Hockey Sweater Evolution

By Douglas Smith

Hockey sweaters are popular for a variety of reasons outside of showing your team spirit. They are warm, have commercial appeal appearing in music videos like Craig Mack’s "Flava in Your Ear", and if you search the internet you will see that they seem to serve as fetish material. The hockey sweater or jersey has went through plenty of changes over the years and has featured some of the greatest and worst designs in major North American sports.

The jersey came into existence in the early 1900s as amateur teams evolved into professional teams. Their jerseys were striped (right) Looking at the image you will see that these early jerseys had higher neck lines, often turtlenecks, and tight cuffs on the wrist. The teams were predominantly Canadian until the Boston Bruins were introduced to the league in 1924. The stripe-theme continued as the sweater had two stripes on the sleeve and one on the base of the jersey. These busy-looking sweaters were balanced out with white or beige pants.

A variety of different American cities hosted professional teams from 1924 to 1940. This included Pittsburgh and their team known as the Pirates. It was during the 40s that the sweater and uniform as a whole would start to see a variety of changes. Some of the uniforms used during this time are sold as merchandise today and used during special games. The high neck sweaters would become a thing of the past as most teams introduced a home and an away jersey. The home jersey was often the dark color. The captain and alternate captain letters would appear as the “original six” teams would carry the National Hockey League torch for the next 25 seasons. Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, New York, and Toronto would rely less on numerous stripes during these years and introduce more colors into the pants.

While the members of the league stayed the same, so did the uniforms. As the 1960s approached, players would realize that the tight cuffs were inhibiting their performance. Those cuffs would be gradually loosened as the league moved toward expansion and the “original six” settled on designs most fans recognize today. The expansion that doubled the league to 12 teams in 1967 would bring with it brighter colors as the Los Angeles Kings would showcase a yellow and purple combination, while Philadelphia introduced their orange flare to the sweater. In the early 1970s, teams would switch their home jerseys with their away ones, with white or yellow becoming the dominant color used for home games. Also, name plates were now being added to the backs of jerseys. Regardless, more teams and more colors were introduced as the helmet became a mainstay in hockey equipment through the 1970s and early 1980s.

The 1980s could be characterized as the commercialization of the hockey sweater as the manufacturer would be identified on the jersey. What happens when a manufacturer like Nike puts its logo on a sweater? Well that sweater is now “official” merchandise, which means that the price goes up for the consumer. This continues today and you will see authentic jerseys starting around $300 prior to customization. The hockey sweater’s place in popular culture would rise in the past 20 years with new television contracts and teams in hotter climates like Dallas and Florida. Third or alternate jerseys would be introduced for special occasions as well. In the 80s and 90s, many companies would make sweaters such as Nike, CCM, Sandknit, and others. However, at the beginning of the 2000s, the NHL would introduce an official jersey provider, Reebok. Even though the teams may be wearing Reebok, other manufacturers are authorized to make throwback jerseys to relive this evolution.

Sweater Sightings

Although many would put professional hockey as the fourth most popular sport in the United States, the sweater has found its place in popular culture. In addition to Craig Mack, the hockey jersey has starred in rap videos. The famous “Tootsee Roll” song featured Montreal and Florida. Other rappers like LL Cool J, Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, and Nelly prominently displayed the hockey sweater in some of their most popular videos. The most memorable may be Snoop Dogg.

Sometimes the apparel is worn as a marketing ploy or not necessarily by choice. Of course, if a celebrity like Taylor Swift or Demi Lovato happens to show up to a game, they may be seen in a jersey. Others, like Dave Matthews Band drummer Carter Beauford, rely on sports jersey for their wardrobe, especially in a town with a professional team. Even Clay Aiken has been known to wear a variety of sweaters on stage. Robert Smith wears the Stars jersey a bit better though.

Mishaps and Memories

Reading this will immediately activate your memory of the best and worst designs you have seen. Lack of market research, less technology for creating sweaters, and comparatively less funding make it hard to fault the early franchises for less-than-flattering designs. Still, there would be plenty of designs in the early to mid-1900s that have stood the test of time and today have a classic feel.

Unfortunately, even advancements in fabric, technology, and the growth of a league have not perfected the sweater look. There has been plenty of talk about the biggest sweater mistakes in hockey and an informal poll agrees with what has been written. The Dallas Stars tend to surface frequently in the informal poll with the unfortunate anatomy look-alike on the sweater. Also, generally agreed upon was a Vancouver Canucks jersey better suited for a road sign, or, perhaps, a scuba diving signal. One PensUniverse staffer expressed a general dislike for one of the newer Minnesota Wild jerseys, justifiably. Another staffer adds that this jersey isn’t appealing at all, perhaps reminding fans of elves.

One could spend days talking about the ugliest jerseys out there from various angles and viewpoints. However, it is best to end this on a positive note. When asked about the favorite jerseys out there, the PensUniverse staff offered up these beauties:

1976 Cleveland Barons

The Rimouski Jersey as worn by Sidney Crosby

Anything worn by Wayne Gretzky

The 1990-91 home Lemieux jersey

And the 1992-93 Pittsburgh sweater.

It will be interesting to see what comes of the hockey sweater in this coming year with some more news to be released regarding Winter Classic sweaters and speculation about changes to third/alternate jerseys around the league. Hopefully, whatever is released does not make you think, "Oh My God".

For what it’s worth, the writer has a soft spot for this one.


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