December 1, 2012

From NEHJ: Peak performers

By Jesse Connolly

Up in the ninth-floor press box at TD Garden, there’s one particular wall lined with framed images of some of the most iconic players in Bruins history celebrating one of their two championships in the early 1970s. No matter how many times you walk by it, there’s just no way these photographs of Phil Esposito, Johnny Bucyk and the great Bobby Orr wrapping their arms around the Stanley Cup aren’t going to grab your attention. 

Performance apparel wasn't around during Peter McNab's days with the Bruins. (Getty Images) 

More than 40 years have elapsed since those moments were captured, and you can tell for reasons beyond the bad hairstyles or the fact that the pictures were developed in black and white.

I’d like to think that if a young hockey player got a look at this wall, once he got over seeing Bruins legends basking in their glory inside the team’s locker room, the first thing he’d ask himself is this: What the heck were those guys wearing?

We often look back at how much certain pieces of equipment have changed over the years. Back then, sticks were wooden and heavy. Skates were made of leather. Helmets weren’t even mandatory. But in Orr’s days, one vital set of items found in just about every hockey player’s bag today didn’t even exist: performance apparel.

“It’s crazy thinking about guys wearing really heavy stuff, including the really old-school hockey sweaters,” Andy Lubets, a brand manager with Warrior, said when asked about Orr and Co. wearing long johns and the like under their equipment.

“We know a rink is anywhere from 38 to 42 degrees. The amount these athletes sweat in the first five to 10 minutes of a game and all the way through all three periods is unbelievable. To think that the guys from the good old days were wearing old-school thermals is crazy.”

Those long johns and other everyday apparel have been given the heave-ho by most hockey players today and replaced by state-of-the-art undergarments.

“Today’s generation is focused on improving all elements to ensure maximum performance,” said Graf’s Joe Aitken. “The greatest benefit in the apparel category has to be the moisture management. In the past, as an athlete perspired, their long underwear would hold the moisture, taking on water weight and creating issues such as equipment slippage. The technology in apparel has allowed the perspiration to be wicked away from the body to ensure both comfort and performance.”

So what is it that makes today’s performance apparel different from the simpler alternatives?

“Back in the day, most performance apparel was really just cotton tees or long johns, whatever the player happened to have in their bag, or what they used from other sports,” said Beth Crowell, a category manager at Bauer. “Today’s base layer apparel is all about performance yarns, new fiber technologies, and new treatments for anti-odor and moisture management.”

The biggest question every player or parent likely faces is whether or not these products will have a tangible impact on performance. Lighter skates make a player faster. Hockey players can determine how effective their new stick is with the help of a radar gun or simple accuracy drills. Can the benefits of performance apparel be measured?

“As materials have changed, the ability to improve performance has as well,” said Aitken. “The materials used are designed to move freely with the body without restricting the athlete’s natural movements. Graf has also added silicone printing to performance apparel to ensure a player’s equipment stays in place throughout a game, allowing the athlete to perform at their peak.”

So how do manufacturers convey the essentiality of performance apparel? Much like the rest of their product lines, star power helps. Warrior has worked closely with Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg. Bauer has NHL ’13 cover boy Claude Giroux. But it takes more than just a recognizable face to accomplish their goals. 

Tyler Seguin works out during the NHL Combine. (Getty Images)

“At Bauer, we focus on performance apparel being the player’s first layer of equipment, and the philosophy that all of our products are built for hockey — designed, engineered and specifically created for the ice hockey player,” said Crowell. “We do not design or market our products for multi-sport usage as you’ll see from other brands. For Bauer, it’s all about the hockey player and their specific needs and expectations.

“One example of our marketing efforts is through grassroots with our Bauer Experience. We have a team of experts that goes to rinks across North America and offers players a chance to try our new products, including base layer. This provides a fun experience for kids and a value to parents who appreciate the opportunity to try equipment before purchasing it.”

While Bauer is focused on catering to the needs of hockey players, one other company is targeting a more specific audience: the female hockey player. Whip Sports, founded in 2012, offers a full female line of equipment, from gloves to pants to jerseys to — you guessed it — performance apparel.

“Each product is distinctly unique to the male counterpart,” said Heather Friend, a creative director for Whip Hockey. “For example, the hockey shells we tried to contour to a female body versus a male one. Our training gear has a more fitted feel and look to complement a female figure. Our colorful apparel and equipment are eye-popping to the female market as well.

“Being a female athlete who plays sports that men do as well, we tend to get categorized into the male aspect of the whole sport,” Friend added. “Companies and manufacturers don’t take into consideration that we don’t play the same as men. We want specific equipment and apparel that will help us play to the best of our ability.”

With the market now covering both male and female players, we still have to ask this: Is performance apparel a necessary purchase for players at all levels, including the recreational ones? Manufacturers, unsurprisingly, all discussed the benefits of doing so. Honest retailers, however, lean more toward performance apparel being a luxury rather than a necessity for those that play on an occasional basis.

“With performance apparel, I think the name says it all,” said Rich O’Rourke of Sports Etc. (Arlington, Mass.). “I go to the gym and I wear my Under Armour, but I don’t think it’s helping my performance. I’m a realist. From a recreational standpoint, sure, people will come in and ask if Under Armour ColdGear is good for outdoor skating. It absolutely is. It’ll shed the water from your body and if you go outside and it’s subzero out there, it’s certainly going to help, but you might be better off just getting a duofold thermal shirt.”

For players who rely on truly benefitting from innovations in performance apparel, however, these are pretty exciting times. Icon Elite is one company pushing the envelope, with efforts centered around the idea to use bamboo as the primary design material.

“We’ve been marketing it as a natural product that’s eco-sustainable, and that’s the best thing any player can wear due to its fabric content being bamboo primarily, and Spandex, and having a four-way stretch,” said Icon Elite’s George Nehme. “As far as performance goes, it is the best-performing product because what wicks moisture in seconds? Bamboo.”

Warrior, meanwhile, also has taken a new approach to its creations, headlined by the new Dynasty base layer line.

“Looking at the competition, everyone was selling the same basic performance shirt,” said Lubets. “When we looked at the biomechanics of how our hockey player moves, it’s very asymmetrical. They’re bent over and they’re not changing their stick hand. They’re either a lefty or a righty. We decided to look at how the body moves during a slap shot and during regular play, and we built a shirt that incorporates fabric that has more stretch in it and more air permeability in what we call that shooting arm.”

So what kind of advancements might we expect in the near future in this field? If Lubets can make some of his other ideas come to life, performance apparel could soon become as big a game-changer as any other piece of equipment in a hockey player’s arsenal.

“I think there are some great ideas coming down the road,” Lubets said. “Are there opportunities to not only just regulate the temperature and keep that athlete in his performance zone, but actually increase the speed of a shot through apparel? Can you increase that rate of play and make a player faster by what they’re wearing? Those are some of the things that we’re talking about here.”

Sure sounds like we’ve come a long way from sweat-logged long johns.

his article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Jesse Connolly is the Bruins beat writer for New England Hockey Journal and is the editor of hockeyjournal.com.

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ
Email: jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com