GLENDALE, Ariz. – Professional athletes are naturally competitive – and it doesn't much matter what they're competing in. A game of cards. Balancing hockey sticks on index fingers. Who can eat the most crackers without a sip of water?
So as the Phoenix Coyotes prepare to take part in the Western Conference final for the first time in franchise history, the time-honored tradition of growing playoff beards in the name of team unity is the latest competitive sport.
Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said when he coached in Dallas, defenseman Sergei Zubov "could grow a beard in a day." He loves the playoff tradition and the bonding that comes with it.
"It's a rite of passage. The further you go the scruffier you get and the meaner you look," Tippett said. "They all look like grizzly old veterans – other than the young guys who are having trouble. But even the scraggily ones are alright."
Several Coyotes vets – Raffi Torres, Adrian Aucoin, Derek Morris -- have had no trouble sprouting some impressive facial hair. This isn't their first postseason rodeo, and their whiskers know the way. For younger guys like Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Mikkel Boedker, and baby-face vets like Radim Vrbata, it's a different story. Vrbata shortened his to a goatee in the first round, which was met with some eye rolls.
"It's terrible. It looks like a Just for Men [advertisement], that little rat thing he's got going there," goalie Jason LaBarbera said. "He'd be better off with some peach fuzz on his cheeks because that goatee is pretty painful."
There is a ringer in the house as well. Defenseman David Schlemko and Keith Yandle have the best beards among the young guys -- but Schlemko got a head start growing his in the winter, which has resulted in complaints lodged about his eligibility.
"Schelmmer definitely cheated a little bit because he started early. But his is super dark," Yandle said. "It looks like … remember that game you had as a kid ["Wooly Willie"] when you dragged the magnet [filings] on the guys face? His is really dark and really awesome, so I'll take second place.
"He's a Western League guy, so I think he's a lumberjack in the summer."
Schlemko admitted to getting head start, but the impressive growth has its own drawbacks.
"I've been noticing a lot of food stuck in there," he said. "I need a few more napkins with every meal, that's for sure. But it comes with the territory"
Others agree that what's good for the ice isn't necessarily good at home. Captain Shane Doan's beard, which got off to an embarrassingly slow start, has caught fire and is well into the dreaded ‘itchy stage.' He now refers to it as "an extra head of hair" -- and his wife and kids aren't on board.
"It's like an extra head of hair," he said. "[Trainer] Stan [Wilson] suggested using a comb that helps with the itchiness, so I might have to try that in some spots that are starting to take off. I am filling in a little.
"The kids think it's hilarious, but no one wants to be kissed anymore," he added. "The kiss goodnight is out the window for right now. That's the downside."
Yandle's young daughter, on the other hand, finds daddy's new addition fascinating, constantly exploring with her fingers. But it's not all good at the Yandle house as the temperature is expected to top 100 degrees for Game 1 against the Los Angeles Kings on Sunday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TSN).
"The first four or five minutes every day, you're just trying to get the stench out of it," Yandle admitted. "Luckily everything is [air-conditioned] here – the house, the car, the rink – and as you can tell from my tan I don't spend too much time outside.
"But it's fun to get the reactions of people you haven't seen in a while when they see it. It's a great hockey tradition, and it's great to keep it going."
Author: Jerry Brown | NHL.com Correspondent
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