There was a time when I didn’t know about playoff beards.
When I was young and naïve and knew nothing of hockey, by which I mean in 2006, and I saw some TV clips of the Oilers in the Cup Final, I did indeed observe that two-thirds of the team had huge f*#k-off beards. However, I just assumed that that was the fashion in Edmonton. Sure, it seems like an unfair cultural stereotype to believe that men in Western Canada all go around with beards so enormous it looks as though their faces are being mounted by large amorous rodents, but then again, before I came here I thought it was an unfair cultural stereotype to believe that Canadians were unhealthily obsessed with hockey, and look how that turned out. For all I know, people in Germany really do walk around in lederhosen. It might be true.
And anyway, what’s a girl to think when she sees a fifteen men who all live in the same town and all have huge f*#k-off beards? Huge f*#k-off beards are not common on men under-40 in contemporary North America. Facial hair, sure, but it’s pretty much always manicured facial hair. Goatees, soul-patches, those avuncular beards trimmed like short-pile carpeting over the chin, and now, in this awful awful ironic age, the sleazy moustache. But huge f*#k-off beards? Wild, undisciplined beards long enough to flutter gently in the breeze? Those are not something men generally cultivate until the grandfather years. You cannot blame a young unhockeyish American for being perplexed by the phenomenon.
In fact, it is exactly the uncommonness of the huge f*#k-off beard that makes it the perfect postseason tradition. Because no guy of hockeying age would grow a huge f*#k-off beard for style purposes, the sudden eruption of them in April is a clear and unmistakeable sign of PLAYOFFS!!!!!!! It’s one of hockey’s few, wonderful purely fun rituals- not a superstition, since many players choose not to participate and are not chastised for such- but just a little show of enthusiasm for the game. Most men who grow playoff beards do it in this spirit. It gives them something to joke about with the media to lighten the mood, something to trash-talk each other about that isn’t so weighty as the elimination games at hand. And the fans like it. Men have become fan-favorites for nothing more than the quality of their playoff beards.
However, while most players grow playoff beards because of the tradition, there are some for whom it goes deeper. We know that this is true: there are some men who dream of growing huge f*#k-off beards just for the pure hugeness and f*#k-offness of them. There are some men who wish they could go around all year long with a small badger dangling from their face, and it is only the fear of social approbation that stops them, and also they have to do a lot of work with kids and it is a known fact that small children love to yank on hugs f*#k-off beards. And so they go the whole season, dutifully shaving every week, looking mournfully into the mirrors of so many hotel bathrooms at their scraped, bare chins, dreaming of those few wonderful weeks when they can, for only a brief time, have the beard they’ve always wanted to have.
I submit to you that Joe Thornton may be one such man.
Consider Joe Thornton’s so-called playoff beard. It is, as you will doubtless have noticed already, impressive. While most men in the NHL are still at the kinda-scruffy stage, the “Todd Bertuzzi team photo” stage, if you will, Thornton has already achieved a beard of such shagginess it is suggestive of lumberjackery. Now, if you are not a Sharks fan and you are a bit gullible, you might believe that this means that Joe Thornton has an impressive level of testosterone and is able to grow facial hair at twice the rate of normal men. NO. Joe Thornton does not have superpowers. Joe Thornton is CHEATING. He started that beard weeks before playoffs. Which, I submit to you, means that it is not a playoff beard. The rules of playoff beardery are simple: the beard begins when playoffs begin and ends when playoffs end. That’s how it works. There’s an element of competition, no? To see who can grow the most remarkable specimen? And how can we judge fairly if we allow preexisting beards to enter the competition? No, Joe Thornton is not growing a playoff beard. He’s growing a huge f*#k-off beard and using the playoffs as camouflage, to keep us from asking the hard questions we would otherwise ask upon seeing a prominent hockey person sport such a thing. Because there is no non-disturbing reason that a 32-year-old man with an unobjectionable chin such as Thornton’s just starts growing an enormous beard. Consider the possibilities:
- He has suddenly developed hemophilia. Hemophilia, for those of you who do not read much about the nineteenth-century Russian aristocracy, is a blood disorder that prevents clotting. Obviously, this can be a very serious thing, as it means that rather than scabbing over a hemophiliac will just bleed and bleed and bleed, even from a small wound. Also obviously, since this applies to internal bleeding as well as external, this means that hemophiliacs are pretty much exempt from being professional hockey players. So, if Joe Thornton has developed a mysterious case of adult-onset hemophilia and is hoping to hide it from the team medical staff, he would have to stop shaving, otherwise everyone would be like, dude, your chin has been oozing blood for three straight days now, are you the lost heir of the Romanovs? And the jig would be up. Now, my esteemed colleague Jo Innes would no doubt tell you that hemophilia is a genetic disease that does not suddenly appear in 32-year-old professional athletes, but if I learned anything from House MD, it’s that anyone can develop any disease at any time. Because mold and stuff.
- He is planning to start or modify a religion. For some reason, across a variety of cultures, beards are very important for religion, and generally, the huger the better. Confucius, he only had a little beard, but then again he was more of a social philosopher than a prophet. But Jesus? Big beard. Lao Tzu? Big beard. Muhammad? No pictures of course but the authorities agree, enormous beard. Moses? Incredible beard. Look at the icons of the Catholic and Orthodox saints- it’s like an huge f*#k-off beard catalog. It is a fact: unless you are Buddha, you cannot claim religious authority of any sort without first growing a crazy-big beard. No one will believe you. Now, after a great many years of being a good player on a good team that never wins, I think it’s highly possible that Joe Thornton has developed some original ideas about the hockey gods. When he does get his hands on the big shiny, he’s going to start making appearances wearing long white robes and carrying the Cup over his head, declaiming in a mighty voice about how we have reform our errant ways lest the angry deities punish us by letting the Hurricanes win again, attracting converts across the land through the sheer force of his beard.
- He is becoming crazy. Sorry, not crazy. Joe Thornton has millions of dollars, he will never be crazy. Eccentric. He’s becoming eccentric. Because let’s face it: if you ever met a guy under 40 who just went around with a huge f*#k-off beard as an everyday thing, he was kind of eccentric. You have to be; that’s the f*#k-off part. A youngish guy who has a huge beard is a guy who honestly doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. Not that fake I-don’t-care-what-you-think that people who wear a lot of leather and big tattoos are trying to do, the sort that secretly hopes to be interpreted as badassery, but real, pure obliviousness to social mores. Guys with huge f*#k-off beards are not concerned with looking cool or impressing chicks or climbing the professional ladder, and if we’re honest with ourselves that’s 84% of what most of us think about in a given day. But these guys are thinking about other shit, like the Illuminati, or contrails, or the Nazca Lines. Big, weird things befitting big, weird beards. If this is the case, Joe Thornton’s coming Facebook meltdown is going to make Tim Thomas’s look cute.