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Monday, January 22, 2007
The skinny on new NHL uniforms

By Paul Lukas
Special to Page 2

It could've been worse. A lot worse.

That's Uni Watch's preliminary reaction to the NHL's new Reebok-designed, snug-fitting "uniform system," which will get a test drive in Wednesday night's All-Star Game and then be used league-wide next season. Uni Watch emphasizes the "preliminary" qualifier there, because for now the NHL is only revealing the All-Star Game version of the new uni. It remains to be seen how the 30 NHL teams will fit their logos and other graphics into the new silhouette. We won't see those designs (several of which aren't even finalized yet) until this spring or summer.

That's right -- after all the buildup, all the fanfare, the league isn't showing us what everyone really wants to see. Frustrating? Definitely. If you thought today was the day you'd finally get to see your favorite team's version of the much-ballyhooed new uniform, you're probably hotter than a Zamboni drive train at the end of intermission. And Uni Watch doesn't blame you -- the NHL has been talking a big talk on this one, but they're not yet walking the walk.

Still, there's a lot of info to share. For starters, it turns out that a lot of the rumors and worst fears about the new unis were unfounded. Contrary to what you may have heard, here's what's not happening:

• Jerseys will not be tucked in. A tucked-in concept was tried out midway through the design process -- the idea was that it would be more aerodynamic -- but the players nixed it. (And let's give the NHL credit for consulting with the players, which is more than the NBA did when introducing its ill-fated new ball.)

BEST-DRESSED CITY?
Don't miss Uni Watch's report on which city has the best-dressed sports teams -- complete with rankings and grades for 21 different cities.

• Over the past several months, lots of reporters, Uni Watch included, have referred to the new uni program as a "template," raising fears that every NHL team would have to use a cookie-cutter system of matching graphic elements (much like in the 2006 Olympics, where most of the Nike-outfitted teams wore matching vertical shin stripes). But that's not happening. In other words, although the All-Star design has vertical jersey panels and slanted sock stripes, teams are free to continue using horizontal hemline stripes, horizontal shoulder yokes, and so on. The new system isn't so much about imposing a new graphic blueprint on the game; it's more about performance-driven tailoring, construction, and fabrics (all of which we'll get to in a minute). In fact, the only league-wide graphic change -- regrettably but predictably -- is that the jersey's NHL logo will move from the rear hemline to the front collar.

• Some earlier reports had indicated that team logos on the jerseys would have to be slightly smaller, but NHL executive VP Brian Jennings tells Uni Watch that this is not the case. In addition, several media outlets have suggested that the Maple Leafs would be getting a logo overhaul next season (one such report was just a few days ago), but Uni Watch has been assured that isn't happening either.

• While it remains to be seen how many teams will adhere to their classic looks, Uni Watch has confirmed that small visual signifiers are not being standardized out of existence. For example, the Blackhawks' jersey logo will still be chain-stitched, the Red Wings will still use vertically arched nameplate lettering, and the Rangers can still use a lace-up collar.

• The new jersey silhouette is definitely a bit slimmer, but not this slim. Given that many players have resorted to wearing billowy, poncho-like jerseys in an attempt to get a full range of motion in recent years, Uni Watch counts the sleeker look -- which will supposedly allow freedom of movement via the use of stretch fabrics -- as a return to sanity. (And if any players are thinking about modifying the new threads for a looser fit, the league plans to put the kibosh on that.)

• There were some early reports that the new socks were so tight that players would no longer have to use tape to keep their shin pads in place. But according to Avalanche defenseman John-Michael Liles, who spoke at a small media gathering last week, most players will probably still tape up. (And speaking of the socks: If you dig the sight of that nice textured ribbing, enjoy it while it lasts, because the new socks are slick and flat. They're so slick, in fact, that Reebok had to create a rubberized version for goaltenders, because some goalies were complaining that their pads wouldn't stay put when strapped onto the new hose.)

• And contrary to reports that came out of St. Louis last week, the league is not currently planning to switch back to wearing white at home, colors on the road (which, to Uni Watch's way of thinking, is too bad). Any such change would have to be approved at next month's GM meetings, and league VP Jennings says he's not aware of any groundswell in that direction.

So what is changing? Textiles, mainly. The new uniforms are comprised of several different lightweight fabrics. According to Reebok, they're 14 percent lighter than the current unis at the game's outset, about 25 percent lighter by the game's end (due to the new fabrics' moisture-management and -repellant properties), provide 9 percent less drag, keep the players 10 percent cooler, and are twice as durable.

And what does this all mean from a Uni Watch standpoint? It depends on how many teams use the new tailoring pattern as an excuse to change their graphics. According to the league, six teams – it won't say which ones – are considering significant changes for next season (that's not counting the Blue Jackets, who just announced they're retiring their "CBJ" logo and replacing it with their third jersey logo), and other teams might make incremental changes. Here's what they may have in mind:

• The biggest potential problem is the pair of stretch-mesh panels leading from the armpits to the collar, which could result in the hockey version of this. The Sharks already do something similar with their home jersey, and it ain't pretty. Uni Watch's most fervent hope is that no other team goes this route.

• Another issue with those stretch-mesh panels: Will it be a problem to embroider the Rangers' wordmark over them? A Reebok official tells Uni Watch that this shouldn't be a problem, because the company actually has eight to 10 distinct tailoring patterns, so the mesh panels can be moved a bit to accommodate logo stitching. (And yes, the Avalanche's third jersey wordmark presents similar issues, but that won't be an immediate problem because third jerseys are being mothballed next season.)

• "I think you're going to see more teams looking to integrate all the elements, instead of treating the jersey, pants, and socks as three separate items," says Jennings. Likely translation: Expect to see lots of vertical side panels on the jerseys matching up with vertically striped shorts, much like the Sabres now do, and don't be surprised if some team tries vertical piping on the socks to complete the streamlined effect. Personally, Uni Watch hates side panels (among several other problems, the stripes never line up once the players start moving), but that's clearly where sports design is heading these days, from the NFL and NBA refs to Major League Baseball's new batting practice jerseys, so brace yourself for more of it.

And let's face it, who really cares if teams already saddled with train-wreck designs choose to add some lame-o piping for good measure? Like, seriously, how much worse could this design get? Or this one? On the other hand, if some of the league's more storied franchises try something like this, or this (don't panic -- those are just hypothetical mock-ups), then it'll be time for a full-scale revolt. For now, Uni Watch counsels patience, but vigilance.

Want to know more? You can learn more than you ever imagined about the NHL's unveiling of the new designs here.

Pump It Up
Lots of readers have been inquiring about that little nub that appeared on Lovie Smith's jacket the past two Sundays. The short answer is that it's a pump; the longer answer is available here.

But Lovie probably won't be wearing a jacket during the Bears' next game, because the Super Bowl is being played in balmy Miami. Look for Uni Watch's annual uniform-based breakdown of the big game next week.

Paul Lukas is just relieved that they didn't bring back Cooperalls. His Uni Watch blog, which is updated daily, is here, his answers to Frequently Asked Questions are here, and archives of his columns are available here, here, and here. Got feedback for him, or want to be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted? Contact him here.