virility, the representation of the warrior," said Laberge, careful to point out the scholarship on the subject of playoff beards is limited to non-existent. "They even carry sticks and armour. But all teams and athletes engage in a ritual of one sort or another. It's about trying to shape and control the future, which in sports is difficult to predict."

And it isn't exclusive to sports.

Singers, actors, teachers, you name it, many people engage in both individual and collective routines aimed at alleviating incipient insecurity. Indeed, there is a potentially valuable aspect to shared rituals, which can build cohesion.

"Essentially, everyone wants to be connected to the centre of the cultural context of their environment, it doesn't really matter what it is," Laberge said.

It's alleged that the tradition of playoff beards was launched by the New York Islanders in the early 1980s, chiefly by Morrow, one of the more hirsute players in NHL history.

"We called him the Wolfman," Hall of Fame defenceman Denis Potvin, a beard-wearing member of those teams, said with a chuckle. "He could grow his in a day. It wasn't fair."

Potvin won't vouch for the veracity of the playoff beard's creation myth, but rather, what it symbolized.

"It showed that all you're thinking about is hockey," he said. "You're not thinking about your body or anything else."

Team chemistry is a popular subject during playoffs, and while it might seem like motivational hocus-pocus, Laberge said there is ample evidence in sociological literature that internal cohesion and shared sacrifice are "essential" to success.

So, beards.

And mullets, artisanal dye-jobs, rigidly orchestrated team meals.

They're all variations of the same theme, embraced with enthusiasm and the occasional outburst of misguided ambition.

"I'd love to do up a playoff T-shirt, it could say 'just be a beaut,'" said Canadiens winger Colby Armstrong, a follicly-challenged 31-year-old who has nevertheless vowed to grow out his neck beard. "It's going to be spectacular, the old throat-tee."

To spend time around NHL players is to understand the high value placed on superstition, Crosby's ratty baseball cap, the one and only he wears from the start of training camp to the end of the season, just one example.

And to appreciate the notion of unfair advantage, apparently.

The Habs' Brandon Prust, year-round bearded guy, shaved his off after prodding from teammate P.K. Subban (who couldn't grow a full beard on a bet) that his head start amounted to cheating.

It's not just a Montreal thing. Ottawa Senators winger Guillaume Latendresse, an effortless grower of beards, showed up ahead of the first game of the playoffs with clean-shaven cheeks. "A fresh start," he called it.

Like many traditions, the playoff beard has waxed and waned.

It has also become a brand.

The National Hockey League Players' Association launched a charity beard-a-thon initiative a few years ago – entirely predictable slogan: Grow One – to raise money for the Heart and Stroke Foundation.

Still, not everyone grows one.

Occasionally it's for pecuniary reasons; Washington superstar Alex Ovechkin, for example, endorses shaving products.

Some of it has to do with inability, and it's not limited to rookies. St. Louis Blues defenceman Jay Bouwmeester, 29, joked to a Calgary Herald reporter this week: "With the amount I have to shave, it's probably not [going to be] very good. You hope that you keep going and you have time to see how it turns out."

Some of it has to do with the NHL being populated by young players like Gallagher and Subban.

There are also more prosaic concerns to take into account.

"And wives," Montreal's David Desharnais, who is sporting a beard, said. "Some wives or girlfriends don't like it. I can't blame them."

Tradition holds that players can shave only when their team is eliminated from the postseason. So while whiskers may not come naturally to all the participants, the ambitions are shared.

At this time of year in the NHL, scraggly is beautiful.