Things are getting a bit hairy here in Sabres country.
No, not on the ice. In the stands.
With Daniel Briere and company in round two of the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs, fans' faces are fuzzier than Rosie O' Donnell's explanation for leaving "The View."
Those mangy facial growths so many males around town are sprouting? They're not fungal infections. Guys are growing them on purpose.
They're called playoff beards. Or, around these parts, Sabeards.
Playoff beards, if you don't already know, are believed to be lucky charms for NHL teams during the playoffs. But not the magically delicious kind of lucky charms.
It's a superstitious practice in the National Hockey League postseason for players -- and these days fans, too -- to stop shaving until their team is eliminated or wins the Stanley Cup.
This is no lucky-underwear child's play. Male hockey fans take this seriously; it's as serious a rite of passage as being shot down the first time by the cute girl.
"I have been trying to grow a playoff beard since 1994, when I was 13," says Jeff Kulpa of Buffalo. Half a lifetime later, Kulpa is sporting a beard that is "patchy, but it's the effort that counts."
For the true fan -- at least the true fan who is not follicularly challenged -- growing a playoff beard is a form of taking one for the team.
"You have to suffer for the team," says one Snyder resident with a 12 o'clock shadow.
"If they are going to be out there sweating and having beer bottles thrown at them on Long Island, it's the least we can do. Have you ever had a beer bottle thrown at you on Long Island?"
Indeed, growing a playoff beard is not just a matter of throwing the disposable BIC under the sink for a month. Even germinating a beard no longer than Justin Timberlake's brings hardship.
First, it is not easy for a guy to find something to do with that extra five minutes of personal grooming time every morning.
There's itching, for which is there no relief other than, uh, scratching.
There is the significant other's . . . kvetching, for which there is no relief other than, uh, jewelry.
And then there's the ridicule. Guys with playoff beards have made the difficult choice of luck over looks. Look around. Playoff season gives new meaning to the phrase "hair of the dog."
Guys with playoff beards often convince themselves into thinking their beards give them the rakish, rugged good looks of Brad Pitt or George Clooney, but mostly they end up looking like Shaggy on Scooby-Do. Compared to most guys, even the (cough, cough) Smith Brothers are rocking a better look.
"I'm going for a nice, thick, hearty look," says Scott Martin, a junior at Buffalo State College. "I'd like mutton chops," he says, but fears this year's growth will look like last year's, which was "straggly and really unattractive."
Damian Arraiz skirted the looks issue by getting a head start on his competitive fellow fans.
"I was in Spain and hadn't shaved for a week before the the Sabres locked up their playoff spot," he said.
"I didn't start from scratch."
He did, however, discover another problem.
"I'm not as young as I used to be," says Arraiz, who is in his 30s. "What's hard to deal with is the grays coming in."
Kulpa points out another problem. "The beard makes me look puffy. I'd say it adds 15 pounds in a photo."
If they cared to, both men could easily take care of the cosmetic issues. According to Ralph Santangelo, president of Santangelo Salon and Day Spa, men can take off the years with hair color, and can look more dashing by having their beards professionally trimmed to flatter their face shapes.
That, however would be taboo for roughly half the playoff beard population. There are two camps of Sabeard bearers. The purists forgo the blade entirely until the team is eliminated; they will not touch a single stray strand, even if it is 9 inches long and coming from the ear. Or eyebrow. Or nostril.
>Let it grow
The reformed half of the population believes that assiduous trimming of the neck (to please the boss, the golf club manager or the wife, in that order) maintains the spirit, if not the letter, of the playoff beard law. Then there are the poseurs who try to pass off their year-round goatees and soul patches as Sabeards. The less said about these guys, the better.
At this point in history, no one can say for certain when the playoff beard tradition began, but pogonologists (students of beardology) offer opinions anyway.
On the Web site Playoffbeard.com (come on, you knew someone had come up with that) Michael McKinley, author of "Hockey: A People's Guide" (McClelland & Stewart) suggests that the four-consecutive-Stanley-Cup-winning New York Islanders of the 1980s were first to employ the tonsorial talisman.
To which we reply: the New York Who?
In fact, Lord Stanley sported whiskers himself. Lore has it that the now-legendary "jug" was used to hold his Burma Shave when ol' Fred shed his playoffs beards.
Heh. We made that up.
The point is, the playoff beard is not merely superstitious, it's positively mythical. In ancient Rome, shorn beards were saved and offered up to the gods. In present-day Kaisertown, one Sabres fan's 2006 playoff beard sits in a Baggie on his refrigerator, offered up, presumably, to the god Ruff.
This guy is sick. Scary sick.