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NHL Beard-A-Thon: Grow one for the team and yes, your whisker-inspired donations are tax deductible

I attended my first professional hockey game in 1981. The hubby and I were living in Washington, D.C. (yes, the city proper, a basement apartment near Capitol Hill) and he wanted to introduce me to another sports first.

Thirty years ago that summer I had already attended my first Major League Baseball game, at now-gone Memorial Stadium in Baltimore to see the Orioles, still my favorite MLB American League team. Sorry Texas Rangers, but you know how it is with first loves.

When fall rolled around, it was time for a trip to the Maryland suburbs and the Capital Centre (now also demolished) to see the then woeful Caps.

I immediately fell in love with hockey.

Believe me, I was just as surprised as anyone that a gal from hot, arid West Texas would share an immediate connection with the sports passion of millions in the True North, strong and free.

But it truly was sports love at first sight.

For my birthday, the hubby presented me (us) with Caps' season tickets. One good thing about the team being so bad was that prime seats were available. We snagged two on the aisle, 12 rows up, at the blue line in the zone where the Capitals scored (or tried to) for two of the three periods, with a great view  of the penalty boxes.

When I was personally introduced to the NHL, the dominant team was the New York Islanders. It was a big deal for everyone, but especially me as a new fan, when Ken Morrow, John Tonelli, Clark Gillies, Denis Potvin, Bobby Nystrom and Billy Smith, part of a team that won four consecutive Stanley Cup trophies in the early '80s, took the ice.

I still remember my first glimpse of the then champs, Nystrom's blond locks flowing as he zipped around. I sat there, mouth agape, then turned to the hubby to note, "they move the puck by kicking it to each other!" Did I mention the Caps pretty much sucked back then?

Our timing was pretty darn good. Not only did we get great seats, but just two years later, they were in much demand. The Capitals made their first playoff appearance and we saw first-hand a hockey tradition, the playoff beard.

The story goes that it was the Islanders who came up with the idea of growing their beards during the playoffs. The superstition holds that every player must let his whiskers go until the team loses or hoists Lord Stanley's piece of hardware. 

Since the Islanders started the practice, beard growing has become the norm in nearly every North American hockey arena at playoff time, from college (and some high schools with lax dress codes and hirsute young men) to the minor leagues to the NHL. The trend has even spread to other sports.

But we hockey fans know the beards began on ice.

: Washington Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau instructs players in the closing seconds of their defeat of the New York Rangers in Game 5 of their NHL Eastern Conference quarter-final hockey game in Washington April 23, 2011. REUTERS/Molly Riley (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT ICE HOCKEY)
 -- (Washington, D.C., April, 23, 2011) Washington Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau instructs players in the closing seconds of their NHL Eastern Conference quarterfinal series clinching victory over the New York Rangers.

And now fans can participate, to support not only their favorite NHL team, but also programs in their local communities.

Thirteen NHL teams have partnered this year with Beard-A-Thon to "Grow One for the Teams" and help raise money for charity. The concept is simple. Sign up and volunteer to grow a beard during the playoffs. 

Then encourage friends and family to pledge an amount per day that your whiskers are left untouched by a razor. Or you can make a flat donation. 

This year's participating teams and the nonprofits to which charitable contributions go are the:

Boston Bruins, Boston Bruins Foundation    
Buffalo Sabres, Buffalo Sabres Foundation    
Chicago Blackhawks, Chicago Blackhawk Charities    
Detroit Red Wings, Detroit Red Wings Foundation    
Los Angeles Kings, Kings Care Foundation    
Nashville Predators, Nashville Predators Foundation
New York Rangers, The Garden of Dreams Foundation

Philadelphia Flyers, Flyers Charities    
Phoenix Coyotes, Coyotes Charities    
Pittsburgh Penguins, The Mario Lemieux Foundation  
San Jose Sharks, Sharks Foundation
Tampa Bay Lightning, Lightning Foundation    
Washington Capitals, Washington Capitals Charities

And yes, despite hockey's origin, those are all U.S. based teams and charities.

But don't despair, neighbors to the north! I swear we're not trying to take your game and goodwill, too! You can participate, in English or French, via the Canadian Beard-A-Thon effort, which is in conjunction with the NHL Players Association and benefits Canada's Heart and Stroke Foundation.

My_NHL_playoff_beard The Canadian site even lets those of us who can't grow a beard do so virtually.

In addition to the official Beard-A-Thon websites, which keep track of how the participating teams and their charities are doing ($206,467 raised in the United States just before I posted this; $44,335 for the Canadian charity), you can follow the hairy effort on Facebook and via @Beardathon on Twitter.

Sadly for some fans, more NHLers are today clean shaven. But you still can contribute.

And because the money goes to the teams' official, and IRS-qualified, philanthropic organizations, your gift, with or without facial hair, is tax deductible on your 2011 taxes as long as you itemize.

The Canadian donation/tax break system is very similar.

So get to growing that beard and giving to your favorite National Hockey League team's charity.

And Let's Go Caps!

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