- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 6, 2002

The Edmonton Oilers are nearly 14 years removed from their Wayne Gretzky glory days and more than 11 years since their last Stanley Cup win. The team is awash in red ink, and the ownership group is an unwieldy collection of more than three dozen investors. These days, each new season brings another rumor of an impending move south to the United States.
Despite the years of disappointment, Oilers fans have mobbed the Skyreach Centre this season, and not just because of the team's surprisingly fast start. Rather, the Oilers have rejuvenated their fan base in large part through its new third jersey, an amalgam of grey and blue that still features an oil drop marking Edmonton's chief export but little else resembling the team's traditional and well-known blue and orange uniforms. The jersey was created over a lengthy two-year process by famed comic book and toy tycoon Todd McFarlane, an Oilers investor.
In the three days following the third jersey's release in late October, the Oilers sold more than $200,000 worth of them. The first-night take at Skyreach Centre alone topped $100,000, a figure exceeding the team's arena merchandising total for Gretzky's farewell night.
"It's just been absolutely unbelievable, way, way beyond anything we ever expected," said Allan Watt, Oilers vice president of marketing. "It's by far the most popular thing we're selling, and these days all we have to sell are the jerseys in small and medium [the least popular sizes] and people are still buying them."
The frenzied scene has been repeated in Nashville, where fans snapped up the Predators' new third jersey, a shiny gold number featuring a large, screaming saber-toothed tiger. And in Boston, a similarly bright gold sweater with a large bear head, which has generated derisive comparisons to Winnie the Pooh, is selling well. This phenomenon is occurring in more than 20 other cities leaguewide.
The NHL remains America's fourth pro sports choice at best and likely will never challenge the NFL, NBA or major league baseball for fan supremacy. But the league remains the undisputed torchbearer in marketing through alternate uniforms. Whereas baseball and European soccer leagues are often mocked for their seemingly greedy pursuit of dollars through frequent uniform redesign and alternate issues, hockey is widely celebrated. The NHL's official Third Jersey Program, an effort involving 23 teams since 1995, now reaps more than $30 million in sales a year.
"Our jersey business is unequivocally the most important part of entire merchandising operation, and the third jerseys have been instrumental in extending our brand and extending that jersey business to new and younger demographics," said Brian Jennings, NHL vice president of consumer products marketing.
Anaheim and Boston helped usher in the program six years ago. Since then, consumers have seen alternate jerseys with cactuses (Phoenix), royal crowns (Los Angeles), fire-snorting horses (Calgary) and even Lady Liberty (New York Rangers), which remains the league's all-time best selling third jersey five years after its release.
Critics of the proliferation of third jerseys point to the open pursuit of cash and cite the lemming-like rush by teams to black backgrounds, oversized logos and often-jarring design work. Their argument is further supported by Montreal and Detroit, two of the NHL's original six teams, steadfastly refusing to release third jerseys.
To a degree, that's true. The NHL, like any other sports league, is in business to make money. But also like most other sports leagues, the NHL splits all licensing revenue equally among the teams, making it difficult for any one team to profit handsomely solely by its own third jersey.
"If we did this solely for the money, we'd be foolish," said Tom Ward, executive vice president of business operations for Nashville. "We've done great with this, but it doesn't really put a solid dent in our total team revenue. This is about branding and exposure. Every one of these jerseys is a miniature billboard for us."
Eight teams, including Washington, now use previous third jerseys as either primary home or away sweaters. The Capitals, under third-year owner Ted Leonsis, have gone a step further. The team's third jersey, featuring the Capitol dome logo on a black sweater, was introduced in 1997. When Leonsis purchased the team two years later, the dome logo became the focal point of all the team's corporate communication. The team's blue away jersey with the eagle logo was retired, and the third jersey was promoted to the primary road jersey. The Caps also wear the black sweater for several home games each season.
Team officials are still mulling a return to a red, white and blue color scheme that was used for the Caps' first 21 seasons. But what is making that effort a low team priority is the popularity of the former third jersey.
"This is something the fans really embraced, long before Jaromir [Jagr] arrived," said Declan Bolger, Caps senior vice president of business operations. "If something really great comes up, we'll consider changing the entire lineup [of jerseys], but there is a real appreciation for what we have now."
Many teams in the NHL Third Jersey Program have placed their regular crest on a different color background. But even for that simple switch, creating an alternate jersey is an involved affair that requires more than a year of lead time and approvals from the league, input from those manufacturing the jerseys and numerous on- and off-ice tests. Among the trials a new jersey is put through is how it looks on TV and under arena lights, how it withstands scuffing and tears from game play and how focus groups react to it.
"We had a shade of gold for our third [jersey] that was initially much lighter," Ward said. "But on TV, it just looked washed-out. So we had to keep darkening and keep darkening until we got what we wanted. It took quite a while. And then we had to work on the crest, the trim and so forth."
Future NHL third jerseys likely will take a cue from Nashville, which utlilized a squared-off cut along the neckline and a shinier, double air knit fabric.
"That jersey has it all. It's a different look, a different fabric, different cuts, different lines," said Ross McCracken, uniform product manager for the Hockey Co., which manufactures all the jerseys used in NHL games. "The new sweater really stands out and raises the bar for others in terms of trying to push the envelope."

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