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Furry Penguins? Beard-A-Thon to help raise money for the Mario Lemieux Foundation

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop
| Tuesday, April 11, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
Penguins players have varying degrees of success with their beards.
Tribune-Review
Penguins players have varying degrees of success with their beards.
Pittsburgh Penguins center Nick Bonino normally has a beard, but it got a bit longer during last year's playoff run. He didn't shave it off until after the team's victory parade on June 15, 2016.
Sydney Bauer | upgruv
Pittsburgh Penguins center Nick Bonino normally has a beard, but it got a bit longer during last year's playoff run. He didn't shave it off until after the team's victory parade on June 15, 2016.
Phil Kessel had plenty of time to grow a full and thick beard during last year's playoff run.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Phil Kessel had plenty of time to grow a full and thick beard during last year's playoff run.
Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz is normally clean-shaven, so his full, dark beard was a surprise last year.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz is normally clean-shaven, so his full, dark beard was a surprise last year.
Penguins defenseman Ian Cole achieved an Eric the Red type beard during last year's playoffs
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins defenseman Ian Cole achieved an Eric the Red type beard during last year's playoffs
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby can't really grow a great beard, but he tries. And who cares what he looks like when he's holding the Stanley Cup.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby can't really grow a great beard, but he tries. And who cares what he looks like when he's holding the Stanley Cup.
Ben Diaz from the Art of Shaving at Ross Park Mall shaves the playoff beard of Pittsburgh Penguins center Nick Bonino in the parking lot of the Giant Eagle in Ohio Township on Friday, June 17, 2016. A crowd showed up to watch Bonino shed the beard, raising money for The Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Ben Diaz from the Art of Shaving at Ross Park Mall shaves the playoff beard of Pittsburgh Penguins center Nick Bonino in the parking lot of the Giant Eagle in Ohio Township on Friday, June 17, 2016. A crowd showed up to watch Bonino shed the beard, raising money for The Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation.

It is crunch time for the National Hockey League. The Penguins begin the quest to defend the Stanley Cup on Wednesday against the Columbus Blue Jackets and players and fans get ready for another hair-raising competition — the playoff beard.

The playoff beard traces its origins to the early 1980s. The New York Islanders grew their way to four consecutive Stanley Cup championships. The playoff beard is, and will always be, a hockey tradition, according to beardathon.com, created by Match Marketing Group based in Buffalo, N.Y.

It's a tradition at all levels — from professional to amateur to college hockey — says John Cimperman, executive vice president and chairman of the beard at Match Marketing.

The Penguins players have varying degrees of success with their beards. Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel, who sport beards during the regular season as well, will add on a few inches, while others will change their looks completely. And then there are the young players, like 22-year-old Olli Maata, who can't seem to sprout much chin hair, but still try their best.

And captain Sidney Crosby, who is unstoppable on the ice, isn't the best at the playoff beard.

“His is getting better over time,” Cimperman says. “It's like a fine wine.”

Several team members have decided to drop the razor and pick up the cause as part of Beard-A-Thon, presented by Supercuts, to help raise money for the Mario Lemieux Foundation. Players who will participate include Bonino, Ian Cole, Kessel, Matt Murray, Justin Schultz and Scott Wilson.

The foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to raising funds for cancer research and patient care, as well as Austin's Playroom Project, which creates playrooms for children and families in medical facilities.

“I've actually been growing this since Jan. 1, since our bye week,” says Cole, whose beard came in red last year. “I went down to Palm Springs, and I wanted to make sure I trimmed it up so I didn't get a beard tan when I was there. It's been growing ever since. … I was like, ‘You know what? I'm just going to let it go. I want to get a big, really good one.' Not that last year's wasn't good. But last year's ended up where this one is now, so I'm excited to see how this one is going to fill out. ... People like the redness. It has a little fiery touch to it.”

Schultz, who played in Edmonton the first three years of his career and never made it to the playoffs, says last year was his first true playoff beard experience.

“I'm going to shave it tonight and start fresh,” Schultz said after practice April 11. “That's what I did last year. I think it's fun to start growing it from the start and see where it ends up. Coler's (Ian Cole) been growing it since January. Bones (Nick Bonino) too. I think that's cheating.”

On playoff beard maintenance, Schultz says, “I just let it go. Maybe a little maintenance now and then, but I think the greasier it is, the better. It's fun. Everyone's growing them. It's cool.”

“Penguins fans have proved time and time again that they are the best fans in hockey, and they are always willing to lend their support to charitable causes like the Lemieux Foundation,” says Drew Parish, marketing director for the foundation. “The Beard-A-Thon ... allows fans to not only participate in the Penguins playoff run, but also support cancer research and patient care.”

Fans can get involved by either getting pledges while growing their own beards, starting on the first day of the playoffs, or by donating to support one of the players.

“We know that fans paint their faces and wear their jerseys, but we wanted to create another way for them to support their team, and help a great cause as well,” says Cimperman, whose company works with NHL teams to help them with promotions and ways to get fans more involved

Since the Beard-a-Thon program launched more than $3.5 million has been raised for a variety of charities across the country. So far this year, seven NHL teams are participating. The Penguins have raised the most of any club that's participated, Cimperman says.

Part of the reason for the Penguins success in such fundraisers is because of the strength of the Mario Lemieux Foundation, Cimperman says. It has such great equity and fans want to support Lemieux and help children.

“There's an emotional connection,” Cimperman says.

Pittsburgh gets nearly 1,000 fans a year to grow playoff beards. The city has had an entire suburban police department grow them, as well as a teacher whose students collected pennies in support.

Cimperman says playoff beards were cool way before everyday beards became fashionable.

Other sports try and copy the playoff beard, but it's a definitely a hockey thing, says Greg Henderson, owner of Comrades Barber Shop in Greensburg. Hockey players are superstitious, and that's why some won't even trim or groom the facial hair as long as the team's in contention.

“Some people will grow it out without touching it, while others want to keep it trimmed up during the playoffs,” Henderson says. “They determine what they want based on their level of superstition. I think a playoff beard is supposed to look a little rugged.”

There are guys who come in and ask how they can grow a beard, and Jack Abel, manager at The Art of Shaving in Ross Park Mall, tells them there isn't anything magical about it. It's all in the genetics, he says.

“It used to be you would see one out of 10 guys with facial hair, but now it's more like nine out of 10,” Abel says. “The playoff beard is not what it used to be. Look at the team during the regular season and you see some players with beards. They used to be clean shaven before growing beards at the beginning of the playoffs.”

In a promotion with Gillette after last year's Stanley Cup championship run, The Art of Shaving's barber Ben Diaz shaved Bonino's beard in front of 2,000 fans.

“Gillette made a donation to the Mario Lemieux Foundation,” Abel says. “It was a good time and raised money for a great cause. I am an old guy. I remember when only hippies wore beards. But now guys of all ages and all professions have facial hair. It's really on trend.”

And most likely will only continue to grow as long as the Penguins keep winning.

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-853-5062 or jharrop@tribweb.com.

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