Commentary

It's time to end this jersey controversy

Updated: March 14, 2008, 12:24 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

I'm going to talk about uniforms again.

Last time I did, I was threatened with being banned for life from eating wings at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo or from being a "Prairie Home Companion" audience member at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minn.

I was asked if I wanted to take an involuntary swim "in Tampa Bay," and not only because there are about 1,328 mistaken references a year to where the region's professional franchises play.

Shortly thereafter -- and completely coincidentally, I swear -- the blue-and-yellow Sabres logo started looking more like a dynamic buffalo than a banana slug to my eyes, and the uniforms grew on me.

[+] EnlargeMontreal Canadiens jersey
Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty ImagesTerry Frei is pleading with the NHL -- please let the Habs and other teams show their colors on the road.

The Wild logo soon stopped looking like a Rorschach inkblot and instead came into clear focus as an inspired summary of the State of Hockey's beauty.

I ceased believing the Lightning logo was individually drawn on each sweater with a Sharpie, suddenly realizing it was a bolt of design genius.

The NHL's biggest uniform problem, at least visually, now is the color scheme.

The other day, Montreal Canadiens owner George Gillett Jr. ventured down from his Vail, Colo., home to introduce NHL commissioner Gary Bettman at the Boy Scouts' annual fund-raising sports breakfast in Denver's Pepsi Center.

As we talked after the breakfast about his team's surprising and invigorating (for the league) ascension in the Eastern Conference, he said how much he enjoyed witnessing the reception the Canadiens received on their recent swing to San Jose, Phoenix, Los Angeles and Anaheim.

He said that because of a couple of requests from the teams involved, the Canadiens arranged to take and wear their red jerseys -- in this era, considered part of the NHL's home uniform -- at all four stops on the trip.

Why?

Because the red jerseys more colorfully highlight the tradition of the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge.

That's the most glaring example of why the NHL should go back to having visiting teams wear their "dark" uniforms at every stop. This is another instance when the post-expansion era had it right: White at home, dark on the road was the system from the early 1970s to 2003, and the league should go back to it.

The revenue-driven reason for switching back to white on the road -- allowing home teams to wear (and, more important, sell) "third" jerseys, while not forcing teams to take two sets of uniforms on extended road trips -- has led to an abomination. The third-jersey phenomenon is mostly in limbo during the transition to the new streamlined Reebok look, but it will be back in full force.

Regardless, all teams -- whether Original Six or Final Four -- should again show their colors to the fans in the other 29 arenas.

All of them.

In full glory.

Except on nights when the home team is wearing a dark third jersey, the home team generally should go back to white (with an allowance for gold). The fans deserve more uniform variety.

Dark jerseys for eight home games is the NFL pattern, though teams playing in sweatboxes -- e.g., the Cowboys and Dolphins -- are among those who switch up, and third jerseys have become popular in that league, too.

Dark sweaters at home stink in the NHL. And not just literally.

It's a little thing, perhaps, but little things generate passion. Little things, when done wrong, are galling. Little things, when their continuations arguably represent another slight of the constituency, can be outrageous.

The fact that under the detestable post-lockout scheduling format, the Canadiens -- and all other 29 teams -- made only one appearance in each opposite-conference arena in three seasons adds to the problem. (An aside: It's funny when Eastern Conference teams grouse about the grueling travel on the Western swings, and it illustrates why the power brokers in the East won't agree to mandate that every team visits every arena every season. Uh, fellas, it's only a little worse, if any worse at all, than what teams in the other conference go through all the time.) That schedule will be tweaked only slightly for next season, and the paucity of interconference games will continue to occasionally shine a spotlight on the issue.

It's not as if the 29 other white-based sets of uniforms are indistinguishable. You can tell who -- and what -- they are. To various degrees, the logos are still easily recognizable against white backdrops. The winged wheel. The maple leaf. The spoked B. Yes, even the hurricane. We see both sets on television and other media. They are not mysteries to us. But there's just something about seeing the full colors in person.

Whether it's for the transplant fans (obnoxious or classy) wearing the Habs' red in Southern California who show former Kings owner Jack Kent Cooke's famous lament about Canadians in the Southlands is at least archaic, or the deep-rooted fans of the home team who merely want to feel a bit more of the tradition of the opposing team drifting into the seats, the visiting team should be wearing its dark uniforms. The Canadiens, in response to the feedback from their Western Conference hosts, got it right.

The NHL should take heed.

I feel for the equipment managers who would prefer not to take two sets of uniforms on trips when the third-jersey program, copied by other sports, is back in full swing.

But if the league insists on continuing the sometimes fun, but unquestionably opportunistic marketing ploy of a dark third jersey for occasional home games, packing two sets of uniforms or otherwise arranging to wear white at one of the stops is a small price to pay.

While this is probably impractical, the league could explore limiting the use of the third jersey to games when the opponent is on a one-game trip.

Again, I'm not "against" third jerseys. I especially don't mind them when they're throwbacks. (Unless the Canucks bring back the V-logo pajamas.)

I'm opposed to the fact that their introduction led to an evolution in the league's uniform policy and put teams in white on the road, almost exclusively.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the just-released "'77" and "Third Down and a War to Go."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."