June 24, 2012

From NEHJ: Return of retro

By Jesse Connolly

As a society, many of us often long for simpler times. We fondly recall the days when the palm of every hand wasn’t constantly clasping an iPhone, when family dinners weren’t a special occasion but an everyday affair and when the entire universe didn’t spend every waking moment glued to one social media outlet or another. 

Unfortunately, there’s no way of reverting to what plenty considered the good old days. But for manufacturers of hockey jerseys, turning back the clock is not only an easily achievable goal, it’s a process that’s currently in full swing.

The NHL's Original Six teams not only sport classic looks regularly, but teams such as the Boston Bruins also break out special old-school uniforms for special events such as the Winter Classic at Fenway Park in 2010 (Zdeno Chara, above). (Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

During the 1990s and early 2000s, the NHL grew dramatically, expanding to 30 teams by setting up franchises in hockey outposts such as Anaheim, Tampa and San Jose. With non-traditional hockey markets came non-traditional uniforms. The attention-grabbing, cartoonish garb of these new squads not only became popular at retail outlets with fans, but also among hockey teams at lower levels that were looking to emulate the latest fad.

Since that time, of course, many of those expansion clubs — and even long-standing NHL teams — have done away with eccentricity in favor of simplicity. In turn, many teams at the youth, high school and junior levels have followed suit. The iconic uniforms once donned by generations past are all the rage again.

“It’s definitely a cycle and you’re seeing a cycle to the more conservative jersey now,” said Scott Gollnick, who founded North Carolina-based OT Sports in 1994 and oversees sales and marketing for the company. “There’s an up-and-down trend. You’re going to get very conservative and then people are going to get bored with that and go toward sublimation and more flashy designs. Over the last 18 years, we’ve seen a trend of every three to five years where that roller coaster goes up and down from sublimation to cut-and-sew. It’s usually dictated by what the NHL does or what USA Hockey and the better college programs have done.”

The success of teams at the collegiate, NHL and international levels and the demand by younger clubs looking to replicate their look go hand-in-hand.

“I think what dictates demand is pretty much your winning teams,” Gollnick said. “It’s funny how everyone wants to follow the styles of the winning programs. Usually you look at your playoff teams in the NHL or your national champion at the collegiate levels. For some strange reason, whether these jerseys are good looking or ugly, that’s what falls into demand.”

A team like the Boston Bruins — not only one of the NHL’s Original Six squads that’s been around since 1924, but also the 2011 Stanley Cup champions — quite obviously has a look that’s in high demand.

“We do a lot of the Bruins’ look,” said Jonathan Fine of Massachusetts-based Pop Tops Sportswear. “We also just did the shirts for BC High when they played at Fenway, and we replicated the (Boston College) jerseys that were done, and I want to say they were based off a Bruins’ pattern.”

Just as iconic as Boston’s Spoked-B is the long-standing look of one of its fellow founding members of the NHL, the New York Rangers, whose diagonal lettering — though sometimes a challenge on the production front — has been a design utilized by numerous teams throughout the years.

Harvard 'is one of the best examples' of a team that honors its history and preserves its tradition with its jersey. (Photo by Thom Kendall)

“The old-school Rangers look with the diagonal is popular,” said Dave Boucher, co-owner of TSR Hockey, a popular retail outlet in Salem, N.H. “The only thing with the diagonal is, depending on the type of team name, mascot or whatever has to be printed on the front, the lettering has to be limited to a certain amount of letters before they just become too small to fit on the jersey. As a matter of fact, I’m doing one for a middle school based off the Rangers setup exactly. It’s just simple lettering on an angle.”

Simple. Clean. Traditional. These words are used repeatedly to describe the look of the throwback jersey, but there still remains a place in teams’ proverbial uniform rotation for cutting-edge designs.

“I don’t think they’ve all completely abandoned them,” Gollnick said when asked if clubs have done away with the cartoonish looks that were popular in past decades. “I think you’re seeing it with some third jerseys, especially at the minor-pro level and warmup jerseys. Other than that, you’re seeing more and more event jerseys, those pink jerseys (breast cancer awareness) and camouflage (military appreciation) ones. The flashy, sublimated jerseys are still in play at the professional and collegiate level, but it’s kind of taken a backseat to the traditional home and road game jerseys and being used in more specialty situations.”

Manufacturers such as Gollnick must be prepared to adjust their marketing strategies when trends change.

“You generally try to appeal to everyone,” he said. “I don’t think there’s really a switch in marketing other than letting people know you have the ability to offer people the style that’s most popular at that time. If cut-and-sew is the way, more print ads or more of what we do is going to feature more cut-and-sew. In three to five years, you may see more of our ads be more toward sublimation if that’s the way the market’s trending.”

For some teams, no matter what’s in style, gimmicky alterations simply will never be in the cards.

“If you play for Harvard or the Detroit Red Wings in the NHL, their main mission is to keep the tradition and the history of the team part of their look,” said Guy Darveau of Quebec-based SP Apparel. “For them, it’s a no-brainer that they’re keeping the traditional look. Harvard is one of the best examples. They don’t want to change anything.”

While predicting if the throwback look will remain as popular a few years from now as it is today is a tall task, it’s easy to see why their timeless and simple-yet-rich look has been and always will be appealing.

“There are certain things, kind of like the khaki pants, that are always in style. Now that the trend is going to traditional cut-and-sew, those throwbacks are even more popular because it fits into the trend of now,” Gollnick said.

“I think it’s all about going to back to tradition. The throwback is popular because it’s classic and you can’t go wrong with it.”

It seems the good old days, at least when it comes to hockey jerseys, are here again.

This article originally appeared in the June 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