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The legend and twisted origin of playoff beards

More than three decades after he tried his darnedest to grow a lustrous beard during the Stanley Cup playoffs, former New York Islanders forward Bob Nystrom remains amazed at how some NHL players can sprout such lush expanses of facial hair at this time of year.

“I had a few hairs on my chin and that was about it,” Nystrom, now 64, said, laughing.

The Islanders have been largely credited with launching the playoff tradition of growing beards during their illustrious run that resulted in four Stanley Cups between 1980 and 1983, but that timeline actually appears to have several holes in it — kind of like Nystrom’s playoff beards.

For one thing, those Islanders say they are honored that beard-growing has become a tradition, but it is not accurate to say that they started doing it as some sort of lusty team-building exercise. Nystrom said the beards were “just something that happened.”

Those Islanders teams were filled with superstitious players. “I can’t even remember when it really started,” Nystrom said. “It was just something that was just pretty automatic with us — you get on a winning streak, you don’t want to change a thing.”

He quickly added: “We still showered, though.”

The Islanders, an expansion team in 1972, made the playoffs for the first time in 1975 and became regular participants. But they lost in the semifinals in 1976, 1977 and 1979, and they were determined to win it all in 1980 — and they finally did, on Nystrom’s overtime goal in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Butch Goring, a forward who was traded to the Islanders late in the 1980 season, said, “Some of the guys grew beards a lot faster than the others, but it really was about keeping focused on the job at hand. More than anything else, I think it was a reminder of the goals we had here.”

A year later, the Islanders defended their championship in the Stanley Cup finals against the Minnesota North Stars, who had decided to go unshaven for as long as they lasted in the playoffs. The scruffy Islanders beat the younger (and slightly less scruffy) Stars in five games.

The Islanders were on track to win a fifth straight Cup in 1984 but lost in the finals in five games to Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers, who won four of the next six Cups — but abandoned the Islanders’ tradition, recalled Edmonton native Ken Daneyko.

Gretzky was 23 when the Oilers won their first Cup, and Daneyko says he believes the Oilers had so many young players that they were not interested, or perhaps follicly able, to continue the Islanders’ tradition. Another team would have to pick it up.

And that team just happened to be the 1988 New Jersey Devils, which Daneyko had joined full time the season before as a pugnacious defenseman. The Devils had moved to New Jersey from Colorado in 1982 but had not qualified for the playoffs in their first five seasons.

Finally, they made it on April 3, 1988, when a goal by John MacLean in overtime beat Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Darren Pang to clinch a spot for their feisty coach, Jim Schoenfeld.

Daneyko said, “We celebrated like we just won the Cup, throwing our gloves in the air and everything. I look back and say, ‘Really? We celebrated that much?’ ”

The 1988 Devils were on a mission. Unshaven, they eliminated the Islanders in the first round. “We were focused — determined not to change anything,” Daneyko said.

But the Devils’ beards, Daneyko said, were also a small salute to the Islanders’ dynasty. “We felt like we were kind of like those Islanders teams that won Cups — we had such respect for them,” said Daneyko, now an analyst on Devils broadcasts. “We were big and tough and talented, could play any way you want. To this day, I have such respect for those teams.” (Nystrom and Goring said they had not heard previously that the Devils were inspired by the Islanders.)

Daneyko thought making the playoffs would be an annual occurrence after the Devils made it once. But they failed to reach the playoffs the following year, then lost in the first round four years in a row. Then came 1994.

The Devils eliminated the Buffalo Sabres and Boston Bruins, then clashed with the archrival New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Rangers were not a bearded team.

(It has been reported that the Rangers chose not to grow beards during those playoffs because the custom had been linked with the Islanders, an even bigger Rangers archrival than the Devils, but John Rosasco, the Rangers’ senior vice president of public relations and player recruitment, checked with members of that team and said “maybe this is urban legend or invented after the fact.”)

The Devils lost in seven spectacularly contested games to the Rangers — this was the series of the infamous Mark Messier guarantee — who went on to win the Cup, but the Devils largely decided not to shave when they returned to the playoffs in 1995. They won their first of three Cups, and playoff beards became an annual thing.

“Certainly, it had nothing to do with the Rangers not growing them,” Daneyko said. “I know that for a fact.”

There have been exceptions to the beard tradition, of course. Martin Brodeur, the Devils’ goaltender, eschewed a playoff beard, and still had a great deal of success. In 2011, the Rangers grew mustaches. Chris Chelios, the veteran defenseman then with the Detroit Red Wings, refused to grow facial hair through the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs. In fact, he played after he shaved.

“It wasn’t a tradition in Montreal when I started, and I never liked beards and mustaches,” Chelios told The Associated Press. “I always play clean-shaven because Guy Lafleur always shaved right before games, so I copied him. It helps you be the first one to get out of the shower after the game.”

Nystrom says he has noticed that players do not have thick beards because the league is younger; Daneyko said the fear factor of a beard is not what it used to be. Consider, among others, San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns, who is prolifically hairy all year around.

Daneyko said, “They’ve become like mountain men!”

But the beards remain a symbol of persistence and dedication. “It’s a reminder that it’s a different time of year, where you have a different focus, a different commitment,” Goring said.

Daneyko grew his final playoff beard in 2003, when the Devils won their third Cup, and he retired thereafter. Daneyko, now 55, knew his last beard was particularly iconic because it was thick, grizzled in gray and framed a smile missing all of his front teeth.

The Devils made the 2004 playoffs, and while attending a game without a beard, Daneyko was stopped by a group of fans, who told him, “You look so different!” They were talking about his 2003 playoff beard. “You didn’t expect me to walk around like that the rest of my life, did you?” Daneyko said, laughing.

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