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Designing the ’90s NHL, Part 5: A History of Blue

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Designing the ’90s NHL, Part 5: A History of Blue

Tonight the Pittsburgh Penguins will take the ice wearing a uniform fans haven't seen in more than 20 years. They've been waiting a long time for this.

Video stills from Pittsburgh Penguins

It's the debut of the Pens' new alternate jersey. Their third third — you might say — since 2008 when they adopted their first Winter Classic uniform for extended use.

The Penguins were born in blue way back in 1967. But after 1980, that color disappeared from their sweaters until that big outdoor game 28 years later.

Photos from Pittsburgh Penguins

Photos from Pittsburgh Penguins

But few people realize that blue's reappearance in Pittsburgh could've come much sooner — on two separate occasions!

Remember the '90s? I did that whole series of articles over the summer about NHL logos and uniforms that happened and almost happened in that most gaudy of decades.

Well, the Internet has unearthed another of the "almost happened" variety and you truly have to see it to believe it.

Jim Kubus operates a website called PittsburghHockey.net. Like Icethetics, it's a one-man labor of love. And he's amassed quite a riveting history of Steel City hockey.

One fascinating section of the site is the Penguins' jersey history. It features in-depth discussions not only on the many variations of sweaters the team has worn over the last five decades — but even those that were never worn.

Which brings us to this.

Image by Vance Wright Adams via PittsburghHockey.net

Image by Vance Wright Adams via PittsburghHockey.net

In 1994, the NHL was in the early stages of formulating its original Third Jersey Program — an initiative that brought about the likes of the Burger King and Wild Wing jerseys.

The jerseys you see above and below were "finalists to become the new third jersey," according to the site. They were designed by Vance Wright Adams — the firm that gave the world the "Robo Penguin" or "pigeon" logo in 1992.

"The designs were nearly submitted to the NHL for approval," the site says, "but the league’s labor dispute ultimately canceled the project."

Image by Vance Wright Adams via PittsburghHockey.net

Image by Vance Wright Adams via PittsburghHockey.net

So if the 1994-95 lockout did us one favor, this was it. It seems neither of these jerseys ever made it past the concept stage. What a relief.

As you watch tonight's game and conjure visions of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr hoisting their back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992, don't forget about the bullet they would dodge just a decade later.

I mean, could you imagine an actual igloo shoulder patch? I shudder to think.

Now that was the first time the Pens flirted with bringing back the old Columbia blue. Remember, I said it almost happened twice.

Keep perusing the info-packed PittsburghHockey.net and you'll details about another third jersey that didn't happen — this time in 2003.

The Penguins scrapped their plan to unveil a new third jersey in the 2003-04 season.
It would have been a virtual replica of the Columbia Blue jersey with the circular crest and tie-down collar the team wore, mostly in home games, from 1968-72.
The hemline would have had striping similar to the 1967 home jerseys.
The Penguins had reached the late planning stages with the jersey, [which] was slated to be unveiled in June 2003 as part of the NHL’s Vintage Program.

The jersey described might've looked something like this.

Ultimately, it was simple economics that kept this jersey from seeing the light of day. Due to merchandise sales deals within the arena, the Penguins wouldn't have been able to capitalize monetarily on a third jersey at that time.

And the team's president at the time was concerned about the number of new jerseys the team had launched around that time as well as the "pressures on mothers to go out and buy yet another jersey."

They certainly don't worry about that anymore.

I mentioned this latest jersey is the Pens' third alternate in recent years, but don't forget they introduced yet another uniform just last season for their 2014 Stadium Series game in Chicago.

Photos from Pittsburgh Penguins

Photos from Pittsburgh Penguins

For what it's worth, I don't get the sense the Penguins are slowing down either. If they are indeed responding to fan demands with the latest throwback, it wouldn't surprise me to see them adopt it full time and add a white version — and potentially a yellow one down the road.

Throwbacks are all the rage these days and that trend is as strong as ever.

Unlike giant cartoony, sublimated 1990s jersey graphics.

What do you see coming down the road for Pittsburgh? And what's your take the unused alternate designs from 1994? Did we miss out or luck out?

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Jersey Longevity: Hockey sweaters for the ages

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Jersey Longevity: Hockey sweaters for the ages

A week ago I used this space to talk about teams that should make immediate and sweeping changes to their uniforms. So I figured the other side of that coin is a discussion about teams that should never change.

It didn't take long for me to realize what you're already thinking — the Original Six teams, of course. They're the untouchables of the NHL. Why mess with decades of tradition?

We can argue pointlessly about whether the uniforms of the Original Six are "good designs," but the fact is that simply by virtue of their longevity, they are permanently ingrained in every hockey fan. But what do I mean by longevity? Let's take a look at the numbers.

It should come as no surprise that the oldest sweater currently in use in the NHL — at the advanced age of 97 — belongs to the Montreal Canadiens.

As the NHL's oldest franchise, the Habs are known for their red sweater with the storied CH centered forever on that blue stripe straight across the middle. The design has changed very little since the first NHL season in 1917. And in truth, it's the only NHL jersey that's actually older than the NHL itself.

The white Canadiens jersey we see today was first used in 1941.

At 82 years and counting, the oldest American NHL uniform is worn by the Detroit Red Wings. This franchise has essentially been using the same red sweater with minimal white striping since its name was changed from Falcons way back in 1932.

The original incarnation of the current white sweater came a few decades later in 1961.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have made tweaks and alterations to their uniforms somewhat frequently over the years. But the home and road sweaters they wear today find their origins in 1937 — making them 77 years old.

Their third jersey, as we know, is based on a design first used in 1967. It lasted only a few seasons before the current crest design was introduced.

From their very beginning in 1926, the New York Rangers have worn diagonal letters across their chest. But the style we see today first came about in 1941.

Unfortunately, that 73-year run was interrupted. In 1976, the Rangers experimented with a shield crest for a couple of seasons. It was a disaster — the Isles fisherman of its time.

The Rangers' white jersey debuted in 1951 and, apart from that misstep in the '70s, has remained largely unchanged.

When it comes to ranking NHL uniforms, one of the perennial favorites is that of the Chicago Blackhawks. But unlike some of their brethren, it took them a few decades to find their identity.

The red jersey we see on the ice today will soon turn 60. Prior to 1955, the Hawks wore a lot of black with a lot of red stripes. But once they went red, they've only ever gone back for special event and alternate jerseys.

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The Boston Bruins became the NHL's first American team in 1924. But the 90-year-old franchise has, by far, the youngest jerseys in the Original Six group.

The Bruins have made change after change over the years — both big and small. Their current logo and uniforms were created in 2007. But in fairness, they're little more than a modernization of designs that date back to the 1950s.

Still, the Bruins bring down the average age of the Original Six uniforms to about 66. Without the modern B's jerseys, the other five average about 78 years of age. Those are some old hockey sweaters.

For my next entry in this series, I'll go back to my original premise — the five NHL jerseys that should not change. But this time I'll take the Original Six out of the equation. That'll make it more of a challenge.

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5 NHL teams that need new uniforms in 2015

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5 NHL teams that need new uniforms in 2015

With the reveal of the Lightning's third jersey two weeks ago, we have all of the primary sweaters for the 2014-15 season — though we're still waiting on some outdoor game designs. So is it too soon to start thinking about next year? I don't think so.

While several teams have made great strides in improving their uniforms in recent years — namely the Stars, Ducks and Blues — a handful are still in desperate need of overhauls. Here are my top five picks alongside some of my favorite concept art.


5 · Arizona Coyotes

THE PROBLEM

This might be a frequent refrain on this list, but the Coyotes' biggest jersey crime? Waist stripes. Where are they? They can make or break a hockey sweater. With them, you bring a classic, traditional feel to the look. Without them, it's like pajamas — or worse, a practice jersey.

When the Coyotes first introduced the brick-colored uniforms in 2003, they were near perfect and they weren't much different from how they look now. The key difference is that the waist striping was inexplicably removed by Reebok in 2007.

THE SOLUTION

The easy button here would be to simply put the waist stripes back. But I'm not sure that's the best play for the Coyotes. Two-color uniforms work best when you have a two-color logo — see Red Wings and Maple Leafs.

Leaving the sand and black out of the Arizona's sweaters creates a disconnect — especially noticeable this year with the loss of the black and sand third jersey. And this year, with the name change, would've been the perfect opportunity to make a bigger splash.

The current logo is fine as it is, but more of that native style art seen in the franchise's original logo might be a more appropriate symbol for the NHL's lone southwestern member. I'd love to see a mix between the two art styles in a future logo.

THE CONCEPTS

Justin Cox nearly nailed it with his submission from 2013. The throwback to the original Coyotes sweater design works well in these colors but the leaping coyote isn't an iconic enough crest and it doesn't stand out well on red.

Personally, I'm still partial to the original coyote head used on the old green third jersey in the late '90s. Nick Burton employs it well in his concept from 2012. Neither of these would be ideal in their current state, but they'd both be a step in the right direction.


4 · Vancouver Canucks

THE PROBLEM

The idea of seeing the Canucks change their uniforms again is worthy of an eye roll. This club has been through so many color schemes and logos over the years, a doctor might be inclined to diagnose them with an identity disorder of some kind. In fact, one might argue the reason they added VANCOUVER to the chest in 2007 was to remind themselves who they are.

That said, they need to stop plugging the dam and create a visual identity with some staying power. And if you ask me, the native-style whale breaking through the ice to form a C — while clever — doesn't get the job done. The corporate connections are well documented, but with Orca Bay long out of the picture, a change is overdue.

THE SOLUTION

The colors are great. Nothing says northwest like green and blue. Plus those were the Canuck's original colors and when you're looking for staying power, sometimes rewinding to the original vision is the best way to go.

In fact, just this weekend, the team launched an online video series about the return of Johnny Canuck. (I'm not really sure what it's all about so maybe Vancouverites can fill us in.) But the point is, he's a great icon for this franchise and the logos have already been created.

Keep the stick-in-the-rink shoulder patch. Keep the blue and green. Keep the existing jerseys if that makes life easier. But ditch the whale and the wordmark. And put Johnny Canuck in the spotlight. There's no good reason not to.

THE CONCEPTS

We've seen so many great designs that would be an improvement for Vancouver. If John Elbertson's use of the skating Johnny Canuck is not your cup of tea, perhaps you can appreciate Nevill Carney's take.

But I think the best all-around set came in 2013 from Rob Sulava, who values the simplified "V" logo and a green third jersey. Some combination of these three concepts could very well save the Canucks' foggy identity.


3 · Ottawa Senators

THE PROBLEM

Since launching their gorgeous fan-designed third jersey in 2011 and the lighter Heritage Classic version in 2014, the Senators have seemed to be on the right track. But the outdoor jersey isn't coming back this year and the third seems to have gotten a demotion based on its sporadic "Throwback Thursday" use this season.

On top of that, the primary home and road uniforms launched in 2007 essentially sucked the life out of this franchise's on-ice look. They shared a disturbingly unimaginative stripe-less template with two other teams and fully instituted a trendy faux-3D logo. These words do not describe a long-lasting visual brand identity.

THE SOLUTION

I won't say the Sens' solution is necessarily in their history. Their old jerseys weren't bad, but they weren't anything spectacular either. The heritage jerseys are all right, but pay tribute more to the city's hockey history than to this 22-year-old franchise.

As part of Ottawa's 2007 rebranding, the Senators created a modernized version of their 2D logo but it has since disappeared from their logo package. That's a real shame. That was a solid logo that could've survived for decades to come on the right sweater. Bring it back.

THE CONCEPTS

Using the logo I was talking about, Justin Wiltron created this year what I think is the ideal solution to the Senators' uniform problem. A great logo on great jerseys. But if you think a black jersey is in order, Brendan Anderson has you covered with his design from 2012.

The last concept in that group is from Dylan Nowak. I couldn't see it as a primary look, but it could certainly work as a retro style third.


2 · Colorado Avalanche

THE PROBLEM

Isn't it obvious? The Avalanche took a major tumble down a steep slope when Reebok shook things up in 2007. (Yes, I meant every one of those terrible puns.) In place of striping inspired by majestic Rocky Mountain peaks, we got sad apron string piping. It was a travesty.

We can argue all day whether the logo is any good, but I happen to be among those that think it's one of the greatest and most instantly recognizable in all of sports. But it's been slapped onto a jersey that doesn't deserve it.

THE SOLUTION

The most obvious fix would be to just go back to the pre-2007 sweater design. But for all its impressive technology, Reebok will tell you that's simply not an option. I get it. When you're redesigning 60 NHL sweaters all at once, sometimes you have to take what you can get.

Time and creativity were not luxuries then. But it's been seven years and we've seen Reebok step outside the box time and again — for better or worse. The point is, if the Avs really wanted those jerseys back, Reebok would find a way to make it happen.

Failing all that, let's at least dump the piping and reintroduce some classic horizontal stripes. It would work beautifully in Denver, no question about it.

THE CONCEPTS

I don't mean to keep featuring the same guy, but Justin Cox again has a brilliant solution for the Avalanche in a concept posted just last week. You don't even have to go all out with the mountain striping. The sleeve treatment does the job perfectly.

But if you're just looking for a classic fix with a more traditional taste, Bastian Schmülling is all over it. Come on, Colorado, this isn't that hard.


1 · Pittsburgh Penguins

THE PROBLEM

This should surprise no one. The Pittsburgh Penguins are by far and away the NHL franchise most critically in need of a complete uniform transformation. If the problem isn't obvious, allow me to direct your attention specifically to the baby puke stain passing for what's laughingly referred to as "Vegas gold" — a color so drab and in such utter contrast to the glowing extravagance that is Sin City that must have been named ironically.

Hey, I couldn't very well put them at No. 1 if I couldn't strongly articulate why, right?

It's not just the Vegas gold either — though that does and should take the brunt of my rancor. That awful Reebok Edge template shared by the Senators and, previously, Lightning has got to go. The Pens just introduced their third alternate jersey in six years and each one has been a huge improvement over the lousy primary jerseys.

This cannot be allowed to continue.

THE SOLUTION

Take your pick of third jerseys. In fact, with the latest one revealed last month, the Penguins could be on track to bring back their original gold for good. Pittsburgh gold. I love that this is a city where all the major sports franchises could share a common color palette. But I understand the Pens' tendency to avoid this as the Bruins will forever be the black and gold hockey team.

But blue has been a Penguins color from day one, so why not reincorporate it? While we're at it — and I know it's sacrilege to suggest but — the skating penguin could take a hike. Or at least get an update for the modern era. Though I don't feel as strongly about that as I do the colors.

THE CONCEPTS

Last year, Gary Punzak made some tweaks to the crest. It's not bad, but could use more work. His jerseys, however, are spot on. The striping goes a long way in keeping the look from being derivative of the Bruins.

And if you really want to go nuts, check out how Matt McElroy made blue jerseys work with the black and gold striping. It can be done. Fans may revolt at first, so it would take a commitment. But it would be well worth creating a unique style for the Penguins in the long run.


Dishonorable Mentions

If I'd made a longer list, a few other teams would've been included. For example, San Jose Sharks and Carolina Hurricanes both ruined their looks with new uniforms last year. I get the whole "less is more" argument. But that was absolutely the wrong play for these teams.

The Buffalo Sabres could stand to ditch the silver piping and bring back the royal blue. As the Islanders and Rangers prove, it stands out so much better on the ice. But then we'd have all three New York teams wearing the same color. So you see why I left them off the list.

I'm also tired of the wordmark on the Washington Capitals' jerseys. I understand the desire to be traditional and all, but it's not like the '70s and '80s Caps were really anything to write home about. Let's get the Weagle on the front of the sweater already!

And lastly, when are the Winnipeg Jets going to finally get a third jersey?


Twitter Poll

Earlier this afternoon, I asked you guys on Twitter which teams you thought were most in need of new uniforms. There were a ton of responses so I did a quick tally, and based on the relatively small sample it seems this is Twitter's top five:

  1. Colorado Avalanche
  2. Ottawa Senators
  3. Calgary Flames
  4. Florida Panthers
  5. Arizona Coyotes

At No. 6 would've been the Penguins. So we may have some differing opinions, but I think for the most part we're on the same page.

Even though I left the Flames off my list, I would like to see them go back to their original uniforms. The throwback third jersey was great. I don't know why they felt the need to replace it. But I'm not sure their existing primaries are among the world's worst.

As for the Panthers, I don't think they're in the desperate need phase yet. At least they have red jerseys again. But check back with me again in a year or two. I might feel differently.


So what do you think? Where do you agree or disagree?

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How the timeless Hartford Whalers logo came to be

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How the timeless Hartford Whalers logo came to be

A lot of you have been enjoying my series of NHL logo origin stories from the 1990s. Many of those designs were short-lived. Those that weren't are anything but uncontroversial today.

But roll back the clock and we find one of the most universally admired logos of all time.

In 1979, the WHA folded and the New England Whalers were one of only four teams absorbed into the NHL. The franchise was renamed and in need of a new logo. Peter Good was the designer hired to create a new identity for the Hartford Whalers.

On June 29, WFSB-TV in Hartford, Conn. aired an interview between Face the State host Dennis House and Good — from the Connecticut design firm Cummings & Good. During the 9-minute conversation, the two talked about the genesis of the logo and all things Whalers.

If you can't watch the video above, I've transcribed the good stuff below.

Things kicked off with an image of the old New England Whalers logo.

Peter Good: This was given to me as the starting point really. They wanted a new, fresh identity. They just moved to Hartford. There was a lot of excitement in the community. 
Like any project, I meet with them. In this case Howard Baldwin, Bill Barnes and I think Jack Kelly was the manager at that time.
Dennis House: And so you started sketching?
Still frame from WFSB-TV

Still frame from WFSB-TV

PG: This is where all design projects start. Those are the original designs that I presented not as a design solution but as a way of thinking about the identity.
Curiously, when I did these, Howard Baldwin actually said, "I like the lower right one." Shown here. With the trident. The trident was a reference to the harpoons.
I said, "Why do you like that one?" He said, "The 'H' is there." So I said, "Wait a minute, that was a not a requirement. It was just an idea that I had. But now that I know that it limits the field. So let me have another three or four days to play with it, to go back and rethink this given the idea it should have the 'H' integrated.
DH: And you came up with this?
Still frame from WFSB-TV

Still frame from WFSB-TV

PG: This is how it started. I was bothered by the idea of harpoons anyway because their mascot is a whale. So why would you have a symbol that suggests killing your mascot? That seems contradictory.
So I said, what do we have to work with? I have the letterforms 'W' and 'H' and I have a whale. And whales are kind of amorphous creatures. They're not like a tiger where you could characterize it very simply. But the whale's tail is very, very formally interesting. It's symmetrical. So you have three symmetrical elements to play with. This was a gift.
hfd79.jpg
PG: I call it a marriage of convenience between a whale's tail, a letterform 'W' and the offspring is essentially the negative 'H'.
DH: What was the public's reaction when it was first unveiled and first showed up on uniforms?
PG: They liked it. My wife Jan and I designed the first uniforms. There was overwhelming support. I think a lot of it had to do with the idea of Hartford having a professional team. 

From there, the two discussed the process of designing a logo in today's climate. The video on WFSB's website becomes choppy at this point, cutting out parts of the conversation. It's impossible to know what they were saying but it seemed insightful. There's mention of focus groups and other things that tend to water down great designs.

Peter Good, Cummings & Good // Still frame from WFSB-TV

Peter Good, Cummings & Good // Still frame from WFSB-TV

Then came the question a lot of fans are curious about.

DH: Who owns the rights to the logo?
PG: Aha, well. This has been controversial since a long time ago. The NHL is licensing it and it's really been a cash cow for them. They are making a profit. We have started doing some things of our own in that we never did sign the rights over. We were asked but we never signed the document. It was never work-for-hire. I still have the check for a dollar that I never cashed to make it legal.
DH: So where do we go from here? Can you sell items?
PG: We're doing some shirts. The products that we're doing are quite different from what I've seen in the marketplace. When we first started this, Jan and I designed a lot of items. It was called the Designer Series and we sold them through the Whalers shop and it was umbrellas and tote bags and shirts and aprons. But they were very sophisticated. Beautiful embroidery. Very subtle. And to tell you the truth, it wasn't successful because sports fans like it big and brassy.

In wrapping up the conversation, House and Good mused on the possibility of the NHL returning to Hartford and whether the name and logo could be resurrected.

DH: How would you feel if the team came back and they hired someone else to change the logo completely?
PG: Believe me, that's happened before. Logos are things that every designer likes to think are timeless and enduring but some that I thought would last for many, many years tend to change.
There's so many factors. The team starts losing games, everything's on the table. Change the uniforms, change the logo and so forth.

Good may be referencing the fact that for their final five years in Hartford, the Whalers used an altered version of his logo with grey added to the color scheme. That came about in 1992.

hfd92.jpg

Seriously, what is it about the '90s?

FURTHER READING: A Tail of a Whale · Aug 21, 2010

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