Of course they asked about the beard. Everybody asks about the beard.
Hi, Eliot! Pleasure to meet you! How often does food get stuck in there?
It’s a magnificent beard, no doubt, the unkempt type where birds could roost, and flipped upside down it might make a dandy replacement hat for the royal guards at Buckingham Palace. Born of a bet and raised into a reputation, the beard flew with Eliot Antonietti this week, from their native Switzerland to Washington Capitals development camp, at its bushiest for the chance to impress some NHL folks. It was their first time visiting North America.
Beards play well stateside too, most of all in rinks, so Antonietti must have figured it would do what it’s always done: Attract attention, field some questions, pose for photos, become the main reason everyone recognized him. In that case, the events of Wednesday afternoon should have come as little shock, when after a third day on the ice he finally met the media and, about midway through, a reporter steered the conversation toward his face.
(It was me. The reporter was me.)
The growth began with a wager between Antonietti and a teammate with Geneve-Servette, a team in Switzerland’s top league. There wasn’t much at stake, a simple contest of hirsute endurance, Antonietti with his beard and the friend with the hair on his head. No cuts until the Spengler Cup, the annual Swiss tournament that draws national teams, colleges and clubs from across the world. That was the goal.
Before the Spengler Cup, which Geneve-Servette won last December, the teammate backed away from the bet and cut his hair. Antonietti was left with a decision. He had won. Now what?
“Now I like it,” he said. “It’s part of my personality. When you say Eliot, it’s always, ‘Ah the big guy with the beard.’ It’s me.”
Antonietti began his interview session by asking reporters speak slowly, because his English was lacking. Then for 10 minutes he discussed, in perfectly fine English, the expectations that hound defensemen of his stature (6-feet-6), his desire to one day leave Switzerland to live somewhere new, the friendliness and cleanliness of the United States and whether he uses special beard shampoo.
He does not.
Coming off an eight-point season over 46 games, Antonietti signed a contract extension to stay in Geneva for three more years. But after the surprise wore off from receiving his Capitals camp invitation, he came here thinking this could be his chance. Maybe not in Washington, but somewhere.
“I re-signed, but everything is open for me,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going on after this camp. I don’t want to say I’m going to go there or I’m going to be in Geneva. Just take my time. I will see.
“Yeah, if I have the chance, if I can move in America, it’s a great experience for me. I don’t want to stay in Geneva … I want to see something else and try a new experience.”
In North America, if that new experience indeed happens here, Antonietti might be asked to adopt a new role. He is a massive man in any league – only 23 NHL players on current rosters are 6-feet-6 or taller – and an imposing one at that. But in Europe they do not fight. Antonietti has fought before, sure. Just not on a regular basis.
“All the people think the big guy has to be tough, has to be a fighter,” he said. “When I watch the game in the NHL, I think the game’s just changed. We have now good defensemen can move, have good mobility, great shot. If you…just make check and fight, I don’t know if you really help the team. Every year the game is changing, so now it’s kind of not big defensemen, but mobile.”
For this, Antonietti looks toward Zdeno Chara, the tallest player in NHL history. At Capitals camp, thanks to daily instruction from power skating coaches, Antonietti has learned the difficulties of skating low for someone his size. But he sees Chara utilizing his reach as an advantage.
“If you’re big, if you’re tall like me or Chara, you’re not the fastest guy on the ice, but you have to work with your potential,” he said. “We are tall, so we can use more the checks, stuff like this, maybe to punch the guy in the corner — or push the guy.”
Maybe that last portion was twisted in translation, but there are things about northern Virginia that feel familiar to Antonietti. The buildings are tall, as they are in Geneva. The people seem nice, as they were when Antonetti didn’t ship his hockey sticks from Switzerland and everyone he asked here offered to help find a store.
“And it’s really clean,” he said. “I’m impressed of that.”
Which brings us back to his beard, the impressive, bird’s-nest beard, the only noticeable one growing among the teenagers and 20-somethings skating this week alongside Antonietti. Several players are only one inch shorter, and others have more experience, though Antonietti’s 108 games in the top Swiss league are nothing to scoff at. But only one carried playoff-worthy facial hair into the thick of summer. Only one got questioned about beard shampoo. Only one can make his Twitter background a picture of Hagrid from the “Harry Potter” movies and have it seem perfectly him.