NHL playoff beards are a culture phenomenon all their own. They have a history and significance that goes far beyond any facial scruff trend the masses have become preoccupied with in recent years. The tradition of playoffs beards began around 1980, when the New York Islanders established a slow-growing tradition amid their four consecutive Stanley Cup titles, spanning the 1979–80 to 1983–84 seasons, known now as The Dynasty.
A few Islanders started growing beards during the post season simply due to the fact that "when you play four games in five nights," you don't really have time to pick up a razor. But as the Islanders took over the league, the beards became lucky by association. "Superstitions and rituals in the sports world are due to what we call over-generalizations," sports psychology expert Dr. Patrick Cohn says. "One or two past experiences where something repetitive seems to be directly tied to performance is generalized by the athlete to believe that what has worked in the past will work again."
By the end of the Islanders reign in 1984, playoffs beards had not only become a trend in the league, but a ritual among teammates. Now players, fans, and shrinks all agree that the beards represent more than just a player's ability to grow one, it's about a mindset. But for some reason, NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus made a statement on Tuesday to the Chicago Tribune stating that the tradition should come to an end:
"Players won’t like this, but I wish they all would stop growing beards in the postseason. Let's get their faces out there. Let’s talk about how young and attractive they are, what model citizens they are. They're truly one of a kind among professional athletes. I know it's a tradition and superstition, but I think [beards do] hurt recognition. They have a great opportunity with more endorsements. Or simply more recognition with fans saying, 'That guy looks like the kid next door,' which many of these guys do. I think that would be a nice thing."
Dr. Todd Loughead, Associate Professor in sport and exercise psychology at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, says that it's no harm, no foul when it comes to the postseason scruff. "The players have fun with it — and it creates a lot of bonding, a lot of camaraderie, and good banter. That's good for the game. Besides, after the postseason the beards come off and most of the guys go back to being clean-shaven."
While both Loughead and Cohn say that shaving the beards wouldn't affect the player's ability to perform well on the ice, that's not the point, and neither is looking good. "Playing to your best ability is not about the lucky charms, it's about being prepared and having your game face on," Cohn says. " The beard doesn't necessarily make the player more confident — the skill of preparation leading up to competition does. But they make a player happy, and a happy player is a good player."
No one would've ever told Michael Jordan that he couldn't wear his University of North Carolina shorts under his uniform during every game or argue that Tiger Woods didn't play his best when he wore red on Sundays, so why is Lazarus causing such a ruckus?
If NBC was truly thinking about marketing potential, then the value of tradition would sell more than any baby-faced Patrick Kane could. San Francisco Giants pitcher Brian Wilson's was one of the most terrifying pitchers for batters to face, more so for his ferocious arm than his unkempt, dyed-black beard. But Wilson's success as a pitcher and his identity allowed "Fear the Beard" to sell more T-shirts than a rock band's souvenir stand. "Wilson was able to use his beard it to his advantage psychologically, and it was also good for marketing," Loughead remarks. "This is something unique compared to other sports in the U.S. It makes the NHL unique, and I like to think that we are trying to sell the product on the ice — the speed, the skill — to bring singularity to the sport."
To be fair to Lazarus, he's trying to get his value out of a 10-year, $2 billion deal the league signed back in 2011, and despite the best Stanley Cup ratings in two decades, NBC is still being dwarfed by ABC, which has LeBron James and the NBA Finals earning three times the viewers on an average night. But then again, LeBron has a pretty great beard of his own.
There are real issues that compromise the integrity of almost every league in the country, most notably the NFL, which Lazarus's channel broadcasts on Sunday Nights throughout the season. But he chooses to speak out against beards, because he thinks they get in the way of his telecast, and marketing, and hockey mostly not being football. There are so many things that could create advantage of one team over another, and there are many things that could taint marketing opportunities, and he could speak out against those. But he doesn't.
These aren't PEDS. This isn't domestic abuse. These are beards. Leave them alone.
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