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Take Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. He cuts a terrifying figure on the ice, seven feet tall on skates, sliding in and out of frame like an Easter Island statue on casters. In the off-season he enjoys a spot of recreational wrestling to keep in shape. His father, Zdenek, was a Greco-Roman wrestler for Czechoslovakia at the 1976 Summer Olympics. Three years ago, when the Bruins opened their season in Prague, Zdenek Chara told the man from The Boston Globe who asked about his famous son, "What I wanted most for him was that he be honest and humble ... I told him always that there are two magic words to live by: please and thank you. These are the two words that open doors all over the world." (Thanks, Pierre.)
Even if all this hockey humility were an act or a marketing ploy, it would be a refreshing, contrarian kind of counterprogramming. In a world grown weary of celebrity complaints, modesty is a niche worth exploiting in professional sports. As a rueful Sutter put it after the Kings' Game 6 loss to San Jose on May 26, "No sense in bitchin', right? Nobody's gonna listen to you anyway."
Hockey goalies are particularly self-effacing—literally so, toiling behind their beards, which are grown beneath their masks. "I didn't really see the puck," Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist said of a save he made on a shot by the Capitals' Nick Backstrom in their opening-round series. "But fortunately the puck saw me."
After the Maple Leafs beat the Bruins 4--2 in Game 2 of their opening-round series in Boston, Toronto goalie James Reimer was asked if his lunging kick save early on might have set the tone for the game. "I don't know," Reimer said, waffleboarding the praise over the glass and out of play. "If [the pucks] hit you, they hit you."
This game of one-downs- manship has become an extracurricular competition among goalies. During the Bruins' 3--0 victory in Pittsburgh in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals last Saturday night, Boston goalie Tuukka Rask made 29 saves, many of them spectacular. In doing so, he recorded the first shutout of the Penguins since Feb. 1, 2012, and the first in Pittsburgh since April 27, 2011. "They hit three posts," he reminded reporters afterward. "I can't be that lucky every night."
Defensemen are even more defensive whenever confronted with attention or affection. When the Canadian sports network TSN asked Niklas Kronwall about that chant in Detroit—"YOU GOT KRON-WALLED!"—the Swede literally blushed.
"I heard it," Kronwall said through the hole in his beard. "I'd rather not talk about it."
So the Stanley Cup playoffs are an endurance test, administered to men who are sheepish in the spotlight. These two threads are conjoined in the woolly playoff beard, a tradition started by the Islanders in the 1980s and now a spring perennial like tulips and daffodils.
Throughout history the long beard has been the physical manifestation of a man's descent into madness (think of the tax-evading cabin dweller), his will to survive (picture Tom Hanks in Cast Away) or both (as in every New Yorker cartoon of a man going crazy beneath the lone palm tree of a desert island).
Playoff beards fall into this last category, marker of both superhuman spirit and incipient insanity. These beards come to define their wearers. Henrik Zetterberg's beard—the phrase sounds like a 19th-century expletive—is flawless, like the Red Wings' captain himself.