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Spokane Chiefs continue hair-raising adventures in Western Hockey League playoffs

UPDATED: Wed., April 17, 2019, 8:11 p.m.

Spokane Chiefs forwards Kaden Hanas (15), Ethan McIndoe (10), forward Jake McGrew (8), Eli Zummack (29) and Michael King (in back) check out each other’s beards  after practice in the Arena on Wednesday. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Chiefs forwards Kaden Hanas (15), Ethan McIndoe (10), forward Jake McGrew (8), Eli Zummack (29) and Michael King (in back) check out each other’s beards after practice in the Arena on Wednesday. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Nolan Reid waited many years to play meaningful hockey games in April, so it’s a big deal to him that the Spokane Chiefs are in the Western Conference finals.

“I’ve been in the (Western Hockey League) for a long time now, and didn’t have much success at all the first couple years,” said the 20-year-old Reid, who started his WHL career with the Saskatoon Blades. “This year, going to the conference finals is something special to me, and something special to the 20-year-olds.”

And that means he finally – finally – gets to partake in a time-honored hockey tradition:

He gets to grow a playoff beard.

“I got a decent amount of hair, but I wouldn’t say that it’s spread out evenly the way I want it to be,” Reid said. “But I’d like to think it’s up there in our categories of beards on our team.”

Scan the locker room at the Arena – where the Chiefs held their final practice Wednesday before traveling to Vancouver for Game 1 against the Giants on Friday – and you won’t find a beard ranking on any walls, Reid said.

“We don’t keep track,” he said. “There’s not many guys that can really grow any facial hair, so it’s not too big of a wall.”

Jake McGrew’s beard is recognized as one of the best. Michael King and Ethan McIndoe’s are also among the fullest. But the winner?

“Zummy’s is pretty good,” 20-year-old Luc Smith said, referring to forward Eli Zummack.

“Probably Zummack,” defenseman Ty Smith agreed. “His looks good right now. It’s pretty thick. It’s really dark, so I think you notice his the most.”

As for the young guys, for the most part the clean-shaven rule of the regular season appears to have carried into the third round of the postseason.

“Becks,” Luc Smith said, referring to rookie Adam Beckman, “I think he’s got three or four hairs, and (Luke Toporowski has) got the greasiest little mustache I’ve ever seen in my life. But other than that, the other young guys don’t got too much.”

Facial hair is strictly forbidden during the regular season as a team rule, instituted because coaches and team officials want their players to look professional, in the ethos of dressing for the job you want.

“Your goal as a young Western Hockey League player is to become a pro, and for me, part of being a pro is to look the part,” coach Dan Lambert said.

But in the playoffs, the rule is not enforced, something that happens in just about every hockey locker room everywhere. The playoff beard is a tradition so ubiquitous in the sport that players struggled to trace it back to an origin.

“I’ve never really thought about that,” Reid said. “Since I was little, I’ve always seen it on the NHL and everybody doing it, and I thought it was pretty cool.”

The beards have corresponded with the Chiefs’ deepest playoff run since 2011. After dispatching the Portland Winterhawks in five games to open the playoffs, the Chiefs won the first two games in Everett and two of three in Spokane to oust the U.S. Division champions and reach the conference final.

Now they get a date with the Vancouver Giants, winners of the B.C. Division.

After last year’s abbreviated playoff run – the Chiefs lost in seven games to the Winterhawks in the opening round – this year, Lambert and assistant coach Scott Burt asked and were granted permission to join their players in the tradition.

Lambert’s contribution, grayer and more significant than his players’ facial hair, represents his first attempt at a playoff beard as a coach, he said. When he led Kelowna to a WHL championship and a runner-up finish at the Memorial Cup in 2015, he did not grow a beard.

“We made sure it was OK with the organization and we thought, you know what, let’s do something different,” Lambert said.

Now his players have embraced a strict rule: All the hair on their head must stay for the rest of the run.

“When you’re winning hockey games, you don’t wanna change anything,” Luc Smith said.

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