It has been about four months since Joe Thornton last shaved and so when the puck dropped for the start of the San Jose Sharks' playoff series against the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday night, he had three thick inches of hair on his chinny, chin chin. It probably filled your television screen.
Thornton looked a little like Grizzly Adams, or a cast member of Duck Dynasty. If you put Thornton, his Sharks' teammate Brent Burns and Kings' defenceman Jake Muzzin side by side and armed them with guitars, they'd be ZZ Top.
This, by the way, is fine with Sharks' coach Peter DeBoer, who joined the San Jose organization from the New Jersey Devils, where he worked years for Lou Lamoriello, now the Toronto Maple Leafs' general manager. For all the years the Devils won or challenged for the Stanley Cup, Lamoriello had a policy banning facial hair on players.
"We were sitting for a team picture about three weeks ago and Burnsy was in front of me, and he had the beard going, the hair in the ponytail," DeBoer said Thursday morning. "Zubie [former Devil Dainius Zubrus] was standing beside me and I just said, 'What do you think Lou would do?'"
"You know his feeling about that. It doesn't bother me as much as it would bother Lou."
Unofficially, the tradition of growing a playoff beard dates to the early 1980s, when the New York Islanders were in the midst of a run of four consecutive Stanley Cup championships, with Clark Gillies and Ken Morrow both showing impressive thatches of facial hair by the time the playoffs ended.
But for most of the past 30 years, players waited for the playoffs before they started growing beards.
Not anymore. Burns's beard is so full that he says it protected him from an injury earlier this year – the hair cushioning the impact when he took an errant puck on the chin.
"I got cut but it would have been a lot worse," explained Burns, who needed a couple of stitches to close the cut. "You get hit in the face with a puck on bare skin it's going to bang you up pretty good."
And how did the doctor navigate four inches of facial hair to complete the necessary repairs?
"With Vaseline," Burns answered. "He just pulled it apart; Vaselined it over; and worked it out."
According to Burns, it took him a long time before he could grow a beard of any description, let alone one that graces the current cover of The Hockey News.
"It wasn't until I was about 25," he said. "I always wanted to. My dad always had a big beard. I'd always been a smaller guy growing up; I think a beard makes you look a little bigger. When I shave, I feel like I'm 20 and skinny. It's just a personal thing. I don't think guys really care. I like it. I don't really like being clean shaven – now, that I have that option."
Randy Hahn, the Sharks' play-by-play man, says Burns's facial hair "is not a beard, it's an ecosystem. There could be reptiles in there. If he's missing one from his apartment – a baby python he can't account for – he should look there."
Thornton usually waits until the start of the playoffs to grow a beard, but says this year, he decided to follow Burns's lead and start early. From mid-December on, as his beard grew, Thornton became one of the NHL's hottest scorers and ultimately finished fourth overall in scoring, his best season in years. However, he insists superstition was not a factor in the decision to stick with the beard.
"Burnsy was kinda doing it so I thought, I'll try it with him and here we are," Thornton said. "Mine's big, but his is at a different level. His is really, really big. Mine's much greyer than his. He calls me 'the 1970 Dodge Charger, with the racing stripe down the middle.'"
According to Thornton, the Sharks players were discussing the origins of the NHL playoff beard just a few days ago in their locker room.
"I remember growing up, watching the  Flames win the Stanley Cup and seeing Lanny McDonald and all of their beards," Thornton said. "I was thinking, 'Oh wow. I hope I'm lucky enough to break through like that someday.'"
Thornton has the sort of facial hair that even if he shaved tomorrow, he'd be well on his way to a full beard within 72 hours. But this year, with the Sharks trying to reverse the result of the last time the two teams met – 2014, when Los Angeles won the last four games of the series to win in seven – two of San Jose's key elements are on their way to record-setting beards.
"It may not look like it, but there's a lot of maintenance that goes into it – believe it or not," Thornton explained. "But Burnsy does a good job looking after me. He gets me all the oils and the combs. He likes to buy two of everything, and he gives me the other one."
The only people who apparently aren't big fans are their wives.
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