“We all wore the same uniform as Maurice Richard, the red, white and blue uniform of the Montréal 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 their revenue by selling authentic jerseys to fans. Soccer teams, in particular, change their kit design every year to keep people buying. Over the last 25 years, fans have started to dress more and more like their heroes.
Bill Fitsell, founder of the Society for International Hockey Research (SIHR), described the 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 this mentality has led to the rise of jerseys. Today, they’re 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 — except maybe soccer shirts — are pretty 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.
It seems the public demand for sports jerseys grew as public dress standards relaxed, and merchandise began appearing in pop culture.
A History of the Hockey Sweater: How the Calgary Flames Spawned a Phenomenon
The hockey jersey, though, has the most exciting story, as a literal piece of the fabric of Canadiana. Over its hundred-plus year history, it’s evolved from a literal wool sweater into a polyester garment that’s uniquely hockey. It’s bulky, scratchy, and on the whole awkward to wear as a shirt.
Nonetheless, thousands of diehard hockey fans have a jersey hanging in their closet. Often part of bizarre rituals and superstitions, every fan has a different relationship with their own sweater.
We know, partly from Carrier’s iconic story of 1940s Quebec, that hockey sweaters have been a commodity in Canada for decades. Flipping through the Eaton’s mail-order catalogues, NHL-branded sweaters have been for sale since 1934 (left).
At that time, though, hockey sweaters seem to have stayed mostly on the ice. In those days, Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe policed the stands to ensure Torontonians adhered to his strict formal dress code. Only children wore jerseys in public.
It would take a few more decades for them to begin showing up in the stands of NHL games (excepting one incident in 1979).
Canadians could order adult-sized sweaters for $2.10 back then; about $37 in today’s money. In the 1948 catalogue (right), 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 an easy mistake to make.
The C of Red
Replica jerseys begin to pop up in NHL photos from the 1970s. An archive photo (seen above) from 1975 shows a New York Islanders fan wearing a blue sweater.
In the 1980s, though, things 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 Flames went to their first Stanley Cup final in 1986, upsetting Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers on the way. As the buzz around the team which arrived in Calgary six years before — grew, fans packed the Olympic Saddledome.
With the Oilers seeking their third straight Cup, the Edmonton faithful were turning up to games “Hat Trick Fever” caps. In response, Calgarians turned their own arena into the “C of Red”, with virtually every spectator dressed in the team’s away colour.
Martel says that towels, shirts, and jackets made up the first C of Red more than jerseys, but photos from the Saddledome show a few authentic sweaters in the crowd.
The C of Red caught the hockey world’s attention, prompting Winnipeg Jets fans to white out their arena in the next year’s playoffs — successfully, too, as they beat 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 show the same level of fan commitment to coloured attire.
Part of the problem is that jerseys still weren’t readily available to the public. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) features Cameron Frye’s famous Gordie Howe jersey. The producers had to write to Howe himself to get it, though, 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, the C of Red returned as the Flames went to the final again — this time prevailing to bring home the franchise’s first (and only) Stanley Cup. Photos from that year show even more jerseys in the crowd, as retailers capitalized on the craze and offered fans the authentic experience of a player jersey.
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 nothing new to see most fans in team apparel at a hockey game. Sports fashion continued to invade the public consciousness through the 1990s and early 2000s, with teams beginning to offer jerseys through their own stores. Jerseys exploded across every corner of NHL arenas (as well, of course, as in the NBA, MLB, and NFL).
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, excitement was once again growing in Calgary, for the first time since the late 80s. Every Flames fan fondly remembers their ’04 run Cup Final, and the heartbreak suffered at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
By reaching out on to Flames fans on Reddit, 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 further in the playoffs, Calgarians began purchasing home sweaters en masse, to the point that almost every seat at the Saddledome was occupied by a red jersey with a black flaming C.
The Red Mile on 17th Ave. 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 sweaters the next year. Teams themselves began marketing the authentic player jersey far more aggressively.
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.”
Dee Johanson, a representative from the Calgary Flames retail department, attributes the jersey craze in 2004 to a few 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 hero-worship 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.