This afternoon, the Carolina Hurricanes revealed their newest sweater – a throwback to the Hartford Whalers, who were the team’s previous incarnation before moving south in 1997. It’s a nice looking sweater, that has the iconic, negative space-mindful crest laid out on the green that the team wore throughout the 1970s and 1980s. It’s not my favourite era of the Whalers look (I loved the 90s Navy Blue), but it’s still iconic to a generation of fans, and from a design standpoint, still very nice.
But it’s weird, right?
After all, I can’t imagine very many Carolina Hurricanes fans wanting to embrace the brand too hard. I do appreciate that new owner Tom Dundon has been more relaxed and willing to acknowledge the team’s past (Peter Karmanos, obviously, was reluctant to acknowledge what he had walked away from via relocation) and that he’s allowed for the sale of throwback merch through the Hurricanes’ team store, but for much of that fan base, the history they have with the franchise has little to nothing to do with their old city – particularly if you discovered hockey via the Hurricanes, or if you became a fan of the team because of their stretch run and successes in 2002, 2006, and/or 2009.
Even for those who are aware of the Whalers legacy, it can often come to their memory in a more negative form; via vitriol passed onto them from hockey fans in Hartford who miss their team, or “fans from traditional markets” who don’t believe in pro hockey being played in places like Raliegh who have no shyness in telling Hurricanes fans that they shouldn’t have a team and that hockey should have never left their old stomping grounds.
As well, from a pure merchandise perspective, you know that the team just hit you up for a new alternate jersey with a new alternate logo three months ago. While it’s obviously understandable that a smaller team would look for as many revenues streams as possible, that’s a shockingly quick re-tapping of the well, even for the diehards. But a big part of that is because Hurricanes fans aren’t the core market for this move.
It's back. 🐳
— Carolina Hurricanes (@Canes) September 27, 2018
If you’re a Hurricanes fan, it’s kind of hard to not look at themselves as the team stuck being the pawn for everyone else’s fun. The sudden return of the whale coincides with the first year of Adidas & Fanatics doing alternate jerseys & merchandise, and the sunset of CCM and Mitchell & Ness’ NHL Vintage program. A big part of why so many teams have gone with throwback gear this year is because there is none currently being manufactured by the league – recirculation & reuse of logos and jerseys is the only way to generate new stock.
In this case, the Whalers have consistently been one of the NHL’s top drivers of merchandise sales – far and away the best of the defunct clubs since the Winnipeg Jets came back, and believed to be in the upper half of active teams, thanks to their branding that transcends the league and the sport. The lack of a vintage program cuts off that revenue stream for the league, but by having this heritage jersey be worn by the Hurricanes, that gives the NHL (along with merchandise newcomers Adidas and Fanatics) the ability to put new sweaters in the stores, along with hats, t-shirts, and everything in between. It’s a de-facto circumvention of the lack of a Vintage Merchandise setup that makes the NHL happy, Adidas happy, Fanatics happy, and fans across most of the hockey world happy.
But it again, it doesn’t necessarily make Hurricanes fans happy; it’s not designed for the history they know, and it comes when they’ve already bought new stuff. It’s not the first attempt by the rest of the hockey world to have them embrace the whale either; an online vote for the team’s new goal horn saw a modernized version of the Brass Bonanza make a push to the Top 8 on the backs of the rest of the hockey world voting for it. It’s not so much that the outer hockey world wants them to embrace the Whalers as much as it is that it wants them to be the Whalers, and that’s where it goes from a neat nod to an uncomfortable push for so much of that fanbase – something that I thought was a little bit of an over-reaction at first, but came to understand over time.
Not to mention, it’s not like the merchandise sales will alter the course of history for the Hurricanes directly – all merchandise profits are split evenly across the NHL, meaning a Whalers jersey sale will make them as much money as say, a Sabres jersey or a Flames jersey. The exception, obviously, will be in their own arena, where they get the store-level profits, but that still drags the direct needle down from “millions” to “thousands”.
What makes it most amusing is that reaction from former Whalers fans isn’t much better, and they also see through it all. Many are just as uncomfortable with meshing the established, 25-year history of the Whalers with the now established, 21-year history of the Hurricanes. Many don’t like the idea of the NHL being able to profit off the branding after supposedly not fighting hard enough to keep the team in town. Many are aware that this won’t be a situation like the Jets, who were able to use continued merchandise sales as proof that the market could succeed, but also had an ownership group, a pre-built modern arena, and an extremely successful AHL team to point to (potential Hartford owners and arena proposals come and go as erratically as Wolfpack attendance) – in this case, it’s money in the bank more than a measuring stick. Those fans are content wearing their vintage merch.
While there will be some Hurricanes and former Whalers fans who will be excited for this, it seems like the primary market for the big push are the fans of the other 30 teams, and people who aren’t fans of the sport at all. That’s fine – money talks and they expect this to make a lot of money. The Hurricanes will get some ESPN time from the nights where they wear these sweaters against the Bruins, largely in the form of “hey, remember the Whalers?”, and that might help them a little, and that’s fine. The jerseys are nice, and that’s fine, and many of you will want to get one, and that’s fine.
Yet, I can’t remember another instance where an NHL team has made a branding decision to pander to everyone else. It’s fiscally wise, it looks great, and it’s unprecedented.
But it’s kinda weird, right?