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Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Updated: September 27, 12:08 PM ET
Skating on thin ice

By Paul Lukas
Page 2

Hockey is all wet -- literally. The combination of intense activity, indoor arenas, and full-body uniforms with loads of padding creates a lot of sweat, plus the skate blades are constantly creating ice spray, which condenses as it hits the players. So when the Reebok folks were designing a new uniform system for the NHL, they devised a series of moisture-repellant fabrics. For months now league officials have been doing this little party trick where they pour a glass of water onto one of the new jerseys, so everyone can see how the water rolls right off.

Uni Watch
But here's the thing: All that moisture has to go somewhere. And according to a growing chorus of complaints from NHL players, it's going mainly into their gloves and skates, which have become a sloshy, saturated mess.

Another unintended consequence of the new uniforms: They're so stretchy and, in some cases, so prone to tearing along the seams that they're easy to pull over an opponent's face during a fight, which can lead to major problems. (For details, start with the sixth paragraph of this article.)

All of which shows that changing an entire league's uniforms en masse, as the NHL and Reebok have done this season, is a tricky proposition. There's no precedent for it among the major team sports -- the closest parallel is the sea change in baseball triggered in 1970 by the Pirates, who switched from button-up vests, belted pants, and flannel fabric to a pullovers, elastic waistbands, and double-knit polyester. Within three years, all 24 MLB teams had gone to polyester, 14 had switched from button fronts to pullovers, and 16 had switched from belts to waistbands.

But that gradual transition happened incrementally, whereas the NHL changes -- which involve graphics and aesthetics as much as new fabrics and tailoring considerations -- are being thrust upon us all at once. With the regular season slated to begin this weekend, every single team has new uniforms, although some of the changes are more modest than others.

Uni Watch will get to the new designs in a minute, but first here are some leaguewide provisions to keep in mind:

• There are no "third" or alternate uniforms this season -- just home and road. Alternate unis may reappear next season.

• Contrary to what you may have heard elsewhere, the league is sticking to the same home/road protocol that's been used in recent years: colors at home, white on the road. There are lots of whispers about this changing next season, but there had also been lots of whispers about it changing for this season, so Uni Watch will believe it when it happens.

• Back in January, at last season's All-Star Game, the refs wore silver armbands, instead of their usual orange. At the time, a league spokesperson told Uni Watch that this change would be made permanent this season. That plan has now been scrapped, and refs' arms have been orange-banded as usual during preseason games. But a league exec now tells Uni Watch that a broader overhaul of the officials' uniforms is in the works for next season. No details on that yet, but Uni Watch's hunch is that the league will trade in its standard zebra stripes for a proprietary stripe pattern, like the NFL did last year.

OK, now let's look at those much-ballyhooed new team uniforms, which Reebok reportedly worked on for 37 years, at a cost of $19 trillion (more or less). With so many new designs, a team-by-team breakdown would be too unwieldy (if you want to see how your favorite team looks, there's an excellent series of photo galleries here). Instead, let's examine some of the trends and tropes that run through many of the new designs. Uni Watch has identified seven of them:

1. APRON STRINGS
Description: Apron-like piping that runs down the front of the jersey, or sometimes from the collar to the sleeves. Often repeated on the back (and, in the case of the Blues, onto the pants). Sometimes clashes with captaincy designations.

Teams Affected: Panthers, Oilers, Capitals, Predators, Blues, Avalanche, Thrashers, Flames.

Uni Watch says: Worst thing to happen to hockey since Gary Bettman became commissioner. In fact, since this happened on his watch and seems to sum up everything that's gone wrong during his tenure, Uni Watch will henceforth refer to the piping as Bettman stripes.

2. THE DIAPER EFFECT
Description: Unfortunate flap of white created by the new jerseys' rounded shirttail hemlines. Somewhat less egregious version sometimes seen in other colors.

Teams Affected: Most teams with straight waistline stripes, including the Rangers, Blackhawks, Canadiens, and several others.

Uni Watch says: For generations hockey jerseys have had straight hemlines and straight waistline striping. But the new jerseys all have these scooped hemlines (Uni Watch still hasn't heard a decent explanation for why), which just don't work with a hockey jersey's traditional abdominal striping -- the straight stripes and the curved shirttail invariably clash. One way around this problem, as several teams have figured out, is to put curved piping right along the hemline edge (compare the two approaches here -- it's no contest); another is to eschew lower striping altogether. But a much better solution would be to go back to straight hemlines.

3. JERSEY SQUEEZE
Description: Narrower chest area than before, due to all the new stretch panels and seams that have been added in the upper-chest/shoulder areas of the jersey, leaving less room for chest graphics.

Teams Affected: The Rangers have had to make their diagonal insignia more vertical (compare last season to this season), several teams have been forced to move their captaincy designations either too close to the collar and crest or to the other side of the jersey, and Dallas' star-based design had to be scrapped because the new jersey's construction made it impossible to reproduce.

Uni Watch says: Textbook case of engineering trumping design.

4. READ ANY GOOD UNIFORMS LATELY?
Description: The use of words and/or uni numbers on the front of the jersey.

Teams Affected: Islanders, Sharks, Lightning, Stars, Canucks.

Uni Watch says: The trend of front-jersey numbers began last season with the Sabres, and Uni Watch still doesn't see the point of it. You've already got numbers on the back and on the sleeves, so the additional number feels extraneous, plus it clutters everything up. But Uni Watch kinda likes what Vancouver and Dallas are doing, in part because it hearkens back to NHL history (although if they really want to put the uni numbers front and center, let them try something like this). It's hard to argue with the elemental simplicity of a well-executed jersey crest, but Uni Watch is intrigued by the alpha-numeric trend -- let's see where it goes.

5. THE REE-BOX
Description: Little contrast-colored tab to showcase the Reebok logo (as opposed to just having the logo be the same color as the surrounding fabric, as had been standard practice in the past).

Teams Affected: Avalanche, Panthers, Blues, Predators.

Uni Watch says: Most offensive case of logo creep ever. It's one thing to slap your logo onto a design; it's another to make it part of the design. Then again, maybe Uni Watch is being too harsh. After all, it's not as though the Reebok folks have plastered their logos on helmets, gloves, hip pads, sticks, goalie mitts and blockers, goalie pads, or the blue line, have they?

6. STRIPES THAT DON'T STRIPE (Sleeve Division)
Description: The odd phenomenon of sleeve stripes that wrap only part of the way around the sleeve.

Teams Affected: Oilers, Panthers.

Uni Watch says: Look, it's simple: You either have sleeve stripes or you don't. You can't have it both ways.

7. STRIPES THAT DON'T STRIPE (Hosiery Division)
Description: Slanted sock stripes that don't wrap all the way around.

Teams Affected: Senators, Lightning.

Uni Watch says: When the new Reebok uni system was unveiled at last season's All-Star Game, the sock stripes were the silliest design element. Uni Watch figured it was just one of those ill-advised "innovations" that so often afflict all-star uniforms. Surely nobody would want to incorporate that sock concept into a regular team design, right? Wrong. It makes for a highly unsatisfying stripe experience, much like the helmet stripes worn by the Panthers, Ravens, and Titans -- pfeh. (And speaking of socks: There had been talk that the new Reebok leggings would be so tight and form-fitting that players would no longer have to secure their shin pads in place with tape. Judging by the preseason games, that hasn't turned out to be the case.)

Granted, Uni Watch is coming off like a big curmudgeon here, but what other option is there when so many of the new design elements are so insipid? But lest you think a day at Uni Watch HQ is filled with nothing but grousing and grumbling and kicking Uni Watch mascots Tucker and Caitlin, here are some bright spots: The Original Six teams have all pretty much stayed true to their roots; the Sharks and Coyotes have done excellent updates; and the Wild have taken the league's best alternate uniform and turned it into one of the league's best home uniforms.

"OK," you're saying, "but those are all pretty old-school looks. Don't you like anything new?" Actually, yes. One team has come up with a new design that feels at once classic and contemporary: the Blue Jackets. Check it out: sleeve piping instead of Bettman stripes, hemline piping instead of waistline stripes -- looks good, right? Even from the back. This, friends, is the future of hockey uniforms. Or at least it should be.

Follow-up roundup
Reactions continue to pour in about those crummy new Devil Rays uniforms. The most frequent comment is something along the lines of, "Well, they play like a minor league team, so they might as well look like one," but that's unfair -- to minor league uniforms. Minor league teams look fun and playful -- the Rays' new look is just boring.

Over on the gridiron, there's been a lot of suspicion about the photo of Alabama linebacker Rashad Johnson having part of his uniform number literally knocked off of his helmet (additional details and another photo here), with more than a few readers proposing assorted grassy knoll-esque conspiracy theories. Uni Watch, deeply shaken by this lack of faith among the readership, assures everyone that the photo is completely legit. Uni Watch has seen video of the play in question, and you can clearly see the number decal flying off of Johnson's helmet at the moment of impact. Improbable? Yes. A Photoshop hoax, as many have suggested? Nope.

Meanwhile, Uni Watch is happy to announce that reader Simon Adebisi is the winner of last week's raffle. Simon, who was randomly chosen from among the respondents who knew that Mathias Kiwanuka is the Giants player who likes his jersey very tight up top but fairly loose at the bottom, will receive some free Giants swag from Jints equipment director Joe Skiba (who co-starred with Uni Watch in last week's video report). Hang tight, Simon -- you'll be hearing from Joe soon.

And speaking of raffles …
Remember the "futuristic" jerseys that many MLB teams wore in 1999? The idea for that promotion was planted a year earlier, when the Mariners and Royals played a "turn ahead the clock" game (further info on that game is here). Now, with the help of fellow ESPN.com writer Rob Neyer, Uni Watch is raffling off a game-used Royals jersey from that game. For full details on how you can have a shot at winning this unique slice of baseball history, look here.

Paul Lukas has had just about enough of the routine with the jersey and the glass of water. His Uni Watch blog, which is updated daily, is here, his answers to Frequently Asked Questions are here, and his Page 2 archive is here. Want to learn about his Uni Watch membership program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask a question? Contact him here.