- E.J. Hradek, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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The NHL and RBK Hockey unveiled their new "uniform system" (jersey, pants and socks) on Monday in Dallas as part of the buildup to Wednesday's All-Star Game.
(Well, actually, the league and its corporate partner pulled the curtain back on their latest creation for a select group of media in New York this past Wednesday.)
For now, I'd say the league gets an "A" for effort but an "incomplete" for every other element of the project.
First, let me give you the good news.
The new look isn't anywhere near as bad as what I had been hearing. The horror stories making the rounds included a tucked-in look and a totally vertical design that couldn't allow for the traditional horizontal stripes that can be found near the bottom of just about every current jersey.
Fortunately, neither is true.
RBK Hockey admitted it seriously considered tucking in the jersey, but it skated away from that idea after further discussion and testing indicated a possible overheating problem for the player.
As for the striping, NHL Consumer Product Marketing Group VP Brian Jennings told me that the jerseys, which are more formfitting than the current model, will be able to accommodate that design.
That should calm the nerves of many team executives, who were hearing the same negative rumors. In fact, several execs were so concerned that they intimated that their clubs would not wear the jersey and would opt to attach the appropriate corporate logos to their current sweaters for next season. In recent days, however, those same execs have sounded as though they believe that drastic measure won't be necessary.
That's a little more good news for the league, which would like to see a smooth transition to the new look. After all, the NHL has been working closely with Reebok for more than three years to develop this change, and it says the new gear will keep players lighter (thus faster), drier and better-protected. By better-protected, the league means the tighter fit will keep shoulder and elbow pads in place. Now, they can slip during play. Still, I've never heard a player say he was injured because his padding had shifted.
The league also said it made a special effort to gain input from current and former players during the process. Several clubs, including the Avalanche, Lightning and Thrashers, have practiced with the new uniforms, albeit just once or twice.
That last part, to me, is the bad news.
The players (and I mean all the players) haven't had a number of practices to get a real feel for the new gear. Some clubs haven't worn it at all. What happens if a large majority of players don't like the new attire? I'll tell you what will happen -- no matter how many PR guys tell them to parrot the league line, there will be a big problem.
For this to work for the league, the players have to buy into it. If you don't believe that, just take a peek at what happened when the NBA instituted the new-style ball at the start of this season. The NBA players didn't like it, causing a big enough stir to provoke the return of the old ball after just two months.
Hockey players -- who, by and large, are a superstitious lot -- might not be crazy about the impending change. A good number of them have longstanding equipment quirks or idiosyncrasies that might be affected by the change.
At Wednesday's unofficial rollout, Avalanche defenseman John-Michael Liles seemed very positive. Of course, after he was flown to New York for the event, I didn't expect him to air a laundry list of problems. He said he liked it, but later admitted he'd only worn the gear for one practice.
In an effort to get another opinion, I visited the Lightning dressing room after the club's shootout win in New Jersey on Thursday. I asked star winger Martin St. Louis for his thoughts on the new equipment. At first, he didn't recall wearing it. Then, after some prompting from longtime friend and current teammate Eric Perrin, he did remember. St. Louis just shrugged his shoulders and didn't elaborate either way. I would imagine he won't form a real opinion about the uniforms until he wears them several times and during some games.
I don't know how the players are going to respond to the new look. They might love it. Or they might hate it. But I do wonder why the league isn't taking a little more time to institute the change. What's the rush? I've never heard one player or fan ever voice displeasure with the current uniform. Why not make sure the players, a good majority of the players, are onside with the change?
Personally, I can't imagine many fans are going to be too crazy about the new look. I've found hockey fans to be very respectful of the tradition of the game, and I get the sense they'll see this as another attempt to chip away at the game's rich history.
Other fans, especially those oversized types in the crowd, aren't going to be thrilled about the formfitting nature of the jerseys. One "husky" colleague of mine, who has a large collection of authentic sweaters, took one look at the RBK jersey and said, "I won't be wearing that!"
Guys and gals who like to buy authentic jerseys had better be prepared for some sticker shock, as well. A personalized authentic All-Star jersey is selling for $424.99 on NHL.com. You can get a blank authentic for the low, low price of $349.99.
I'm going to reserve my final judgment until I see the individual team jerseys. If they've butchered any of the traditional Original Six jerseys, I don't think I'm going to be too thrilled, but I'm willing to wait and see. I also want to wait and see what the players really think.
After all, they're the only ones who have to wear it.
E.J. Hradek doesn't mind the look of the NHL's new jerseys, but he wonders what players really think about them.