Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Pants Optional: The Best Britches in the NHL

W. Ross ClitesYour City Sports-Cleveland


Saint Louis, MISSOURI--First off-the-cuff question: why are the Flyers not wearing their infamous full-length girdle pants in the upcoming Winter Classic? The snow suit look screams pond hockey, and it screams rough and tumble 80's Philadelphia.

The Flyers and Whalers were the only two franchises to don the Cooperall, a two-year failed experiment from the Cooper brand hockey outfitter. They may seem like an aesthetic nightmare to designers today, but given the disappointing state of current NHL pant/sock combinations, the Cooperall would be an improvement for several teams.

The fashion train derailed at the beginning of the 2007-08 season. That year Reebok implemented its Rbk Edge line of jerseys league-wide. The lighter material wicks moisture better, and is more form fitting to the athlete's body. Yadda yadda yadda (science jargon). The post-lockout players finally look as quick and sleek as the sport itself.

This changed the game for not only the people playing hockey, but those who design for it. The artist's canvas now had new textures and sewing conditions to navigate. The horizontal emphasis of the shoulders gave way to thin vertical piping that curves from the V-neck down to the waist--framing up the chest. Hockey players began to look like young athletes and not boxy old-timers.

The transition to the Rbk Edge brought 30 new uniforms to the league, and most seized the opportunity to change design elements (i.e. banding around the elbow, addition of shoulder patches, etc.) to better accommodate the material variations.

With all new helmets, gloves, and jerseys being introduced, very little attention was paid to the "breezers" or pants.

NFL, NBA, and MLB pants/shorts have a much stronger guidelines and cohesive stances; teams do not creatively veer too far away from the pack. Only the St. Louis Rams have blank pants, but the vast majority wears a pair with conservative waist-to-knee stripes. Rather than building them up from scratch, football pants typically draw upon the pattern on the arms. What a novel concept.

All levels of basketball uniforms are notorious for carrying one consistent block of color from the armpit straight down to the kneecap. Does a building near water not cast a reflection? It only makes sense to mirror over the pattern across the waist.

In baseball, pinstripe teams are the obvious example of aligning their tops and bottoms seamlessly.

But not the NHL. Teams seem to do whatever they want, regardless of what it means to the other franchises... or their own look.

In thinking up a sports equivalent, the college football helmet is perhaps the only other piece of equipment that has such disparity in design approaches. You have helmets like Notre Dame and Penn State, and then the craziness of Boise State's off-center mustang head and anything done by Oregon in the last five years. There is no rule, no basic template to modify. Stripes down the center have always been a norm, but never required or policed. Such is the case with the stripes on hockey pants.

It appears designers can make it whatever they want it to be. If Tampa Bay can have a full-length lightning bolt, could the Wild decide on a ten inch tall bear on the thigh? If they can do anything they want, why do so many NHL teams abstain from designing anything?

The best way to answer this question is to investigate what the league has. Without further ado, here are the rankings for best pants in the NHL (using the primary home look, factoring in the jersey only in terms of a color/pattern/logo combinations).

The Good
1. New York Rangers - Not surprising that they top the list. Even the casual sports fan (not just hockey fan) can identify these unique knickers as classic New York. Possibly considered gaudy if they were introduced today, the double stripe has become a staple of the NHL. It is interesting that other teams have not emulated this iconic piping pattern in their team colors. Any other professional sports league and there would be several teams with the same template. Then again, it is tough to improve upon decades of the red, white, and blue.

2. Detroit Red Wings - The Detroit sweater/pants combination is the benchmark of restraint. They could have used the modifications of Rbk Edge jersey to bring the wheel and wings into the 21st century. The biggest move they made? They swapped the "A" and "C" to the other side of the chest. What rebellion. Their refusal to change is not like that of the Yankees; this is a franchise that has had flashier uniforms in the past. They choose to keep it plain Jane. Say what you want, the red on red on red on red look is sleek. Today's graphic designer would want the helmet and the pants to be some other color, in the same way that no baseball team likes to wear the same color pants and tops anymore. This high grade goes out to their stubbornness in never introducing a tertiary color, selling out with black pants; and for making that lone white stripe iconic in its subtlety.

3. Calgary Flames - It is ironic that a Canadian team has the jersey/pants combination that looks most like an NBA uniform. In typical basketball uniforms the side panel bleeds down onto the shorts seamlessly. It is peculiar that--with very few exceptions--the rest of the league has not figured out how to carry what is above to the pants. Calgary's only issues arise when looking at the curious sock striping and the excessive need to treat their jersey like a GPS--one Canadian flag and one Alberta flag adorn each player's shoulders. They will stay at number three, because this is not a sock and patch ranking.

4. St. Louis Blues - No team benefited more from the Rbk Edge jersey unveiling than the St. Louis Blues. Their dated, orthogonal striping traded up for a more agile-looking renovation. It ironed out the kinks of having multiple shades of blue on the same jersey. From head to toe, the eyes see nothing but a skater dressed in blue. A closer look shows there is a nice rhythm of navy, royal, navy, royal that breaks up the composition (the exact opposite of the Red Wings color overload). The pants are not without flaws, however. The curve on the pants should be thinner and only bend once. Even so, they have become the standard for the new era in jersey design. The category to come entitled "Missed Opportunities" contains teams with similar seam horns as the Blues, but approach the pants in far less intriguing ways.

5. Phoenix Coyotes - Phoenix shows up in the top five for several reasons. First is their unique take on red on red: the desert palette works. Then there is the waning moon just above the kneecap. Eighteen teams have a small logo on the bottom of their pants, but only Phoenix uses an alternate logo. In a word, smart. Why not? Alternate logos are the supporting cast to the star in the center of the jersey; working best in complimentary spots like the shoulders and pants. Lastly, the Coyotes understand the definition of the word "uniformity." After all, they call them "uniforms" for a reason. The stripe coming down the leg is a perfectly scaled version of the banding on the elbows and legs. Memo to the rest of the NHL: keep it consistent and you climb up this list.

6. Anaheim Ducks - A team in a seemingly endless identity crisis, the newest Ducks uniform at least has continuity. The core concept of the entire look is a thin orange line. It appears all over the jersey, from the wrists to the neckline to the typical Anaheim diagonal waistline. Fittingly, this line shows up above the ankle on the sock and down the side of the pants. The Ducks are proof that if you want to market a black on black on black proposal, you need to have a vibrant accent color to pop. Anaheim hardly customized their pants at all, but the small move made serious impact.

7. Tampa Bay Lightning - The Lightning recently scaled back their brand identification, perhaps a bit too much. In the past, they would overload the jersey with their full team name and crazy graphics. Nowadays it looks like a long sleeve t-shirt supporting a rock band. The top does not give off enough information. Luckily for Tampa Bay this ranking is not focused on the jersey. Their pants compensate for a newfound lack of branding up top. There is no mistaking what team is on the ice when the Bolts skate by. Even during their most eclectic hour as a franchise, the pants with the lightning bolts down the side kept it curiously classy. The Lightning are fortunate to find themselves this high in the rankings; when the new uniforms were unveiled at the end of last season, the bolt was nowhere to be found. Thankfully, someone wised up and brought back the best example of a non-striped graphic on hockey pants.

8. Columbus Blue Jackets - Sure, the Rangers did it first, but navy on top of red works so well. The Blue Jackets would look like another anonymous team if they did not have their red pants. Oh wait, their third jersey takes care of that minor league look. Good thing this is only judging primary home uni's. It is visual proof of how important that red is to their brand identity. It even has Civil War authenticity. The navy trim at the bottom gets lost in the fast-pace action, but is a nice touch when noticed in still frame. The only thing missing is a couple stars down the pant leg; just like there are a couple of stars missing on the ice in Columbus.

9. Chicago Blackhawks - The third Original Six team out of the top ten. What can you say? The Indian head is one of the most iconic logos in all of sports (and the alternate shoulder patch is no slouch either). A jersey that contains a medley of red, black, white, brown, orange, yellow, blue, and green sounds like a terrible idea. Ah, moderation. Just a dabble here and a splash there, and before you know it, you have a gorgeous sweater with nice banding. More than any other team, their pants are bolstered by the jersey. The red, white and black bumblebee look provides enough visual repetition to never confuse what their three primary colors are. Their only problem in the Rbk Edge translation is the "diaper effect" from the newly contoured hemline. By having a consistent strain of red in the jersey, pants, and socks, the tail is overlooked.

10. Ottawa Senators - The only franchise to put the logo on the pants on the left leg, not the right. Points awarded for that originality, however lame it is. The color combination is a relief, as well. They held back from going red on red on red like the Hurricanes, Coyotes, and Red Wings and we all thank them for that. The striping is not perfect, but is does hark back to the mid-20th century Senators. The pros outweigh the cons, so Ottawa concludes the top ten.

11-19: Missed Opportunities
These teams share a common denominator of mediocrity. They are not appalling, but with a simple lesson learned from the top ten, they could be great. Nashville, Florida, and Colorado all have similar thin piping as St. Louis. If they simply continued what starts at the neck, then the uniform would not read like an accumulation of parts. A good uniform is a cohesive, holistic system and the pants are too often an afterthought.

Washington, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Minnesota, Los Angeles, and Dallas round out this section. Not a one of them does anything special with their pants, and it is not because they have extreme complexity in the jersey. In fact, Los Angeles removed all the regality that is associated with being called Kings. They once had elaborate crowns, royal fonts, and a shield fit for a war hero. Now they have some cutting-edge computer generated "L" and "A" trapped inside a home plate geometry. So the crown moved to the pants, right? No. Aside from the NHL logo and brand name, the pants are as empty as their graphic designer's thought process.

Dallas is equally frustrating. The Rbk Edge unveiling brought out their worst; stars are bright things in the sky, yet they decided to go with a blackout look (and not a good one like discussed with the Ducks). They opted out of that whole primary logo across the chest thing. Their resolution was an NBA approach of city wordmark and front numbers. When they arrived at the pants, they finally had a chance to make a statement, but they whiffed--plain black. If you go down to your local hockey retailer, you too could own a pair of Dallas Stars pants. Wait a second, are those Los Angeles pants? New Jersey?

The biggest issue with not designing a piece of the uniform is that professional athletes have million dollar salaries. As fans we never think of it this way, but we should demand that they dress like it. A fan's t-shirt should not show more loyalty to the team than the gear being worn by the players.

20-24: Less is More
Not to be confused with the critique above, these bland pants wearers get a pass because of their elaborate jerseys and/or socks. Unlike Dallas and Los Angeles these teams need the pants to be a reprieve for the eyes. Any more stimulation and it would be overdone. These teams include Winnipeg, Boston, Toronto, Buffalo, and Carolina. In each case, one more line anywhere on the body would be one too many. In several instances they at least use a logo--in the Jets case it is a bonus-point-worthy alternate wordmark.

25: The Confusing
The outlier in the entire league is San Jose. The Sharks used the Rbk transition to throw everything and the kitchen sink into a uniform design. San Jose should probably put another player number and the captain's "C" and "A" on their pants to win the horror vacui award. They do not fit anywhere except the LNAH.

26-29: The Bad
The big question for anyone that contributed to the design of the pants in this category: "Where in the world did the inspiration come from?" Designs should be organic; allowing the elements of the jersey to speak to the creator. And in this case, the wheel does not have to be reinvented. The top ten should encourage people to rob Peter to pay Paul. Take what is good in one spot and copy it (see Phoenix Coyotes). The teams in this category are in fashion prison for trying to over-think it, trying to get cute, and trying something inexplicably unique.

Edmonton, New York, Montreal, and Vancouver are all guilty of using stripes that are arranged in a pattern--or a width--that is nowhere to be found anywhere else in the uniform. It sounds comical, but these franchises are undervaluing the potential of pants. Sure, their primary task is to protect the athlete, and not to tie a concept together. But the top ten showed how vital--how much of a positive selling point--they can be to a consistent, successful brand. If hockey pants had no added value, other than their protection, the Rangers would have switched to a monochrome pant years ago.

The equipment in this section honestly makes hockey look Bush League. It gives the appearance that professional hockey players (some of the best conditioned athletes in the world) are wearing acquired equipment that they had laying around. The NHL is not a pick-up game; the league needs to tighten this up, get a uniform enforcer like the NFL, and have the pants get better.

30: The Ugly
This leaves the worst offender of terribly inconsistent, continuity-free, unrelated pants in all of the National Hockey League. The Pittsburgh Penguins had a plain black pair of pants before the Rbk Edge jersey came to town. It is bad when fans long for that blandness to return. The top remains consistent in its rigidity. The Penguins logo is all about hard corners, and under each arm of the player is a panel of color cut at a clean diagonal. Then it all falls apart on the pants. All of a sudden the gold piping gets awkwardly yielding. Could it be that a team named after a flightless bird has an upside down feather on its pants?

Whatever it is, we all know what it is not. No one can stand up and defend it is good.

What the Penguins have taught us is that the fine people at Reebok like to take unique shaped stencils and give them a whirl. But why? Why there? Why then? The pants and jersey were unveiled simultaneously in 2007. If they really wanted that shape on the pants, where is it anywhere else on the new top? In an age where obviously no one is forcing teams to put a design on the pants, why commit to something like that? It is like they procrastinated up to a deadline that never existed, felt that had to turn in something, and for some reason could not simply look up to the jersey and continue those lines straight down.

If we want to get silly with it, why not have "Vegas" gold piping that emulates the Three Rivers running up Sidney Crosby's leg? The gold varicose veins could not make any less sense than what they have. Or how about becoming the first team to wear all white pants?

Something clearly needs to change in the bottom half of the league. Sounds like a perfect time to bring back the Cooperalls.






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