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11-11-2012, 01:21 AM
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Originally Posted by Pengo View Post
Late 80s/Early 90s designs look good, but they all look the same. What's wrong with a huge wave of creativity in the league?
You know, that's a good question worthy of a long answer.

Let's go back to the end of the Original Six. The fundamental rule of hockey aesthetics was simple: horizontal lines. Some teams had shoulder yokes, some had stripes along the hems of the jersey, the sleeves, the socks or the pants. The colors were all primary, every team but NYR used a crest on the the chest, and only the Hawks used shoulder patches. It was, in every way, a very "uniform" league. Thus the baseline for hockey jersey designs is very recognizable and has some cultural currency.

With expansion, there was an opportunity to expand the aesthetic horizons. The Blues and Penguins used slightly different shades of blue, but the other 4 teams picked secondary colors and opened up the palette. One of those teams, the Flyers, developed a look that is highly underrated when we talk about "iconic" uniforms. They shattered the horizontal-line barrier, extending the traditional yoke all the way down the arms to create a vertical line, and then went a step further by adding a diagonal line at the wrists. That was a watershed design in NHL history and other teams followed their lead to create an alternative aesthetic for the next 20 years (notably the Leafs and Rangers with their arm-length yokes, and the Pens and Barons with their horizontal wrist stripes).

Side note -- in this context, two of the most infamous sweaters in NHL history actually look like strokes of semi-accidental genius. The Canucks' "V" jerseys were an early experiment in horizontal marks on the main body of the jerseys, and the Oakland Seals' "football" look incorporated vertical lines from shoulder to armpit. Both of these were eye-stabbingly horrible uniforms in practice, but in theory they were far ahead of their time.

Back on track -- the creative forces of the league settled in for a long winter's nap after the Canucks' experiment bombed, and until the next expansion we saw nothing more than copycats and some occasionally-clever fiddling with the same 8 colors. It was a league that was extremely secure in its look, but cried out for novelty.

Then, along comes 1991 and San Jose drops a bomb followed by a nuke from Anahiem. Suddenly, the color palette was wide open to reach in any direction. The Ducks brought diagonal stripes to the body of the jersey (unfortunately accompanied by the first of the really bad logos) and Tampa chipped in by getting creative with their pant stripes. Florida introduced the creatively-shaped shoulder yoke. LA, Minnesota and Tampa became the first teams to use black for purely aesthetic, non-historical reasons (and Minnesota was the first to throw its color identity in the trash for the sake of black). A Pandora's box had opened, and the hockey world was finally ready to fully explore the boundaries of its aesthetic heritage.

But here's the crucial thing, the factor that makes 1995 such a catastrophic year for taste in hockey uniforms -- everything up to that point had been done as a spin on tradition. In 1995, with a swollen head from its growing popularity and not fully grasping just why so many people had gravitated toward hockey, the NHL introduced alternate uniforms. Basically, it gave each team's merchandising department free license to take a dump on 100 years of aesthetic tradition under the theory that a hockey uniform could be "improved" by starting all over as if it was not culturally important unto itself.

With a blank check to do as much damage as possible, the marketing gurus gave us this. And this. And this. Meanwhile, you had the Islanders, Avalanche and Caps violating the concept of straight lines altogether, not on their alternates but on the sweaters we had to watch every night. And that was just in 1995! By the next season you had Buffalo in full-time black unis with no horizontal stripes at all. Soon you had the Pens skating around with a two-tone stripe through their crest, Ottawa with a swoosh through their 3-D picture of Spartacus, and the Sharks inexplicably dumping one of the most popular uniforms in league history for a mess of arcing lines and armpit stains.

What began as an MLB-esque alternative concept program became a viral plague that wiped out the visual appeal of the league. In particular, the Western Conference was a wasteland of goofy concept schemes with zero identity or long-term appeal. The league sent a very strong signal at that time that it either did not understand or did not respect the tradition it had torn down, and that signal resonated with other changes that were taking place.

And almost as nature's way of proving the folly of the late 1990s, as soon as the RBK contract forced a "reboot" of jersey designs, nearly every single team dropped its existing alternate and/or went with a traditional retro look. Now we're back to wondering when a team will be ballsy enough to put a diagonal line somewhere in the design.

To show I'm not a total curmudgeon, or a blind loyalist to tradition, I do think that a couple of teams have discovered non-traditional templates that might have some staying power. Nashville and St. Louis both settled on a vertical pinstripe that extends from the yoke and frames the crest (really clever as an "arch" for the Blues). I hated that look at first, but it's grown on me over time and I don't see a lot of hate for it among fans. Obviously the Blues could go back to their old unis and be fine, but unto itself it's not horrible and I think they and the Preds found the kind of subtle modern touch that actually justifies altering the traditional template.

Uniforms might seem like a trivial aspect of the sport, but they're the canary in the mineshaft. It's not a coincidence that these changes are timed in tune to expansions and lockouts.

TL;DR - Creativity is great and all, but not in the hands of the second-rate marketing hacks who worked for the NHL in the late 1990s.

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