a hundred years hirsute: the nhl’s first moustache (and other moustaches)

Lanny McDonald and Moustache: “Put a handle on it and you could clean your driveway.”

Start with Andy Blair. Talking hockey moustaches, you had to start with him: for a long time in the early years of the NHL, his Toronto Maple Leaf lip was the only one in the entire loop to be adorned with any growth of hair. Or so we thought. Turns out hockey wasn’t quite so clean-shaven as we were led to believe. In fact, Blair wasn’t even the first Toronto player to skate mustachioed. Puckstruck exclusive: the NHL’s first recognized moustache made its debut as early as the league’s second season.

Jack Adams was the man to wear it. Better known for his later (smooth-faced) exploits as coach and general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, Adams was an accomplished player in his time, too, of course, winning two Stanley Cups in the NHL’s first decade. The first of those came in the spring of 1918 with Toronto.

It was when he returned to the team — now the Arenas — later that year that he changed his look. We have just a single source on this so far, but it’s persuasive: Adams, an astute Toronto reporter took note, boasted

a tooth brush decoration on his upper lip. You’ve gotta get pretty close to Jack to see it, as he is a blonde.

Andy Blair’s moustache was much more distinctive, not to mention very well documented. A Winnipeg-born centreman, Blair made his NHL debut in 1928. As best we can trace, he came into the league smooth-faced. The evidence isn’t conclusive but as far as we know he did get growing until the early 1930s.

When we think of classic Leafian moustaches, it’s Lanny McDonald’s full-frontal hairbrush that comes to mind, or maybe Wendel Clark’s fu manchu. Blair’s was trim. A teammate, Hap Day, described it as “a little Joe College-type.” Trent Frayne preferred “Charlie Chaplin.” It even rates a mention in Blair’s biography in the Hockey Hall of Fame register of players — even though it didn’t survive the end of his NHL career.

After eight seasons with the Leafs, Blair and his laden lip went to Chicago in 1936 for a final fling with the Black Hawks. Blair, at least, lasted the year: “I see the boys got together and made him shave off his Clark Gable moustache,” former Leafs teammate Charlie Conacher noted that year. “That is something more than we could get him to do when he played in Toronto.” The story goes that it disappeared under duress: only after his Chicago teammates repeatedly threatened to do the job forcibly did Blair get around to shaving the moustache away.

Lucky for Blair that it hadn’t happened sooner: like his Canadiens counterpart Pit Lepine, Conacher actually headed up a fervent anti-moustache campaign through the ’30s. Well, maybe that’s a bit strong: Conacher was a paid pitchman through for Palmolive Shave Cream (Giant Size Double Quantity 40 cents!). I don’t doubt that he used the stuff himself. I do wonder whether he actually said, of his own free will, “Palmolive knocks my whiskers for a goal every time I use it.”

It was another Leaf who picked up where Blair left off, though it took a few years. In the fall of 1945, The Globe and Mail introduced rookie defenceman Garth Boesch as the man sporting “the most impressive crop of lip foliage in a major hockey dressing room since Andy Blair.” Columnist Bobbie Rosenfeld was willing to go even further: if you left the Calder Trophy voting for NHL rookie-of-the-year to women, and Boesch would win hands (face?) down. “That Garth moustache,” she wrote, “which is a la Caesar Romero, has the femmes swooning every time the Leafs’ defence star steps on the ice.”

“I started growing it when I was 18 and I still have it,” Boesch told the Globe’s Paul Patton in 1975, when Boesch was 54. Red Dutton was supposed to have watched him as a young prospect, declaring, “With that moustache, he’s got two strikes against him before he starts.”

“I never heard that,” Boesch said. “Nobody ever complained to me.” He was proud to say he never lost a tooth in his five years playing in the NHL. He did acquire an honest share of stitches, though. “Lots on my lower lip, but never on my upper lip. I always had a big nose and I guess it protected my moustache.”

After Boesch, the NHL went smooth-faced for years. Such was Canadiens’ coach Toe Blake’s contempt for moustaches in the 1960s that he’d meet the Montreal press corps with shaving brush in hand, face lathered in cream. In 1967, things got so bad that a company called Sunbeam took out full-page ads in newspapers across Canada to crow about the Great Shaving Race, pitting five of the NHL’s best goaltenders against one another. Terry Sawchuk was there, Ed Giacomin, Gump Worsley, all dressed up in full gear, a day’s growth on their faces, overseen by NHL trainers. When they each put their blades to work, none of them could keep up with Johnny Bower and his Shavemaster Shaver 777 with its smooth-as-silk series-wound motor stroking over two-million shaving actions.

In 1972, Canada faced the Soviets with just a single moustache in the line-up, Mickey Redmond’s, and the clean-shaven approach didn’t seem to hinder them too much. Things were changing in hockey, though, and by the time another Team Canada suited up to take on the CCCP in 1974, nine of our guys were sporting a layer on their lip, including both of (moustacheless) Gordie Howe’s boys, Mark and Marty.

Clarence Campbell feared the worst. For him, moustaches were part of a bigger problem afflicting the new generation of hockey player, and he wasn’t going to stand for it. No, sir. “I may be going against the tide,” he railed in 1971, “but I intend to try hard to keep the good clean image of hockey.” It wasn’t just moustaches — what he saw as a new, virulent “permissiveness” included not getting a haircut often enough, smoking, and “swinging” lifestyles. “You’ll notice that the stars don’t need the long hair and so on,” he grumbled, “not Howe or Béliveau or the others.”

No account of hirsute hockey can go too far without bringing in Derek Sanderson: it’s just not possible. When he first showed up at Boston’s training camp in 1968 wearing sideburns, Bruins’ GM Milt Schmidt said he felt sick just looking at them. “Sanderson,” he commanded, “cut those things off!”

“Don’t worry about how I wear my hair,” is what Sanderson says he replied, in his autobiography. “How I play hockey is all you’ve got to worry about.”

Sanderson played well, over the years; he also lived well. For a while in the early ’70s, he was the highest-paid athlete in professional sports. The moustache he added became as famous as he did: “a Turkish brigand moustache,” one admirer called it. Though at least one coach, Tom Johnson, tried to make him shave it.

“If I thought my hair or moustache interfered with my game,” Sanderson writes, “I’d have shaved both right off. I would have done anything for the good of hockey, because I owe everything to the game, but my hair wasn’t about to hurt my performance.”

Later, when Sanderson was thinking about signing as a free agent with New York, one of his dealbreaking questions was whether he’d be allowed to keep his moustache as a Ranger.

No problem: GM Emile Francis was cool with it.

What can you say about hockey moustaches of the 1970s? Mostly you just have to celebrate them — maybe by naming their greatest practitioners? Dave Schultz, Henry Boucha, Pierre Bouchard, John Wensink, Rick MacLeish are a few. Don’t forget legendary Philadelphia coach Fred Shero. Rogie Vachon had a “buccaneer’s moustache.” Harold Snepsts’ was magnificent enough that 24 years after the journeyman defenceman retired from the NHL, his moustache has inspired a Twitter account, @snepstssstache.

Orest Kindrachuk was a Philadelphia rookie in 1974 when Montreal newspaper described him as “pear-shaped” with a “Hitlerian” ’stache — and that was from an admiring reporter.

Steve Vickers of the New York Rangers had been cultivating a ’stache in 1976, until he ran into a scoring slump. “I’ve been behind in my goal production this season,” he said on a Wednesday. “Tuesday, I shaved my moustache to change my luck and the team’s luck.” Seemed to work: not only did the Rangers beat the Islanders and Capitals in quick succession, in the latter win Vickers notched three goals and four assists.

Dave Bidini is someone who’s thought about that era and hockey’s finest fu manchus. “In the ’70s,” he writes in Tropic of Hockey. “It personified hockey’s ass-kicking attitude. Wendel Clark of the Maple Leafs wore the last hockey fu. Before him: Dave Keon, Turk Sanderson, Bob Gassoff, Jack McIlhargey. Tough dudes. The fu was confrontational facial hair.”

“Back then, everybody looked like a porn star,” Kindrachuk told Ken Reid for his book Hockey Card Stories (2014). “I mean, not just our team, but take a look at the pictures back then: long hair, moustache, the whole bit.”

“I had lots of players tell me it was cool,” Dennis Maruk recently reminisced at slapshotdiaries.com. “I designed it with nice, big, thick handlebars. That was part of my makeup or who I was, so I just kept it. I was a little guy and was probably never supposed to make it in the NHL, but I played 14 years and had a great career even though I was on some pretty weak teams. But the moustache made me look like a scrappy, tough guy and it went along with the way I played. It was working out well, so I kept it.

Call Lanny McDonald’s moustache what you want — “bushy,” “handlebar,” “unruly red” — it might as well be a logo for the Calgary Flames, the team he led to a Stanley Cup victory in 1989. “Put a handle on it,” a wry reporter once wrote, “and you could clean your driveway.” Histories of the Flames sometimes dispense with his name altogether, just call him “The Moustache.” It’s been cited along with Tom Selleck’s and Salvador Dalí’s as one of the “most influential moustaches in history,” which is impressive, so long as you don’t pause too long to consider what influence a moustache might have to exert. And okay, so someone has got Lanny’s on Twitter, too (@LannysMoustache), though it doesn’t seem to have as much to say there. Don Cherry recalls that as a player, McDonald used to play jokes on customs agents at airports, barking to fool them into thinking that there was a dog in his luggage. He didn’t have to be much of a ventriloquist: his moustache was so voluminous, no-one could see his lips moving.

I’d like to know what McDonald, or Andy Blair, thinks about the new-look Leafs and their mandate to go smooth-shaven. That was the order that came down from new GM Lou Lamoriello when he joined the team in 2015: no beards or moustaches or long hair. Lamoriello didn’t like the fuss that kicked up in the press about this. “I think everyone is overplaying it,” he said at the time. To him, it was just part of the process of instilling a winning attitude in Toronto. “We wanted to get a team, everybody together, everybody doing similar things and thinking along the same way.”

Two years later, the no-moustache Leafs sit atop the NHL’s Eastern Conference standings, second only to Tampa Bay.

A version of this post appeared previously on lockerroomdoctor.com.

(Hockey card images: hockeyMedia & The Want List)