Panthers redesign guided by in-house 'uniform geeks'

You love hockey sweaters. That’s the reason you read this blog, right? 

You have no shortage of opinions when it comes to the new designs you see every year. You have endless free advice for any team willing to listen. You’re an armchair expert.

Now imagine your family buys an NHL franchise.

There’s at least one guy who doesn’t have to imagine. John Viola is a self-described uniform geek. His father, Vincent Viola, purchased the Florida Panthers in 2013.

John spoke with me a few days after the Panthers unveiled their new logos and uniforms in June. His story provides some great insights into the club’s rebranding process. And whether or not you like the Cats’ new look, you’ll certainly appreciate the passion and vision behind it.

I figured by now, 90 days since the unveiling, we've had plenty of time to get comfortable with the club's new identity. So let's take another, more in-depth look.

Florida Panthers, 1993—2016

The leaping cat had been one of the most recognizable logos in the NHL for two decades. The Viola family knew that when they took over. They respected that. But change was necessary.

“I love the old set,” John Viola said. “People feel like we’ve come in and blindly changed everything. But 22 years for any organization is a long time for something to maintain without any real evolution.”

Even Original Six teams haven’t gone without their share of logo evolution over the years. And as identifiable as the old cat was, no one can deny the logo was a little heavy on the minute details. It’s a design that’s difficult to reproduce particularly at small sizes and when embroidered onto shirts or hats.

“It was very difficult in a digital age to use in a lot of platforms because of the detail and style,” John said. “We wanted something that was more flexible and dynamic and could still respect the past.”

In early 2015, the Violas set out give the Panthers a “tune-up.” They wanted to extend their vision for the franchise to the visual identity. From the beginning, military iconography was part of the plan. Vincent Viola, a veteran of the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division, wanted the team's new uniforms to have deeper meaning. Something a player would be proud to wear.

It was also important to the Violas that the franchise continue to take pride in being from Florida. The sweaters borrow their colors from the state flag. And they wanted a panther that looked more realistic and less like a cartoon.

These are excellent criteria with which to begin a design process. There were strong values and a clear vision for what was needed. John said the team looked at five or six early concepts all in the same vein. They were all an evolution of the existing identity, "not a radical redesign."

"We were taking the panther born in 1993 and growing it up," John said. "Making it look more mature and reserved. That was more in line with our philosophy on leadership and competition."

From there, it was time to get the redesign underway.

"I was the guy who sort of tried very hard to take my insanity for uniforms, logos, graphic design, and sports and translate to Reebok what I thought my father and [Panthers vice chairman] Doug [Cifu] were talking about," John said. "Making sure everything was coming together in terms of what they were looking for."

Who among us wouldn't leap at an opportunity like that?

John also credited Panthers president and CEO Rory Babich as being a big "uniform geek" instrumental in the redesign. But he pointed out that it was a "communal effort" that resulted in the design we see today.

So what was John's biggest contribution to the new look of the Panthers?

"I love the new leaping panther," he said. "We probably saw dozens of designs for that. I was very adamant that that was present. I love this new panther in the shield and I wanted to see him as a grown-up version of the '93 panther for continuity."

Hard to argue with that. 

The one thing that was clear in my conversation with John Viola, more than anything, was the amount of respect this family has for the history of the Panthers and their enthusiasm for making this franchise the best it can be in every way possible. I think it's rare to see this sort of passion from people who tend to be more focused on the business aspects of the sport.

These guys were genuinely thrilled about evolving the brand. And that really came across listening to how John described the process of the redesign. As I said before, whether you like the new design or not, you have to respect the passion behind it.

Before John and I wrapped up, we talked about some the details of the new uniforms. One thing in particular was doubling up on the captaincy patches. At the unveiling, we learned the Panthers captain and alternate captains will wear an extra bar above the sleeve patch, in true military style.

However, NHL officials need to be able to recognize captains at a glance, and the sleeve patch is small and could be difficult to read. For that reason, they are required by the NHL to continue to wear the "C" and "A" patches on their chest as well.

The last question I had for John was regarding the possibility of a third jersey in the future — perhaps with his leaping panther front and center again. He said there's no plans in the pipeline at the moment, but they're "not going to pass up an opportunity to do it."

Sounds like we can count on a third at some point, but not quite yet.

For what it's worth, I've been hearing it's possible third jerseys may be disappearing again for a season when Adidas takes over NHL jersey production in 2017-18. The last time that happened was when Reebok took over in 2007-08. But unlike last time, Adidas won't have to start from scratch on every team uniform since they own Reebok and everything Reebok has done over the past decade. But I'll keep an ear out just the same.

Anyway, I want to thank John Viola and the Panthers for taking the time to speak with me about their new look. Their enthusiasm is infectious. And if I wasn't such a diehard Lightning fan, I might've considered adding a new Panthers sweater to my collection. Thisclose.

So now that you've had three months to get used to the Cats' new look, has your opinion changed? How do you think they rank among the rest of the NHL?