The (mostly untrue) story of NHL playoff traditions
From beards to octopi, secret group behind every tradition past, present and future
Why does the National Hockey League have the public under a spell for three months? Why has a winter sport like hockey transcended its season and claimed ownership of the spring?
In a word? Beards. Maybe even 'octopi.'
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My question led me to a non-descript office building in downtown Toronto, the clandestine home to what is considered by some to be the secret weapon in selling the game of hockey, particularly south of the border. The birthplace of the NHL's playoff traditions and their producers — the Stanley Cup Playoff Tradition Competition Committee.
Upon my arrival in the lobby, two men wearing long white coats and both sporting Lanny McDonald-style moustaches approach me.
While ushering me toward a set of elevators, Lanny No. 1 "jersey'd" me and spun me around in a circle several times as Lanny No. 2 entered a code into the elevator, apologizing for the treatment.
"Just a security measure," he growled.
Following the disorientation treatment and a short elevator ride, they marched me to a door and motioned for me to proceed without them, telling me the head of the SCPTCC, Dr. Paul Rondelle, would be out shortly.
Taking the opportunity to examine my surroundings and re-adjust my tie-down, I noticed I was in a great hall where, under magnificent glass cases, were symbols of the committee's past accomplishments: a white towel from the Vancouver Canucks Stanley Cup run in 1982; a rubber rat from Florida in 1996; an octopi in what looked like a formaldehyde solution (or a sample from the Detroit River); and the newest selection, a microscope slide featuring the remnants of Sidney Crosby’s 2008 playoff beard.
"Quite the specimen, eh?"
Rondelle is a short, stocky balding man with an impish grin. After exchanging pleasantries, I ask what exactly it is that his group does for the game.
"It may not look like it from the outset, but the game of hockey is not built on a mish-mash of speed, brute strength and poetry played out upon a frozen pad of water. To grab attention, to truly get an audience locked in, you must create circumstances that seem to have nothing to do with the game of hockey whatsoever.
"And then repeat them. Over and over."
Rondelle shows me a series of complicated pie charts and graphs featuring stats regarding things like "7th inning stretch," "Halftime Show" and "Ole, Ole, Ole Sing Along" (which curiously has a checkmark next to it).
"It gets the fans involved," Rondelle says. "Wearing a team's sweater, going to games, that just scratches the surface. [Traditions are] the perfect polygamous marriage of sports enthusiasm, marketing and sheer ridiculousness."
But how does it come about that fans in Detroit get whipped into a frenzy at the sight of an octopus? Why do men grow beards in spring that oft resemble the state of their lawn at that time of year? It seems every single tradition has been concocted by 'The Committee.'
Rondelle says the shadowy group has been there since the very first Game 1 — planting the seeds of the rituals many see as second nature.
"We were responsible for the theft of all the razors from the dressing room, houses and barbershops across Long Island when the Islanders started their dynasty in the 1980s. Bryan Trottier would never have been half as appealing to the American public without that ‘stache."
Which brings us to this year's newly minted tradition — a twist on the ultimate classic, the playoff beard — the Patrick Kane mullet.
"Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr were the first champions to champion the 'business in the front, party in the back' look, but it has been almost two decades since it appeared in the playoffs," Rondelle says. "We’ve descended upon the United Center to set up 'Make Mine A Mullet' booths to capitalize on what could be come a long standing tradition."
Make Mine A Mullet
How was it that Patrick Kane relented into sporting such a 'questionable' hairstyle?
"The lack of facial hair production of Mr. Kane … is really the case of a negative spun into a positive by us here at the Committee. The tough part was breaking into his hotel room and shaving the sides of his head." — Dr. Paul Rondelle
Other ideas in the works for future post-season campaigns? Rondelle says his team is hard at it conjuring up new random things to get ratings through the roof for each team in the U.S. market. Take the Predators, for example.
"We think Nashville is set to make a deep [playoff] run next year," Rondelle says. "What better way to cement a franchise than to combine their mascot with Nashville’s rich musical history?
"We're working on getting the go-ahead to outfit local stray cats with miniature guitars and cowboy hats and release them both in the Sommet Center during games and the streets of Music City to corral that playoff atmosphere."
He then produced a banner emblazoned with the slogan "Catch Predators Scratch Fever!"
"Patent pending," Rondelle says.
This perhaps less-than-stellar idea of equipping possibly feral cats with guitars brings up the question of other failed playoff traditions — namely handing out Lady Liberty torches to New York Rangers fans in 1994.
"Hindsight is 20/20," Rondelle says. "Who really knew that people would light them and, in turn, set other fans ablaze? Just glad we were able to put out [Canucks backup goalie] Kay Whitmore before things got ugly."
As we wrap up and Rondelle escorts me out, I spot a Suggestion Box teaming with little folded pieces of paper. I pick a couple up of the floor — both etched with the same Sans Serif 12 point font: "Move the loser of the Cup final to Hamilton. — JB in KW."
"It's a great idea," Rondelle says. "But the thing is, hockey and its traditions have never been stronger in Canada."
Justin Piercy is a writer for CBCSports.ca but would trade it all for a Lanny McDonald-style moustache. He would also like you to know this is the only time he has ever written a story he wishes was true.