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Frozen Grounds: Stanley Cup Playoff Traditions

NHL playoff traditions are starting to spread - did your favorite team start doing playoff beards?


The NHL regular season ends on Saturday, 7 April, and playoffs start next week. As with any league, there are traditions - some silly, and others simply iconic - that go along with playoffs. The NHL's are perhaps a little quirkier than other North American sports leagues.

So there are some things that perhaps the casual fan aren’t aware of that goes on. There are presentations, awards, injuries, and some really odd things that are starting to spread into other sports. Like the tradition of the playoff beard.

Just like most athletes, hockey players are a superstitious lot, and they gossip worse than old women. So when something "works", other players will jump on that bandwagon to try to change their luck. Of course, that’s not always limited to the athletes, as many fans will do similar things to try to change their team’s luck as well.

The playoff beard tradition reportedly started in the 1980s with the New York Islanders. The New York Islanders were the last true hockey dynasty, although some may argue that the Detroit Red Wings currently are. In the 1980s, the Islanders won the Stanley Cup four years in a row. So, naturally, whatever they did at the time, everyone else was going to try.

How this works is that players will shave the morning before their first playoff game, and then not shave again until they've either win the Stanley Cup or they fall out of playoffs. That usually means no trimming. Sometimes a player will not cut his hair or try to grow a hockey mullet, or settle for a mustache, while entire teams will all bleach their hair together. But traditionally, it’s a beard. Not all players participate in this, but many do.

And that’s it, really, but it explains why so many hockey players look like mountain men in playoffs. Many hockey players are also big golfers, so perhaps they finally shave when they’re done playing because their country clubs won’t let them on the course until they do? The "joke" in hockey this time of year is that you’re either in playoffs, or you’re golfing.

Of course, fans of teams now join in on the playoff beard thing. Male fans, if they're physicall able and their work allows them to, will do the same thing. Female fans, however, have to be a little more creative about things.

Another tradition is that, for the team that wins the President’s Trophy for the best regular season team, no one’s allowed to touch the trophy. It’s the same deal for those teams who win the Western Conference (Clarence S. Campbell Bowl) and the Eastern Conference (Prince of Wales Trophy) in the Conference Finals. The belief is that, if a member of the team that wins touches the trophies, they won’t win the one that really matters – the Stanley Cup.

Then there’s the team handshake. At the end of every playoff series, no matter how bitter and ugly it was, when someone wins both teams go through a handshake line. Always. There have been instances where individual players and coaches have avoided the handshake line, but they’re usually few and far between. It’s a great display of sportsmanship, and one that many hockey fans take a certain pride in.

As for the fan side of hockey traditions, there are a few things that fan bases do. During home games, for instance, all of the fans will wear t-shirts or jerseys of the same home-team color. It’s a show of solidarity for the home team, and it’s pretty cool to see an entire rink one color.

Not all arenas do this, but the movement is spreading. It reportedly started in 1986 when the Calgary Flames wore their "C of Red" - that is, everyone in the stands wore the same red as in their team's jerseys. (Calgary has a stylized "C" on their jersey as their team crest." The (original) Winnipeg Jets replied in 1987 with their "Winnipeg White Out" during the playoff series against the Flames.

Another fan tradition is rally towels. This started in 1982, when the Vancouver Canucks head coach Roger Neilson hung a white bench towel on the end of a hockey stick to signal surrender to the referees. He was fed up with the poor officiating against his team and wanted them to know it. The next game, Canucks fans brought their own white towels to wave around, and it’s been a tradition ever since. Nowadays, these sorts of things often start out as team giveaways, and they aren’t always towels.

Perhaps the most infamous fan tradition of all is the throwing of the octopus onto the ice in Detroit. Back when the NHL had only six teams (those teams are now referred to as the Original Six), it only took eight wins to get the Stanley Cup. And this is an important fact for a reason.

In 1952, someone threw an octopus on the ice during a playoff series – the eight legs representing the eight wins it took to get the Cup back then – and the Detroit Red Wings went on to win that series, and then win the Stanley Cup that year. And since you always want to help your team win, other fans have kept that going. Despite arena officials not approving of this practice (due to the delay of game and the problems dead marine life creates with the ice), it’s been a tradition long-standing tradition.

Since it’s so popular in Detroit, it has spawned imitators. (No pun intended.) In Boston, lobsters have been thrown onto the ice. In Nashville, they throw catfish. In Vancouver, they’ll throw salmon. The most creative one thus far was when a San Jose Sharks fan threw a three-foot shark with an octopus sewn into its mouth while the Sharks were playing the Red Wings during the 2010 Western Conference Semifinal (second round of playoffs).

So if you see some seafood-like thing get thrown from the stands and onto the ice, you’ll now know why.