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Checking Out Superstitions

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TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 14: The Stanley Cup makes an appearance during a photo opportunity at the Hockey Hall Of Fame on November 14, 2011 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 14: The Stanley Cup makes an appearance during a photo opportunity at the Hockey Hall Of Fame on November 14, 2011 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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It's Friday the 13th, a day when even the biggest non-believer at least contemplates superstitions. Black cats, ladders, salt, and wood take on a whole new meaning on days like today. Sports are full of their own superstitions, with no sport being more rooted in them than hockey. The notion that some behavior can cause a certain outcome is considered misguided by many and downright nuts by some. But those involved with hockey—whether it's on the ice, behind the scenes, or in front of the television—think differently. If the team won, a superstition is born.

As silly as it seems, the behavior actually serves a purpose. Both the individual superstitions of players and the group superstitions of teams alter the psychology of the locker room in positive ways. They create focus and solidarity, qualities that are essential to winning. Sports psychologists agree that the superstitions are more akin to rituals that give players more confidence and self-esteem, both of which are integral parts of being successful.

Clearly the most well-known superstition in hockey is about keeping your hands off the trophy. The tradition of not touching the Stanley Cup goes way back in the history of the sport. To touch the Cup when you have not won it means you never will. Some players go as far as not even looking at it. The Staal brothers went to great lengths to avoid the Cup completely when brother Eric brought it home after the Hurricanes won the championship in 2006.

The Stanley Cup is not the only trophy that goes untouched, though. No really knows who was the first or even why it started, but captains of conference winning teams just know that you don't touch the Prince of Wales trophy or the Clarence S. Campbell bowl. Perhaps it's because to do so would be to accept less than the ultimate goal. Celebrate a conference win and it's like you will be satisfied with just that. Now, there have been teams to win the Cup after their captains have accepted the conference trophy. Scott Stevens of the New Jersey Devils, for example, hoisted the Prince of Wales trophy each of the three years the team won the Stanley Cup. However, there may be some credence to the belief as teams that have touched the conference trophy are 4-5 in the championships. Just look at the 2010 finals: Chicago captain Jonathan Toews didn't while Philadelphia captain Mike Richards did. Remember how that turned out?

Playoff beards. When the playoffs start, the members of 16 teams put away their razors for as long as they possibly can. They withstand the itchy, scratchy mess because it's the playoffs. It's the post-season. It's the Cup. This tradition started with the 1979-1980 New York Islanders when they won the first of four straight Stanley Cups. No one knows for sure why this group of players decided to forego shaving during the playoffs, but it might have something to do with the two Swedes on the team: Stefan Persson and Anders Kallur. In 1976, Swedish tennis star Björn Borg stopped shaving at the start of each Wimbledon Tournament. He won five consecutive titles. Perhaps the hockey players believed that tradition could help them too. As it seemed to work, other teams followed suit until the ritual got to where it is today.

There are deeper reasons behind the playoff beard, even if it is subconscious for those who do it (fans included). Andrew Podnieks named a few of those reasons in his book Hockey Superstitions: From Playoff Beards to Crossed Sticks and Lucky Socks. The beards bond a team together. When the members make a commitment to the beard in support of the team, they make a commitment to each other. They also make a bold statement to the world that, right now, hockey is the most important thing to them. Looking good, comfort, even family all take a back seat to hockey. For most men, beards are not all that fun. They are absolutely annoying and bothersome. Thus the willingness to suffer through that discomfort can be viewed a symbol of a player's willingness to suffer in greater and more painful ways. We've seen teeth and blood, and still he plays through it. We hear of the broken bones that were suffered in silence until the run was over. The beard shows everyone that physical pains don't mean anything when the Cup is on the line.

Don't step on the logo. Just don't do it. All NHL teams' locker rooms have their respective logos in the middle of the room. You walk around it. To do otherwise is to bring bad luck. There's a deeper issue surrounding this practice, though. To step on the logo is to degrade it, disrespect it. The logo is what joins the team together, and it must be revered. It's the heart of a team, and you don't dare stomp on its heart.

Players have their superstitions, too. Some of them are incredibly strange, but they are important nonetheless. Ask just about any hockey player, and he or she will tell you that the equipment goes on in the same order every time. From left side to right side, from this piece of equipment to that one, the rituals may be different than the person in the next stall, but the ritual serves the same purpose. It focuses the player on the game ahead. Routines are calming; they bring us into the familiar. Players use that time to regroup their energy and direct it toward the things they need to do when they hit the ice.

This kind of ritual goes even further. Players will eat the same meal at the same time before every game. They will tape their sticks in the same way every time. Some players actually tape their stick, remove the tape, and tape it again—every single time. They put them in the same spot, they hold them the same way, they use the same one. It all comes back to familiarity. It breeds comfort and comfort creates confidence.

All of these superstitions or rituals or whatever you want to call them are designed for one purpose: winning the game. If the players have to enter the ice in a certain order every game, so be it. It, like all the other things they do, brings the team together, strengthens their focus, and elevates their belief in themselves. They're a part of life in hockey, as big of a role as anything. They bond the hockey world together, tying the fans and players and coaches and suits together into one big family. For that, we should be proud of our superstitions. And thankful.

References (and specific examples, like a bag of elephant dung for the Penguins):