Scott Hartnell is bringing back the beard. This time it will be for a cause close to his heart.
As chairman of the NHLPA's inaugural beard-a-thon campaign to benefit the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the Philadelphia Flyers forward will once again let his unruly facial hair grow during the playoffs.
Hartnell had a memorable playoff beard a year ago—a Facebook page was started in its honour—but that isn't the only thing that made him a natural choice to lead the campaign. He is an eager participant in the initiative because his mother, Joy, survived a stroke in 2001.
"I'll never forget it," Hartnell recalled in a recent interview. "It's almost like it happened yesterday, those scary images when something happens to someone you love the most. Just seeing mom—she was so active and so healthy. ... To see her take a blow like this, it just set her back about 100 steps.
"It was pretty shocking and scary, we didn't know if she was going to come through it. She did it and I've never seen anyone work as hard as her and put as much dedication in her rehab."
The stroke came without warning.
A teacher's assistant at a high school in Lloydminster, Alta., Joy showed up for work one life-altering day with a "funny headache" and ended up collapsing. Scott, then a teenager with one NHL season under his belt, made his way to the hospital unsure what to expect.
"It's scary," he said. "One day you're here and the next day you might be gone."
Fortunately, Joy Hartnell is a fighter.
"I was paralyzed all down the left side," she said. "I had to learn to walk, talk and get my mobility back. Scott came home and all my family, and they cheered me on.
"I've had to battle real hard to get my mobility back."
The NHLPA's initiative will help the Heart and Stroke Foundation purchase defibrillators for arenas and communities across Canada. A number of NHLers will join Hartnell by growing beards during the playoffs that will be featured on www.beardathon.ca and www.nhlpa.com—websites where fans can support the cause by making a pledge for their favourite player or posting photos of their own beards and soliciting donations.
Boston's Patrice Bergeron, Detroit's Daniel Cleary, Vancouver's Dan Hamhuis and Tampa's Martin St. Louis are among those who have also joined the cause.
"Contributions from our donors over the course of the 2011 playoffs will go a long way towards ensuring we create a cardiac safe Canada for everyone," said Irfhan Rawji, chair of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.
Hartnell hopes his beard is still growing strong in June.
During the Flyers march to the Stanley Cup last year, it was difficult to tell where his facial hair ended and his long curly locks began. Hartnell didn't completely go clean shaven until a few days after Chicago won the championship series in six games.
"Oh my gosh, he had beard and hair," Joy said of her son. "It was a wild run."
Amazingly, Hartnell didn't find his shaggy appearance to be much of a nuisance—even when sweating during a game.
"There's different stages," he said. "The first few days are fine and then about from week one to week three it gets really itchy. Then after that it just goes everywhere. You've just got to make sure it's clean around your lips, sometimes it gets in your mouth a little bit.
"You clean those areas up and after about week three I don't even notice it at all."
The Flyers are fighting for the top seed in the Eastern Conference with a couple days left in the regular season and fancy themselves as serious Stanley Cup contenders once again.
Motivation is easy to find. Patrick Kane's overtime goal in Game 6 touched off a Stanley Cup party for the visitors in Philadelphia's home rink last June.
"It's kind of hard not to think about it," said Hartnell. "Just seeing it, I didn't watch too much of the celebration on the ice, but you could tell something was going on and I just had a sick feeling in my stomach.
"Hopefully that's us this year doing it in someone else's building or back in Philly."
Whatever happens, Joy Hartnell will be following closely along.
She is thrilled to see one of hockey's playoff traditions being used for a good cause and hopes her own experience can serve as motivation for others.
"There is life after a stroke," she said. "I am a survivor and there is good life after stroke, you just have to work hard. And Scott, keep up the good work, I'm proud of you."