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About the Author
Nicholas Hirshon is an assistant professor of communication at William Paterson University. He worked as a reporter for the New York Daily News from 2005 to 2011 and has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Hockey News. He is the author of Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum and Forest Hills. Éric Fichaud is a retired NHL goaltender who played for the New York Islanders from 1996 to 1998.
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BIRTH OF A BRAND
The room was buzzing when Bruce McNall, the owner of the NHL's Los Angeles Kings, stood before dozens of reporters, photographers, and camera crews in the Sheraton La Reina on August 9, 1988. "We'd like now to go to the reason you all came — to introduce our new team colors," McNall said, drawing laughter from the media contingent. "Let's see. I think we have a model here somewhere for the new colors. I'm not sure."
Eyes turned to a black curtain beside the dais. Out stepped the greatest player in hockey, Wayne Gretzky, a seven-time scoring champion, eight-time most valuable player, and the NHL's all-time assists leader, still in his prime at age twenty-seven. With cameras rapidly flashing, Gretzky pulled on a jersey. Gone was Los Angeles's old purple and gold uniform. Gretzky's Kings would wear silver and black.
The Kings anticipated the largest turnout at a press conference in their history. As news spread that Gretzky had been traded from the small-market Edmonton Oilers to Los Angeles, there was an expectation that the sport's brightest star would awaken interest in ice hockey across the United States. The Kings made a calculated decision to unveil their new superstar in a new jersey.
"You had the biggest name in the sport coming into the second-largest market in the U.S.," said Fred Scalera, then the vice president of licensing for NHL Enterprises. "It was just too big an opportunity to pass up. Said another way, if they didn't do it, they may have gotten criticism like, 'Well, here's your opportunity for a coming-out party, and you guys didn't even bother to get dressed up for it.'"
At the time the NHL's revenue stream was driven largely by ticket sales. Scalera, who had spent a decade working for the clothing company Warnaco, was hired shortly before the Gretzky trade in an effort to centralize merchandise sales through the league office. He had experience as a design and product sourcer and advertising strong brands such as Hathaway, Jack Nicklaus, and Christian Dior, but he faced skepticism from NHL teams that viewed uniform sales as merely a game-day pursuit for fans wanting to take home a souvenir from the arena. Scalera tried convincing the clubs that selling licensed products would expose their brands to customers who might never attend a hockey game. But teams that competed against each other on the ice did not embrace working together as a league.
Then the Kings, who had not advanced to the Stanley Cup Final in their first twenty-one seasons, traded for Gretzky, who had steered the Oilers to four of the past five titles. The NHL's uniform manufacturer, ccm, scrambled to stitch a number-99 jersey in time for the press conference in Los Angeles. All the rushing paid dividends. A month into the season Sports Illustrated called Gretzky's jersey the "hottest piece of merchandise around." Sales of number-99 jerseys sustained a Kings team store near the Los Angeles airport. Even in Edmonton, where many fans viewed Gretzky as a traitor and vilified the Kings, a single store sold sixty-five Kings jerseys with Gretzky nameplates in just two days. Los Angeles, which had been last in NHL merchandise sales before the trade, soared to first.
As teams in other professional sports leagues had already figured out, NHL clubs learned that people would buy jerseys from out-ofmarket teams to be fashionable. "I'll almost call it a revolution," Scalera said.
Not every team could acquire Wayne Gretzky to sell more jerseys. But the Kings' dramatic and successful change from purple and gold to silver and black inspired other clubs to start experimenting. In 1991 the NHL expanded with a second California team, the San Jose Sharks, whose jerseys blended silver, black, and teal and featured a cartoon logo of a shark snapping a hockey stick in its mouth. The Sharks rode their jerseys to an NHL-best $125 million in merchandise sales in 1992. A year later California welcomed its third team, the Disney-owned Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, named after the company's popular kids movie about a peewee hockey club. The Mighty Ducks unveiled jerseys with the dubious color combination of eggplant and jade, plus a cartoon logo of a Friday the 13th–like goalie mask shaped to fit a duck's face. Media critics yukked at a hockey team wearing a less than intimidating logo, but Disney had the last quack. Before the Ducks played a single game, merchandise with the goalie-mask logo had overtaken off-season sales of NHL products. Soon the Ducks became one of the NHL's most profitable teams, landing a mammoth five-year, $600 million television contract, even though the expansion roster had little hope of winning a championship.
By the mid-1990s three teams in the unlikeliest market for ice hockey, perpetually sunny California, had redefined NHL branding. Scalera's office began identifying teams in crowded sports markets that could stand out by updating their look. "Once we were able to show success stories with the Kings and the Sharks and some of the other things, then we started getting more and more believers," Scalera said. Even outside the NHL, clubs dreamed of the potential windfall from new jerseys. Between January 1995 and August 1997 twenty-five professional sports franchises introduced new logos, uniforms, or both. Many of the new looks were forward thinking and successful. But one change was derided in the press box and the stands, roused fans to sign petitions and march in protest, and came to symbolize the most bizarre and humiliating chapter in the history of a storied hockey franchise. Even today, twenty years later, the jersey appears on lists of the all-time worst sports designs.
By the mid-1990s the New York Islanders had one of the most recognizable brands in the NHL. Born through expansion in 1972, the team adopted a moniker that honored its home on Long Island, an amalgam of beaches, farmland, and suburban homes east of New York City. To distinguish the team from its instant rival, the big-city New York Rangers in Manhattan, the Islanders developed a blue-andorange scheme to match the official colors of Nassau County, one of the highest-income areas in the country and home to the team's state-of-the-art arena, Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, built on a former air force base in the hamlet of Uniondale. As another homage to the region, John Alogna, who ran an advertising agency in the county seat of Garden City, hastily created the Islanders logo on three days' notice — a basic map of Long Island topped by the letters NY, with part of the Y made to look like a hockey stick.
The Islanders experienced the typical growing pains of an expansion team, winning only twelve of seventy-eight games in their inaugural season, but graduated faster than most. Within several years the Islanders parlayed high draft picks into one of the strongest rosters in the sport, including future Hall of Famers Mike Bossy, Clark Gillies, Denis Potvin, Bryan Trottier, and Billy Smith. In an extraordinary display of dominance in the early 1980s, the Islanders won a record nineteen consecutive playoff series and four straight Stanley Cups, even defeating Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers for their last championship, in 1983. A decade later Long Island's only major professional sports team shocked the hockey world in the 1993 playoffs by knocking out Mario Lemieux and the two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins to reach the conference finals. Meanwhile, the Rangers, who entered the NHL in 1926, had only three Stanley Cups to the Islanders' four. At Nassau Coliseum, Islanders fans tormented the Rangers with singsong chants of "Nineteen-forty," referring to the last year that the hockey team from supposedly superior New York City had won a championship.
Then the power shifted. In 1994 the Islanders squeaked into the first round of the playoffs to meet the Rangers, who had finished with the NHL's best record. The Islanders had some hope heading into the series after going 2-12 against the Rangers in the regular season with Al Arbour, their Stanley Cup dynasty coach, still behind the bench. But their dynasty players were all gone, and they were a heavy underdog against the Rangers, who seemed destined to capture their first Cup in fifty-four years. Rangers games aired on the world's first all-sports radio station, WFAN 660 am, whose thousands of listeners often heard host Steve Somers dismiss the Islanders as the "Icelanders" and their arena as "Nassau Mausoleum." Somers sensed the hockey tide turning and gloated on air. "In every single phase of the game you see as an Icelander fan, it's hard for you to admit that the New York Rangers are better than your Icelander team. They used to be a strong rivalry, but no more." True to Somers's assessment, the Rangers shut out the Islanders 6–0 in each of the first two games of the series at Madison Square Garden and finished the four-game sweep on Long Island. The Islanders were outscored 22–3 versus the Rangers, with final scores of 6–0, 6–0, 5–1, and 5–2. "They called it the tennis series," said Islanders television broadcaster Stan Fischler. "Disgraceful."
Inside Nassau Coliseum, triumphant Rangers fans celebrated the sweep by raising the brooms that they had schlepped to Long Island. "That last home game was, as a game operations guy, a nightmare," said Tim Beach, the Islanders' director of game events. "It literally was a Rangers home game that day."
While the Islanders headed home, the Rangers continued their fairy-tale season. By June they were Stanley Cup champions and toast of the town. One and a half million people lined the route of the ticker-tape parade through the Canyon of Heroes, the section of lower Broadway where New York City celebrates its championship teams. Long Island had always come a distant second to New York in the worlds of entertainment and finance and politics and seemingly everything else that mattered — except for hockey. For a decade and a half the Islanders proved that Long Island was better at something than its big brother. To be crushed so decisively by the team of Wall Street and Times Square, of taxis and subways, of greed and grime, pummeled the psyche.
"We couldn't so much rally around our own superiority anymore — far from it," said Brett Pickett, the son of Islanders owner John Pickett, who oversaw the Islanders' dynasty era and still owned the team in 1994. "The last thing we had to cling to was our recent Stanley Cup championships and the Rangers not having won since 1940. You remember 'Nineteen-forty' being the chant that it was in the Coliseum all those years. It's what gave Islander fans their identity vis-a-vis Ranger fans. The Rangers winning the Stanley Cup in 1994, speaking as an Islander fan, was a crusher. It was a crusher in terms of the superiority that we felt over the Rangers and therefore the identity that we felt as Long Islanders."
Before the season there had been reason to believe the Islanders would follow up on their 1993 playoff run with an exciting drive for a fifth championship. Afterward, they were not even the top team in their own market. "It was absolutely devastating," said Eric Mirlis, the Islanders' assistant director of media relations. "To go from a team that everyone was viewing on the upswing, not just in New York but around the league, to be getting your asses kicked like that in the playoffs by that team, it's going to have an effect mentally on an organization. The organization, certainly at that point, always had that redheaded-stepchild mentality. The Rangers were always gonna be king."
The Islanders were desperate to move past the humiliation of the Rangers series at a time when the NHL was selling its teams on jump-starting their brands with new jerseys. As Beach put it, "Things got weird in Islander Land after that."
In the spring of 1994, the Islanders began to reevaluate their brand. Pickett, the team's majority owner, had moved to Florida and cut a deal that ceded day-today operations to four Long Island businessmen with minority stakes in the team, Paul Greenwood, Ralph Palleschi, Robert Rosenthal, and Stephen Walsh. They became known as the Gang of Four. Nassau Coliseum was obsolete, and the Islanders' season-ticket base had dwindled from a peak of about fourteen thousand to just five thousand, suggesting that older fans who supported the team in the 1970s and 1980s had moved away, lost interest, or both. Speculation mounted that Arbour, the last high-profile link to the championship teams, would resign. The Gang of Four was concerned that hockey fans might associate the Islanders logo with the team's recent futility, punctuated by the humiliating sweep by the Rangers, more than the increasingly distant Stanley Cup run.
"They wanted to refresh the brand, and understandably so, because while there was a great tradition, there were quite a few years of underachievement," said Pat Calabria, the Islanders' vice president of communications. "Aside from that '93 jolt, the team was underperforming, the building was in poor shape, season tickets were down, and the franchise needed a refreshing. The brand needed a refreshing."
Others did not see the need for an overhaul. Although the Rangers series was demoralizing, the Islanders could find some solace in making the playoffs for a second straight season and falling to a worthy opponent that was steamrolling the rest of the league. Besides, the Islanders were only a season removed from their magical playoff run in 1993, when they improbably defeated the Washington Capitals, who had nine twenty-goal scorers, and Lemieux's Penguins, who had an NHL-record seventeen-game winning streak in the regular season. "That memory was so fresh in the minds of Islander fans," said Islanders radio broadcaster Chris King. "It was certainly a disappointing '93–' 94 season coming off that great run to the conference final the year before. But to say that four straight Stanley Cups in the early eighties and nineteen straight playoff series wins and all those Hall of Famers who wore that crest proudly would cast it aside based on one tough playoff loss, no, I would not agree with that at all."
Like King, Howie Rose, the Rangers' play-byplay television broadcaster in 1994, watched every cringe-worthy moment of the playoff series versus the Islanders. He saw Islanders defensemen Darius Kasparaitis and Uwe Krupp on the ice for four even-strength goals in Game One; saw Ron Hextall allow goals on the first two shots he faced in Game Three; saw the top line of Pierre Turgeon, Steve Thomas, and Derek King stymied by the Rangers' checkers; and saw the power-play unit go one for seventeen. Still, in Rose's mind, none of the ineptitude justified abandoning the Islanders logo. "I think that's about the dumbest thing I've ever heard in my life. No, Islander fans have always associated that crest with the very best days in the franchise's history. That's sheer lunacy to suggest that even one fan would think that a logo that stood for so much was essentially desecrated by having lost a playoff series to their main rival. That's just idiotic, moronic."
But the opinions that mattered most were in the executive offices. Although the Islanders occupied a seemingly lucrative spot within the New York media market, they were in effect a small-market team because of the hour-long distance between Nassau Coliseum and Manhattan, with a paucity of major media outlets in Nassau County, a weak drawing potential for prospective fans, and a consistently low payroll that ranked them among franchises in the least populated NHL locales. They were unable to turn around their fortunes quickly by throwing money at superstar players or arena renovations, so they looked elsewhere to revitalize their flagging brand. Sales of licensed products for sports teams and major colleges had eclipsed $9 billion in the early 1990s, with sales of licensed NHL products projected to jump from $600 million to $800 million in a year's time. The Sharks and the Ducks proved that a flashy logo could generate more merchandising money than even a winning season. "They were in the top five of the league's numbers 'cause, heck, people were buying these jerseys and their gear, not because they were Sharks fans or Ducks fans, but they were buying 'cause they thought that they looked cool," Beach said. "The Kings switched over to black and silver. It wasn't necessarily fans. At the time the NHL was certainly starting to push other teams to say, 'Hey, you know what? You can enjoy this type of success as well if you're willing to take the leap to design a new jersey.'"
The NHL approached rebranding on a case-by-case basis. The Sharks and the Ducks were expansion teams forging new identities, and the Kings had little to show in their twenty-year history besides a bunch of losing seasons and first-round playoff exits. Other teams had stronger brands. "There were certain franchises that we always felt you never messed with," Scalera said. "We were never gonna say to the Montreal Canadiens or the Detroit Red Wings or the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Chicago Blackhawks or the Boston Bruins or the New York Rangers, your Original Six, 'You guys should change.' They were the Original Six. They were so steeped in tradition that it would have almost been sacrilegious to change those things." The Islanders posed an interesting case: they were not a member of the Original Six, the teams that made up the NHL for twenty-five seasons between 1942 and 1967, but they had won four Stanley Cups, more than three-quarters of the league, and were the only NHL team in the United States to win four in a row. Nevertheless, the league did not place the Islanders in the do-not- touch category. Scalera doesn't remember whether the Islanders approached him or he pitched them first, but both sides were receptive.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "We Want Fish Sticks"
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations Foreword, by Éric Fichaud Acknowledgments Introduction 1. Birth of a Brand 2. A Frozen-Dinner Franchise 3. The Baymen and the Bruin 4. New Team, Dashed Dream 5. Dead in the Water 6. Spano for President 7. From Savior to Devil Epilogue Appendix: Interview with Graphic Designer Pat McDarby Notes Bibliography Index