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Advertising on NHL uniforms is just sign of the times

Photo/Mark Zimmaro

Hockey fans may see it as a sign of the apocalypse. The owners and players might call it a necessary evil. Advertisers will likely tout themselves as heroes for supplying the lifeblood to keep this sport going in times of uncertainty.

Hockey pandemic is a different world, with different rules, and different ideas about how to keep a billion-dollar league rolling, despite playing a shortened season with no fans in the seats.

Revenue is down. Way down. More than expected.

And we had already known the day would come when discussions of advertising on NHL uniforms would happen. The year of 2020 certainly expedited those talks. Last week, the league announced that sponsors could rent a small branding space on each team’s helmet during practices and games. And the New Jersey Devils were the first to unveil a Prudential logo somewhat tastefully displayed on their shiny black helmets.

So it’s done then. Pandora’s box has been opened. Hockey purists warn us to get ready for ugly European-style add-laced jerseys, without a spec of free space from the blade of a skate to the toe of a stick. NASCAR on Ice, if you will. Old-school fans are ready to take their pucks and go home.

Or maybe we’re just overreacting. Advertising has actually been a part of the sport for decades. We’ve just gotten used to it.

Advertising on the rink boards began in 1980 when the Minnesota North Stars were the first team to sell ads at their home arena — a ghastly horror at the time. By the 1990s, ads began to appear on the actual ice in the neutral zone. Now we have those magic virtual ads that we can see only on television broadcasts. It’s been a part of the game for as long as some of us have been around.

True story, when I was a kid, I got a mini table-top rod hockey game for Christmas one year. It had two-dimensional Flyers and Islanders players that you controlled with small rotating rods. I was a kid with an eye for detail, so I took a magic marker and scribbled numbers and names on the backs of each player to humanize my new toy. Tim Kerr and Brian Propp lining up against Pat LaFontaine and Bryan Trottier. The next thing I did was put stickers along the boards. Why? Because it looked weird without them.

Ads on helmets will look weird for a little while and then they will eventually blend into our subconscious the way board advertising did. It was strange when hockey arenas started getting named after banks, airlines and pizza places, too. Now we don’t think twice as the Rangers’ Madison Square Garden is the only venue without a sponsor.

According to TSN, some high-profile clubs will get as much as $1 million for helmet advertising this season and the league is hoping to reel in about $15 million as a whole. It can be seen as a drop in the bucket into offsetting what the NHL has lost this year, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

Would a small advertisement on the bottom corner of a player’s hockey pants be acceptable next? Maybe. But the NHL needs to be careful about sliding down a slippery, greedy slope. Preventing advertising on NHL jerseys seems to be the hill most fans are willing to die on. No one wants to see those perfect Canadiens or Blackhawks sweaters mucked up with sponsorship logos. More importantly, no one wants to buy those same sweaters if they don’t hold any resemblance to the uniforms hockey fans have come to worship. The league will likely police itself on that matter as it won’t want to interrupt a steady cash flow of jersey sales, which retail for about $200 each these days.

The day will come when advertising on jerseys will come, probably sooner than we think, as the American Hockey League and the NBA already have them. And this discussion will resurface on where to draw the line. But for now, advertising on helmets shouldn’t be a big concern. It’s a necessary evil, and fans should get used to it.

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