Saturday, January 19, 2013

Winning: The Pooh

bruinsoldalt.jpgI lied.

I said I would never, ever accept them, let alone buy one.

I thought they were an absolute abomination, completely unfit for an Original Six team with such a rich uniform history.

I saw them as a sign that even the Bruins could not escape the evil reach of Gary Bettman's modernization efforts.

Yet, here I am today. In possession of what I never thought I would own.

The Pooh Bear sweater.

Why? How could I pull such a 180 on something whose mere existence I  had been so diametrically opposed to? What the hell happened to me?

To understand where I am now on the subject, I must first look back on how it all started.

Back in 1995, as the NHL emerged from the first lockout of Gary Bettman's tenure as Commissioner, the Bruins were a fairly strong team featuring Bourque, Oates and Neely still at the top of their games. The team had bowed out in the first round of the playoffs to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion New Jersey Devils in what was the final postseason to be played at the historic Boston Garden.

But change was afoot, big time.

The Bruins were leaving the famed barn for the brand spanking new Fleet Center, located a mere nine inches behind the old building that they had played in since 1928.  And with the move the Bruins would be making another major change: new uniforms.

Now, keep in mind, the set they had worn up to that point was the only one I had ever known. That design made its debut in the 1974-5 season and save for some minor tweaks (mainly the addition of nameplates and some font changes) and the throwback set they wore in 1991-2 for the league's 75th anniversary, they stayed relatively the same up to 1995.

But wholesale changes were coming. Not only were the sweaters getting a total redesign including contrasting sleeves, three color numbers and a revised chest logo, but rumors  had it that there would be an alternate design set for introduction in the new year.

Keep in mind that websites such as Uni Watch, Chris Creamer's Sports Logos and SSUR didn't exist back then and uniform news was not readily available. All we really had were the newspapers, ESPN (yes, you read that correctly) and a few online bulletin boards.

Eventually, the designs were made public and they circulated quickly.  The league was looking to expand their foothold in the American sports scene (we were already smack in the middle of the Fox glowing puck era), with the Nordiques having relocated westward to Colorado and Winnipeg set to move to Phoenix.  Accordingly, teams were already introducing new uniform sets, including the now-infamous Islanders' "Gorton's Fisherman" set and the Capitals' teal eagle design.  Furthermore, as part of the League's marketing efforts six teams were going to introduce new alternate sweaters to be worn for select games in the second half of the season: Anaheim, Chicago, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Vancouver and the Bruins.

Uniform designs were clearly breaking away from their traditional design ethos and going in a completely different direction. Clip art logos, color gradients, cartoonish font faces and garish recolorizations were all aspects that helped foster in this new era of uniform design.

The new alternates ran the gamut of taste, from the classic simplicity of the Blackhawks' normal home template rendered in black to the Kings' "Burger King" set with sublimated sashes and the Mighty Ducks' "Wild Wing" set which was just plain terrible, even by Disney standards. Pittsburgh's thirds introduced gray into their color scheme, but that design worked well enough that they ended up adopting it as their full time road uniform until 2002.

Which brings us to the Bruins.

When the first photos surfaced of the new sweater, I was shocked.  I had long hoped for a gold alternate, but this was not what I had imagined. This was just plain fugly.

The Logo

Gentile Ben
While the 1977-1995 set featured an poorly rendered, yet somewhat ferocious bear head shoulder patch/alternate logo, the new alternates featured a large bear head that was little more than a chain stitched rendering of Gentle Ben.

In fact, the logo was based on a framed picture Harry Sinden had hanging in his office.

Whereas a number of teams decided to go with aggressive looking cartoonish characters for their logos, the Bruins went with the most timid looking bear they could find.  For a team that was known for its iconic spoked B logo, this was a huge change and certainly not for the the better.

The Template


This was not the first time the Bruins included a gold sweater in their uniform set, not was it the first time they introduced an alternate to be worn along with their normal home and away ones.

In 1940, the Bruins included a gold sweater to be worn a few times as an alternative to their standard white jersey.  They would wear this off and on for four seasons and would not wear another gold jersey until the 1955 season when they used the color on their primary uniforms.

The 1955 set was the first set to feature a home, away and alternate design.  They would wear gold sweaters through the 1967 season, but none thereafter until 1996.

The template that was used for the 1996 design featured sublimated stripes on the hem and shoulders that were supposed to mimic bear fur.  Some people thought it evoked a Charlie Brown design aesthetic instead. It was so radically different from anything the Bruins had done previously and was unlike anything else in the league to that point.  For a hockey market full of traditionalists and die-hards, it was bit tough to reconcile.  It was something that the newer teams might be able to get away with, but not the spoked-B Black and Gold.

That said, the one design element that really worked for this sweater was the use of the black/white/black tackle twill for the names and numbers, as it really popped against the bright gold material.

The Shoulder Patch


One of the most overlooked failings of the 1996 alternate was the use of the Bruins' wordmark as a shoulder patch. In a textbook case of where less is more, slapping an oversized word on the shoulders was a huge mistake. Even the use of the spoked-B logo probably wouldn't have been much better.  I honestly think that leaving the patches off would have made this look significantly better.

The Nickname

More often than not, when uniform designs garner nicknames, it is not a term of endearment.  Look at some of the other uniforms of this era which have been nicknamed over the years: the Gorton's Fisherman,  Lady Liberty, Wild Wing, Burger King, The Mooterus, even the Flying Vee.  All of these refer to uniforms that are regarded with a large degree of ridicule. Its not a good sign when you can refer to a shirt with a nickname.

The Bruins' gold alternates quickly became known as the Pooh Bears.  It was embarrassing, yet incredibly fitting.

The Era

The introduction of the Bruins alternate sweaters coincided with a the start of a tumultuous time in Bruins history.  The 1996 team opened the Fleet Center with a decent regular season, but lost out to the eventual Eastern Conference champion Florida Panthers in the first round of the playoffs.  The next season was much, much worse with the B's finishing last in the east, Cam Neely battling injuries and Adam Oates being traded midseason. They'd miss the playoffs, but did manage to land the 1st and 8th picks in the 1997 Entry Draft which were used to draft Joe Thornton and Sergei Samsonov. But the Pat Burns era turned into the Mike Keenan era which begat the Robbie Ftorek era and segued into the Mike Sullivan era. All along, there were missed postseasons and poor performances when they did manage to make the playoffs.  Things bottomed out when Ray Bourque, the team's legendary defenseman and one of their all-time greats sought a trade to a contending team and managed to win the Stanley Cup 2 seasons later.

There was the Marty McSorley incident. Jason Allison's captaincy. The Joe Thornton trade. The post-lockout breakup of a promising 2003-4 squad and subsequent mess of a team in 2005. The loss to Montreal in seven games.

Despite the presence of fan favorite PJ Stock, these were not good times to be a Bruins fan. Season tickets numbered around 5,000. The team was hurting for fans. Draft picks were not panning out. Things were looking bleak.  And it just so happened that the Pooh Bears were around for this period.

So why my change of heart?

I've actually thought a lot about this. Did I have an epiphany or something? I'm not exactly sure.

The easy answer is that the statute of limitations on crappy sweater designs has expired, but I think that might be a cop out.

No, the more I think about it, the Pooh Bears remind me of a time when we had to work to be a fan of the Bruins. Though tickets were significantly cheaper than they are today, the building was significantly empty for a good number of game nights, particularly weeknight games before Christmas and games once the B's were eliminated from the playoff race. Unlike today, there were players you just could never like, but there were a few fan favorites: PJ Stock, PJ Axelsson, Bill Guerin, Don Sweeney.  You were a fan of the Bruins because you loved the team, the history, the game of hockey. Going to a Bruins game wasn't a merely a social activity.

I juxtapose that time to today. The Bruins have recaptured the Boston sports market. The team is wildly successful and the players are adored by the fans. Games are sold out and tickets are expensive and hard to get. Going to a Bruins game is THE thing to do in town.  Even after a ludicrous lockout, the local thirst for hockey remains at an all time high. It's easy to be a fan of this team because the team makes it so.

In addition, finding a Pooh Bear sweater today takes a good amount of effort. Much like when I was after my 75th anniversary sweater (almost 13 years ago), I did daily searches on eBay and online postings. What was once a prolific supply has been reduced to a slight trickle. It took me almost 2 years to find a blank throwback in my size back then.  This time it took me about six months to find a Pooh Bear in my size on eBay.

The only question that remains is which player name and number I want to get stitched on it. I've got a handful of names, ranging from the obvious (Stock) to the surprising (Donato) and everything in between.

In the end, I look at having a Pooh Bear jersey in my collection (14 and counting, by the way) as a reminder not to take what we have today for granted.  Sure, it's ugly as sin. But, much like people, its more about the inner beauty than the looks.