“We all wore the same uniform as Maurice Richard, the red, white, and blue uniform of the Montreal Canadiens.” – The Hockey Sweater
Roch Carrier painted a perfect picture in 1979 of the hero worship that defines today’s professional sports fandom. If he played in the modern era, the entire Montreal Forum would be packed with thousands of Maurice Richards.
The Phenomenon of the Sports Jersey
Today, every major sports team makes much of its revenue by selling authentic jerseys to fans. Soccer teams, in particular, change their kit design annually to keep people buying. The phenomenon of fans wearing the uniform of their heroes has grown over the last 25 years to the point that in today’s stadiums and arenas, it’s the spectators who aren’t dressed in their team’s colours that stick out.
Bill Fitsell, founder of the Society for International Hockey Research (SIHR), described fan participation at today’s sporting events in an email:
“Today’s fans find it necessary to ‘be a part of the team,” he wrote, “not just spectators and admirers. They high five as if they personally contributed to a score or a win.”
Fitsell would argue that it’s this mentality that has led to the rise of jerseys. Today, they are as much the uniform of the fan as they are the player.
Origins and Fashion Choices
Where did this come from, though? Most sports uniforms – with the possible exception of soccer – are fairly impractical as items of clothing. Some historians suggest that hip hop groups in the 1980s, like N.W.A., deserve some of the credit for popularizing sports merchandise as a fashion item. Others look before then, to the early 70s.
In an article for Sports Illustrated, Tim Layden discovered an ad from 1971 buried in a copy of The Sporting News. A Spokane, WA company proclaimed to offer “quality, authentic game jerseys” in the colours of NFL teams.
It seems the public sentiment around sports jerseys – in baseball, football, and basketball especially – grew as public clothing standards became more casual, and merchandise began appearing in pop culture.
How the Calgary Flames Spawned a Hockey Sweater Phenomenon
The hockey jersey, though, has perhaps the most exciting story, especially in Canada. Over its hundred-plus year history, it’s evolved from a literal wool sweater, into a polyester garment that’s entirely unique to its sport. It’s bulky, scratchy, and on the whole fairly awkward to wear as a shirt.
Nonetheless, thousands of diehard hockey fans have a jersey hanging in their closet. Often the subject of bizarre rituals and superstitions, every fan has a different relationship with their own sweater.
We know, partly from Roch Carrier’s iconic story of Quebec in the 1940s, that the hockey sweater has been available to the Canadian public for decades. Flipping through the Eaton’s mail-order catalogues archived by the Government of Canada, the earliest it seems that sweaters with NHL logos were available was 1934.
An adult-sized sweater could be ordered for $2.10 back then; about $37 in today’s money. In the 1948 catalogue, we can see what Carrier’s mother would’ve ordered from – getting a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater instead of a Canadiens one seems to be a fairly easy mistake to make.
At that time, though, hockey sweaters seem to have been kept mostly to the ice. If they were worn in public, it was by children only. As such, it would take a few more decades for them to begin showing up in the stands of NHL games (excepting one incident in 1979).
A handful of replica jerseys can be seen scattered around NHL games in the 1970s. An archive photo (seen left) from 1975 shows a New York Islanders fan clearly wearing a blue sweater.
The C of Red
In the 1980s, though, things truly began to change. J.P. Martel, current president of the SIHR, points to the Calgary Flames’ playoff runs of 1986 and 1989 as defining moments in the evolution of hockey fan attire.
The 1986 season was a banner year for the Flames. In the playoffs, they upset Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers in a brutal Battle of Alberta en route to their first-ever Stanley Cup Final appearance.
As the buzz around the team – which had arrived in Calgary just six years previously – grew, fans began packing the Olympic Saddledome to see their team in the playoffs.
With the Oilers looking for their third straight Stanley Cup, the Edmonton faithful were turning up to games in caps bearing the words “Hat Trick Fever”. To respond, Calgarians turned their own arena into what would become known as the “C of Red”, with virtually every spectator dressed in the team’s away colour.
Martel suggests that the first C of Red was likely comprised more of towels, shirts, and jackets than jerseys, but photos from the Saddledome in the 80s show a few authentic sweaters in the crowd.
Others Begin To Follow
The C of Red caught the attention of the hockey world, prompting Winnipeg Jets fans to white out their arena in the next year’s playoffs – successfully, too, as they defeated the Flames in the first round.
The idea hadn’t quite caught on around the entire league yet, though, as photos from other NHL playoff games in following years don’t indicate nearly the same level of commitment to coloured attire from fans.
Part of the problem is that jerseys still weren’t easily available to the public. The classic 1986 movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off features Cameron Frye’s famous Gordie Howe jersey. However, the producers had to write to Howe himself to obtain it, without consumer sweaters available in stores. It would take a few more years for NHL teams to catch on and go all-in on authentic merchandise sales.
The C of Red, 2.0
In 1989, Calgary built on the craze of the C of Red, with fans in the city growing feverish as the Flames advanced to the Final again – this time prevailing to bring home the franchise’s first (and only) Stanley Cup. Photos from that year’s run show even more jerseys throughout the crowd, as retailers began to take advantage of the craze and offer fans the authentic experience of a player jersey.
Sports fashion continued to invade the public consciousness through the 1990s and early 2000s, with teams beginning to offer jerseys through their own stores, capitalizing on the hero worship that comes with being a diehard sports fan. Jerseys could be seen in every corner of an NHL arena (as well, of course, as in the NBA, MLB, and NFL).
There was still one more watershed moment left to come in the evolution of the hockey jersey, though. A lot of progress had been made by the early 2000s, and it was certainly not a subject of interest to see a sizeable contingent of fans in team apparel at a hockey game.
However, it was once again the Calgary Flames who vaulted the ice-authentic sweater into the realm of essential fan attire.
Calgary Returns to the Playoffs
In 2003-04, the excitement was once again growing in Calgary, in a way that it hadn’t been seen since the late 80s. Every Flames fan remembers fondly the run they made to return to the Cup Final, and the heartbreak suffered at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
By reaching out on Reddit for Flames fans to recount their experience of that year, several things became apparent: that the vibe in Calgary was electric, that every man, woman, and child needed a red jersey, and that it was in.
As the team progressed farther in the playoffs, Calgarians began purchasing home sweaters en masse, to the point that almost every seat at the Pengrowth Saddledome was occupied by a fan in a red jersey with a black flaming C.
The Red Mile on 17th Ave in Calgary drew media attention from all over the world, as fans came out in droves sporting that red jersey – as well as countless other Flames-branded paraphernalia.
It was really this moment that made jerseys a staple of NHL spectating. Fans turned up to arenas all over North America in team jerseys the next year, and teams began marketing the authentic player jersey far more aggressively.
The Atmosphere on the Red Mile
One Flames fan on Reddit (who preferred to remain anonymous) described the atmosphere in the city, and how it contributed to the explosion of jersey sales.
“I had been to several games before the run. You’d see some people wear the jersey, but there were still tons of people wearing older jerseys or simply came in regular clothes. Once we got into the playoffs, everybody was wearing red. People were definitely buying jerseys en masse. . .
“I remember that the whole arena was coloured in red, save for one spot in the lower bowl on the attacking end of the rink. There sat a lone Sharks fan in an away jersey, which the jumbotron guys decided to mock by having an animated Flames logo set him on fire on the jumbotron screen.”
Retail Sales Explode with a Hockey Jersey Alteration
Dee Johanson, a representative from the Calgary Flames retail department, attributes the jersey craze in 2004 to a number of fortunate circumstances.
“In the fall of 2003 we launched the red jersey with the Flaming Black ‘C’,” Johanson wrote in an email.
“What made our sales stronger was not only did we launch a red jersey that the fans really liked, but it was also the season that the NHL made the decision to wear the coloured/or dark jerseys at home. Previously to that all teams wore the white jerseys at home (which white jerseys have never been as popular in the Flames market).”
So it was that Calgary Flames fans began, and then amplified, a trend that now extends across the entire NHL. Roch Carrier’s “five Maurice Richards taking it away from five other Maurice Richards” seems a far cry from the thousands of fans in their favourite player’s jersey at modern NHL games, but it’s the very same admiration of sporting heroes at play.
The history of the hockey sweater begins generations ago, but its current status in the arenas of the NHL evolved far more recently.
Special thanks to the SIHR, the North American Society for Sport History, the Calgary Flames organization, and /r/calgaryflames.