There’s been a fabulous first round of the playoffs going on the last couple weeks. Perhaps you’ve been watching. Fast-paced action, beautiful passing, and chanting crowds. Or perhaps you’ve been watching the NBA playoffs. Once again, the NHL playoffs are proving to be the best thing about April and May. Once again, most of the country can’t be bothered to watch, or isn’t capable of watching. Many of the NHL’s first round games aren’t televised at all in America (the only place that matters), and the remainder are broadcast almost exclusively on the channel formerly known as OLN (most famous for its coverage of the America’s Cup?).
With many rising stars like Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, and Steven Stamkos (just look him up, I swear that’s a real person), and full arenas once again becoming more commonplace, the NHL has a chance to once again truly earn its spot as one of the “Big 4” sports. And yet the league’s commissioner, the baby-faced former David Stern-underling Gary Bettman, just signed his league into cable TV purgatory with a 10-year (albeit more lucrative than previous) deal with Versus.
How could this be possible? How could a league with such a superior product be relegated into a backseat as compared to the NBA? The same NBA that takes three weeks to finish off a first round playoff series. The same NBA where questionable calls dog almost every series and referees shape the outcome of the game far more than the average fan would like. The only logical conclusion is that ESPN and the networks in general, and perhaps even Gary Bettman himself, have determined that a sport like hockey that features such a large number of beards will never appeal to a mainstream audience.
The playoff beard, a ritual as old as the game itself, is grown with great devotion by almost every player on the team. And a deep run into the semis of finals can produce some incredibly beautiful and manly, if not garish, results. Unfortunately, this sort of terrific tradition is frowned upon in certain segments of society, most notably the highbrow snobbish cafes and villas frequented by media moguls and sports commissioners. I am a firm believer that a return to regular network and ESPN programming would prove a winner for all involved; give the people a chance to see the current wide-open and NHL and they will flock to it in numbers. If you don’t believe me, look to the capacity crowds and expanding young fan bases in cities like Tampa and Raleigh. Free the NHL!
Growing a playoff beard is a tremendous individual accomplishment, to be sure, but the overall value of a team donning uniform facial fur is greater. NHL teams have been using the playoff beard as a sign of solidarity and a symbol of teamwork and harmony for years. Well, now, it appears, teams in the NBA have noticed and are mimicking the trend in Memphis and Orlando. Players for both the Grizzlies and the Magic players pledged not to shave until they clinched a playoff spot or until the end of the season, respectively. In both cases, and it looks like the beards worked. The Magic went 11-5 before clinching on April 1st, and were so delighted at the results that they decided to keep the beards going, tying their growth into a “Fear the Beard” campaign. Unfortunately, things haven’t gone so well since then, as the Magic now spilled to the Hawks. The likely culprit: coach Stan Van Gundy, who elected to keep his trademark Ron Jeremy-mustache in favor of supporting his players. Bad move Stan.
The Grizz went 12-7 to close the season, but are now in position to Golden State the Spurs out of the playoffs based largely on the beards of OJ Mayo and Shane Battier (it should be noted that Memphis coach Lionel Hollins went with the flow and sported some facial growth along with the rest of the team). Those two beards are truly a thing of beauty. I admit, if I was on the Spurs I might play as distracted as they’ve looked in these first five games if I was trying to guard a man that well groomed. Not even the Red Rocket’s ginger stubble has yet been able to turn around the play of the Spurs, but the series ain’t over ‘til it’s over. It’s pretty much undisputed, however, that the Grizzlies have raised their level of play, and I’d be hard-pressed not to give the beards their due in that regard.