TORONTO – Every ice rink in the NHL is a world in itself. Everyone with their own rich history, their own traditions, their own inimitable energy. Spend a night in the saddle and that becomes clear.
The atmosphere in which the flames of Calgary draw the ice in their own strings is a pride for the Alberto believers who fill the arena 41 times a year. The main reason for this is the fans themselves – the flocks of locals who pack the seats of the dome, who have been wearing the same jersey for years, as if an obligatory uniform was required for admission.
It was the sweater that the club launched in Calgary just before the most memorable months of the past three decades when Jarome Iginla led the team in a Stanley Cup championship win. It was a year earlier, in 2003, that the Flames broke the franchise tradition with the introduction of the "black C" shirt – red threads with the club's flaming "C" logo in black, after 23 years only in red or white. with the impression that the coat of arms was burned into the front of the sweater.
Calgarians immediately cleared the shelves and proudly returned to the Dome with their new jerseys to reach the 2004 Cup final. The picture of almost 20,000 fans dressed in exactly the same sweater gave life to the still life. standing nickname for the Saddledome crowd: the & # 39; C of Red & # 39 ;.
Fifteen years later, the passion for the team's aesthetics has only increased, and while many fans in the NHL keep in touch with their team's appearance, the Flames believers 'internal identity lends the Calgarians' jersey obsession a new touch.
"It is a unique situation for us because our fan base is an icon in terms of their presentation in the building and their clothing," said Ryan Popowich, Flames Marketing Director. "They are identified as the C by red, and this largely reflects the jersey itself. We've had comments from other teams all the time, administrative staff come here and watch a game and they say," Wow, you got it all distributed these jerseys? "
However, it is not just about the graphics. For Calgary it is also the feeling of uniting against the opponent who enters the barn every night. And to celebrate the nostalgia of the team's better days – the best 16 years that Iginla spent as a blaze and the wondrous playoff track where he almost won silver.
It all started with a simple decision in 2003 after the league instructed its clubs to wear dark uniforms at home. The Flames chose to introduce Homereds, and every brand decision that had been made for almost two decades was affected.
“The C of Red does not exist without a red jersey. Even in the original days in the 80s, the C of Red was always there, it was one thing, but it really came to life in 2004, ”says Popowich. "… From that point on it was synonymous with the fan base. This jersey really solidified as what you identify with, not just for the team but also for the fan base. You really invest in what like that If we change it, we change their identity, so we have to be very aware and attentive to what they want and what to expect. ”
After Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Matthew Tkachuk ushered in a new era in flame hockey, the fan base has finally evolved. Many call for a permanent change to the red-yellow retro jerseys, which have prevailed as team alternatives. Popowich spoke to Sportsnet to break through the complicated process that the NHL clubs are going through and to initiate a permanent shirt change, whether Flames fans will one day experience the return of the cult classic Blasty-Jersey and what the development of sports branding means for the Flames and the NHL.
This interview was edited for the sake of clarity and brevity.
Sportsnet: Guide us through the process that a team goes through when they want to replace their primary home and away kits with a new design.
Ryan Popowich: I wish it was a very quick and easy process. Some people probably think we would just flip a switch and say, "Well, we decided to wear it now." – but it is not. There is definitely a process, and of course you have to follow certain guidelines and procedures if you are in a league. No team can simply decide whether to change their name and color or whatever they want to do.
As far as the process is concerned, we are constantly developing and paying attention to what our brand is, how we look and how the fans find resonance with it. And the feedback from the fans is because we get it all the time – especially nowadays you can hear from the fans again and again what they want for their team. So the process is always when you want to change something – but it really starts with internal discussions about: “What do we think of the feedback? Which direction do we want to go? "
As we do this, our league shirt partners, Adidas, keep coming up to us with concepts and ideas. We are waiting for it and when they present these programs, like the third jerseys and things like that, we can use whatever we have been thinking about. So if we want to change a jersey at any time, the actual process is: "OK, we have an idea, we are ready for it." When programs from Adidas come, the process begins.
SN: What role does the league play? I assume that you have to coordinate a shirt change with a change of other teams or a league-wide shift. To what extent does this matter when something can be introduced, even if it is approved?
Popowich: Yes, there are a lot of processes and rules. All teams in the league are limited to a certain number of jerseys in terms of programs. You are also limited to adding a jersey or changing one of the existing jerseys for a period of time. So the league is very committed.
It is quite structured. Just as it is with fan jerseys these days, you can see in the other leagues that everyone else is really experimenting with a kind of non-traditional attitude of how many jerseys they have. Obviously the NBA is doing a more evolutionary thing with the number of their jerseys – they don't even think about home and away jerseys anymore. Our league, we are still pretty traditional in terms of what the jersey is – you get your home and away, and then you get your third jersey, and straying from it would require a special program that really gives an instruction the league in terms of additional jerseys or a special jersey.
So when we have our outdoor games – we just had the Heritage Classic recently – the league says: "You can have a new shirt for that now." So we have to wait for the league somehow to set times and windows where we can change our jersey or add new jerseys.
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SN: Every league wants to learn to a certain extent from other leagues and play each other out – that is what you would be interested in if one day you reach a point where you have more freedom to experiment with other jerseys like the NBA?
Popowich: I personally, for sure. As a league, I would like to see how we develop, because I just think it has come. They are used to this in terms of the fan base, the reactions of the public and the next generation – they are less bound to the traditional structure of the home and away kit. But there is still the common thread of what a jersey is for a fan, it really is the first type of branding and representation of your team and it is a real connection point for people.
We're definitely more traditional in hockey – it's not that we get stuck in our own way, but we'll probably be the last to develop things like the NBA, but I don't think so so is absolutely a bad thing. I think we will do it at our own pace. But I'm looking forward to the day when we are a little more fluent in what we do. We get along that way. I think we're going at the right pace. Since we launched Adidas, they have been a very future-oriented manufacturing brand – that's one of the reasons why they were launched to drive the evolution of the jerseys.
You can see that the programs they make with third kits and that Adidas and the league will be offering other programs here over the next few seasons that are really exciting. With the new jerseys you will be more and more flexible. And you can see that we are also experimenting with many teams, with warm-up jerseys and similar things with unique jersey concepts and similar things.
So it comes, it gets more and more, but I don't know if we'll ever get as extreme as the NBA does. You will probably be a bit ahead of us, but it's a different way of thinking for this particular sport – I think the jersey even with hockey is a bit more tied to the way the game is played in this traditional sense. It's a little bit more like a piece of equipment compared to other sports that are more like the uniform you wear, so it's just a little different in our world. But I like how it moves safely. I like the opportunities that we have had recently and that we will have in the future.
SN: In Calgary there is great interest in permanently switching to the retro jerseys as the primary home and away game. Is this a change the team is planning?
Popowich: Obviously there was something in the discussion – it's not really a secret that we thought about it for a while. We have been introducing the retro jersey as a third jersey for several years. That's why this jersey already exists and we played with hits. Obviously we are using it more and more. But there is also a process here: turning over your actual home and away jerseys takes some time in relation to the process if you follow this path.
So let's think about it. We get fan feedback all the time, so that's on the agenda – the fans told us. The retro jerseys are very well received, and we were very excited this year when the Heritage Classic provided an opportunity to make the retro version of our original home and away jersey, the white version. It looks like all the parts will fit together after we have the Heritage Classic jersey and our retro from the third jersey in red. It's a really good way to go and we'll see what the future holds. It is definitely something we are thinking about.
Just absolutely in love with these jerseys, @adidashockey #HeritageClassic | #Flames pic.twitter.com/jSQwkgi3zj
– Calgary Flames (@NHLFlames) October 26, 2019
SN: How much influence do the players have in which direction the team in the jersey sways when trying to test some of them with the thirds and the games outdoors?
Popowich: Actually a lot. They're the types they have to wear, so you look good, feel good, do a good job, all that stuff. That's the reality. Funnily enough, Hockey Ops is very involved in the whole process of every shirt development. So I'm just going to guide you back through the first steps we talked about in the jersey process. So Adidas will come to us and have concepts for jerseys. Then all stakeholders who are involved internally here will deal with these concepts. In general, the stakeholders we have are, in my view, marketing, and then retail is probably the next largest stakeholder. Our Director of Retail, Brent Gibbs, is therefore very involved. We are probably the most important local players when it comes to jersey concepts. But management has a very, very big part in it and takes it in, and then hockey operations too.
So these two and we and various other departments all get a look at it and give input. But as soon as Brent and I think we have a winning concept, senior management and hockey ops have the final say. So you are very involved. And the great thing is that they trust us in marketing and retail because they know we are the connection to the fans. It's always fan-first – if the fans really want it and they think it looks good, then the players are happy with it.
We know when we're going to win a bit in terms of our concept – a really good example would be our third jersey, our retro jersey. Because just in the playoffs last year, each team has the ability to choose which jersey they want to wear for the playoffs, and we've committed to wearing our third jersey. And obviously the reaction of the fans to it was fantastic. People were very excited about this news. But this request really came from hockey ops – they wanted to wear these retro jerseys, so they asked us if we could submit the third jersey as the jersey of choice.
So they like to wear it, the fans really like it, it was a piece of cake. So we know that we have a winning strategy with this jersey.
SN: There is such a great passion for the jerseys in Calgary – you think of the blasty jersey, I remember when the "black C" came into the mix for the first time. I don't know if every fan base in the league is invested in the shirts just as well – what does that tell you about the passion of the fan base?
Popowich: Yes, it's cool. When I say something about a jersey on Twitter, it turns into a discussion about Blasty, the black C, or the retros. & # 39; When does that come back? When do we switch? "It is great and the passion is fantastic.
Jarome Iginla, in the Blasty jersey, after his 50th goal of the season in 2002. (Brian Kersey / AP)
SN: There were also different opinions about Blasty in our office. I personally am a big fan of it – where do you end up on the Blasty jersey and how does it look like it may reappear in the future as it becomes a cult classic in a way?
Popowich: Even today, the nice thing is that everything has now become a cult classic. I think it's great that retro is now everything you used to make fun of. It's super cool now. To be honest: when we had this jersey, we were very excited when it came out. I wasn't a member of the club, but when we were in town, people were excited when it came out. But then the backlash was 50:50, it was a mixed reaction and as it grew, people fell out of favor with it.
The Horse Head Jersey – originally called The Stallion, but then everyone called it Horse Head, and then it got its real nickname, Ol & # 39; Blasty. We have had it for a long time. People forget it's synonymous with Jarome Iginla's run and era. It is tantamount to him. There was even an internal debate here about some of the pictures we wanted to use in the jersey during his retirement night, how much blasty should be part of it. Now that's the cool thing – you saw that Phoenix, with his jersey that had mixed reviews in the past or that people didn't like, is now super trendy because it's nostalgic.
So, I love Blasty for that very reason – I'm thinking more about Iginla and these teams, and that's very typical of our fan base. So Ol & # 39; Blasty definitely has his place. But one of the problems, as I said, is that the C of red is an identifying factor. The red jersey has really solidified as the number one we need in terms of our primary representation on our jerseys. Without red, we really can't have a main jersey now.
Even when we launched the white jerseys for the Heritage Classic, people loved it and this year they wear it in the dome and you see a little bit of white now in the C of Red – it's just kind of a break on it. We are aware of that. We know the fans like a black jersey and it would be cool to have it but it would affect the C of red. But I have an affinity for it and a lot of people do it – Blasty needs a place in our history, in our team, in our organization, so we worked hard to get Blasty back in the fold, some of it bringing back clothes and some hats , We have a few things that will be published here in a few weeks with our clothing that Blasty is developing.
I don't think we saw the last one from Blasty, let's just say that.
SN: A few years before the retros, there was the other jersey design with "Calgary" on the chest – what went into this design process?