In the year 2003, the National Hockey League did something regrettable. They changed the standard colour of the home team jerseys from white to dark. The transition had something to do with the introduction of ‘the third jersey’, another unfortunate choice that I’ll speak to in a moment. Both moves are typical of an NHL that has, over the past twenty years, changed its game frequently while chasing the elusive phantoms of a wider popularity. During this time the league has squandered stores of its historical capital, ultimately undermining the strength and reputation of the game in the process. By just focusing on what’s happened with hockey jerseys alone, we can see both the mentality at work and why it could do with a shift in outlook.
When it comes right down to it, what the NHL has lost contact with is traditional-mythic intelligence. On the issue of home team jersey color, it’s true that the NHL had only switched to the white jersey at home in 1971, so it wasn’t exactly an ancient practice. But it had been that way all my life and for the lives of many others. When my mom used to ask me where the game was being played, I’d always answer, “just look what team’s in white mom!” It was an institution, a tradition, it was a central part of the game we knew and loved. But it was also much more than that. Having the home team in white tapped into the age-old mythological tradition of the hero in white and the villain in dark menacing colors.
This properly Zoroastrian type dualism is healthy for competition and the game, for it draws off of an old deep seated part of ourselves that’s compelled toward this fiery battle between good and evil. In the early 20th century the depth psychologists discovered that former stages of our development don’t go away once we evolve new ways of understanding and interpreting the world; they remain embedded and (unconsciously) alive within the new higher order emergent structures of consciousness (1). And as Freud recognized, those old ways of being and thinking are always trying to resurface, always trying to break through to once again steer the ship of state; Freud called this process ‘the return of the repressed’. So is the case with this old dualistic worldview, and the dissipation of this particular drive through sport can actually be healthy for society, allowing us to burn off this unconscious desire in a theater far removed from politics and war, where it’s so often manipulated.
So what I’m saying to the NHL is this- you’re blowing it by not tapping into this mythological heritage, and secondly, if you change the home jerseys back to white (which you should pronto), you’d actually be doing our society a favor at the same time. The hockey rink is precisely the place we should be satisfying our ancient urge to see the light defeat dark, to see God defeat Satan, the see good guys beating the bad guys.
But this isn’t the only jersey related debacle for the NHL. Around 1993-1995, and under the new and now much despised commissioner Gary Bettman, the league introduced the third jersey. This was an alternate or ‘third’ jersey with sometimes completely different designs (often bad busy concoctions) and even different colorings, to be worn on occasion. It was a decision made for reasons of merchandise sales, and it resulted in a bewildering array of jerseys on the TV screen, with tradition and continuity being smashed by an ever shifting sea of increasingly meaningless signifiers (2). It ended up just producing more images and noise for the already overburdened postmodern mind to tune out. And it was this greedy, shortsighted decision for the third jersey that actually led to the reversal of the whites and darks at home. The reason- in the old system, a traveling team only had to take its dark jerseys on the road with it; however, most third jerseys are dominated by dark colors, and with the home team wanting to wear its third jersey from time to time, traveling teams now had to bring two sets of jerseys (home and away). This was too much hassle and too expensive to travel with and launder two sets of jerseys while on the road. So screw it, we’ll change the home jersey color then to dark. A bad move, a hand burnt while reaching for the monetary sun.
Phoenix Coyotes Third Jersey
Vancouver Canucks Third Jersey
Tampa Bay Lightning Third Jersey
A design for a St. Louis Blues third jersey that coach Mike Keenen refused to use (good call).
In this same period- the last fifteen years or so- teams started to change the traditional colors of their regular jerseys too. Several teams moved away from more vibrant colors and moved to cooler, sexier (ie. more saleable) colors like black, grey, red and dark blue. Even the Philadelphia Flyers changed their classic, storied orange road jerseys to black, a sad day that vaporized vast amounts of cultural memory. In the same period many new jersey designs also came into being, with ‘flashy’ angles and jagged lines replacing the usual simple horizontal ones of most jerseys until then. I suspect these new splashy jerseys were meant to make the league seem hip and up to date, trying to draw in new and younger markets, but it just ended up sacrificing its history on the altar of a popularity that never finally arrived. After several years of these jerseys, many teams have slowly moved back to the elegance and power of their original designs (often through re-introducing it as a third jersey). The Buffalo Sabres are one example, and their two jerseys are a great example of the movements and mentality of this whole period. Thankfully, they too have now gone back to their old, far superior jersey.
(Buffalo's jersey 1996-2006) (2011 jersey, a return to the original)
It’s worth noting that during this whole period the NHL was also changing its rules a lot, often with the attempt to make the game higher scoring, once again trying for increased market share in the ‘entertainment’ world. But this gave off the signal of a league unconfident in its game, scrambling to find a way to make it loveable to the unloving masses. The league also expanded aggressively into several American cities that weren’t traditional bastions of the game, an experiment that’s generally gone poorly. The hockey season gradually got longer too, with the playoffs stretching into June, far beyond the traditional seasonal associations of the game.
What this whole period signifies to me is a profound lack of intelligence around the importance of tradition in sports. There’s a powerful dimension of the human psyche that desires a sense of stability, repetition and continuity. This homeostatic impulse is a drive shared by all dynamical systems, and it’s true for us too. More importantly, one of the adaptive intelligences of traditional-mythic societies was the fierce preservation of ways of life (ie. traditions) that worked. This drive for constancy and order is an old and potentially very useful one, and it still breathes within all of us no matter how modern and dynamic we think we are. And it strikes me that it’s precisely in our turbulent and rapidly transforming world context that tradition in sport is most needed, and could be most useful to our societies.
As the world continues to rapidly change around us, we could use the stability and cyclical repetition of sports as a grounding force as we try and learn how to adapt to the myriad new conditions that avail us. It’s tradition- not change- that sports should tap into, thus dipping into and at least partially satisfying a need that will likely only grow as this show goes on. So I’m actually sending a message to the NHL marketing executives- there’s a huge market opportunity for the delivery and maintenance of tradition. You will fulfill a societal need and make money in the meantime, a non-zero sum alliance it seems to me. This of course doesn’t mean that change is wholly bad, or that a sport shouldn’t evolve. Let’s just not chase reinvention as the sole drug of our time; the NHL is currently a league running after the consumptive ephemera of a consumer age, it’s in a full mimetic response to the shifts of its own bedeviled time. It must resist this impulse. Let’s instead rest in the richness, quality and potency that this sport already has, no changes needed. And let’s wear white at home. And not wear shitty jerseys. And let’s definitely keep Philadelphia orange.
Endnotes1) “Since the time we recognized the error of supposing that ordinary forgetting signified a destruction of the memory trace- that is, its annihilation- we have been inclined to the opposite view, that in mental life nothing which has been once formed in the mind can perish, that everything survives in some way or other, and is capable under suitable circumstances of being brought to light again”. Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1961. p.16-17.
Also: “Freud’s truly great discovery is that the earliest manifestations of the cognitive-spiritual side of man become from then on part of the vague but potent background of all the later ones. What this amounts to is that the emotional-sensory past of man is the main material to which his later life gives ever new form”. ed. Hartshorne, Charles. Philosophers Speak of God. New York: Humanity Books, 2000. p.469.
And: “It’s our idea that psychological development can best be understood as the unfolding series of noetic regimes, each undergirded by its own network of psychological processes…Each stage of development is built out of processes already present in earlier stages, but which are combined in new, more complex and effective ways at the next level”. Allan Coombs, Stanley Krippner. Process, Structure, Form: An Evolutionary Transpersonal Psychology of Consciousness. p.51-52.