June 26, 2011

From NEHJ: Uniforms -- they've come a long way

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

The thought of seeing today’s NHL stars in the jerseys their hockey forefathers once wore nearly a century ago is all but an unfathomable one, and with good reason, as nearly every facet of the game has evolved throughout the sport’s rich history.

During the days of “Old Time Hockey,” players were sparsely equipped with thin, flimsy pads, and the jerseys they donned over them were thick, heavy sweaters.
While it may sound crazy on the surface, the setup worked during an era in which goalies would make face saves and not a soul possessed anything closely resembling a 105 mile-an-hour slapper.

But as players began to maximize their abilities and hone their craft, the game got faster and the hits got harder. After Canadiens forward Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion invented the slap shot, the number of bruises doled out began to go through the roof. Equipment had to be beefed up and jerseys had to change to accommodate that.

“The original jerseys back in the ’30s and ’40s, they would look like a long-sleeve T-shirt,” said John Larin, the sales manager at Athletic Knit. “The sleeves were narrow and the bodies were narrow. As the equipment evolved, so did the jerseys. You’d see the shoulders getting larger and the elbows in the jersey would grow. The fabric started changing from acrylic into knitted polyester. It was very heavy.”

As the evolution of the hockey jersey rolled on over the next few decades, many an innovation occurred throughout the process. Manufacturers realized that it wasn’t just about making a garment that fit over equipment, but one that could be as efficient as possible for the athletes sporting them.

“As we continued on, fabrics evolved,” Larin said. “A big one with the NHL and CCM was what they called air-knit. We also produce a fabric in the same vein called AK knit, which we’re still producing today and is one of our major fabrics. It has microscopic holes that allow ventilation but you can’t see through them from any distance. A lot of fabrics in sports are moving into either moisture-wicking or antibacterial, and that’s sort of where we are today.”

A big wave of change occurred heading into the 2007-08 season when the NHL began utilizing Reebok’s Edge jerseys, ones that were deemed to be far more aerodynamic than their predecessors.

“The big change was that they went to China,” Larin said of the revamped production process. “I’m assuming it’s cheaper for them to cut and sew shirts because there are no longer any knitted jerseys with engineered striping in the NHL. It’s all cut and sew. Every single stripe has been cut and sewn.

“When Reebok took over, they wanted to put their own stamp on things and make it look different with the Edge jerseys. It’s a lot tighter. When they first came out, the players were complaining they were too small. The whole idea was that they would be aerodynamic. If you can’t move, it’s detrimental to the jersey.”

Guy Darveau, the vice president of sales and marketing at SP Apparel, said it wasn’t exactly a smooth transition at first.

“Players are very traditional,” Darveau said. “Getting a fitted jersey on them was something that was different at the beginning, but I think overall they’ve accepted it and realize the benefits of this revolution in high-performance jerseys. With the jerseys now, you get a different perception of the colors, but the focus has always been to keep the traditional look more than anything else.”

For Darveau, producing a durable product and preserving its look over time are paramount in the manufacturing process.

“Going forward, I really believe the future of hockey jerseys will go through the sublimation process,” he said. “It’s a high-end process that involves transferring color in a new way to material. When you look inside a hockey jersey, there’s always a shade of white. Now, the color will be able to last forever. All the Winter Olympic jerseys in Vancouver were sublimated. It’s existed for many years in sports, including soccer in Europe. It’s definitely in the future for hockey jerseys.”

No matter what the future may hold for hockey jerseys, they will always possess an indescribable mystique, one that has made them more cherished than those worn by athletes in any other sport.

“The hockey fan is a very loyal fan,” Larin said. “One of the beauties of the hockey jersey is that it can be worn over anything. It’s not like a fitted baseball shirt. We’ve done custom hockey shirts for snowboarders and even celebrities like Prince. We make thousands and thousands of shirts for these guys. It’s an oversized garment. People can wear anything from clothing to jackets underneath it.”

Beyond the basic logistics of the jersey, there is an undeniable sense of endearment fans and players alike have toward the iconic crests sewn onto the front of the sweaters.

“I think for each hockey player, the name on the front has always meant more than the name on the back,” Darveau said. “It represents the identity of the team and the goals of the pro team they represent. It’s a great team sport.”

And while jerseys have evolved from bulky, beat-up sweaters to their current, state-of-the-art format today, one element that has made them so revered is the fact that many teams have hardly altered their look, if at all, throughout nearly 100 years of hockey.

“Could anyone imagine permanently changing the Bruins’ Spoked-B to the cartoonish bear that was on their third jersey a decade ago? Or Montreal fans taking a liking to a different logo other than the CH?” said Adam Kirshenblatt, a journalist who works at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

“It just wouldn’t fly with those historic teams. I understand the need to sell merchandise, but the best way to become as legendary as the Original Six and other longstanding organizations is to create a winning tradition. If teams are able to do that, they’ll forge an unbreakable bond with their fans, and their logos and colors will be a rallying cry for the city in everything that they do.”

Jesse Connolly can be reached at jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com.