Can a Heritage Jersey Succeed in Today's NHL?
The Ottawa Senators introduced a heritage jersey at the outset of the 2011-2012 season. They would go on to wear the jersey eleven times over the course of the season. Did the new look affect their play, positively or negatively? Let's take a look.
The Ottawa Senators 2011-2012 season felt, in many ways, like a fresh start. Paul MacLean's bristles had seized fans' focus, and his talk of a hard-skating and speed-focused game played on every part of the ice was music to Sens' fans ears. It was a refreshingly clear and well-communicated message of what the coach expected from his players, a departure from the philosophy that had evaded Sergei Gonchar and Alexei Kovalev. Away from the game itself, the Senators were going through a slight rebranding. In celebration of the twentieth anniversary with the league, the Senators had been rolling out a series of historically centered events reaching back to the perennially outstanding team of the early 20th century. Though there was some debate about the dubious legitimacy of laying claim to a different team's successes, the heritage aspect was still interesting and offered a means of celebrating the unique role of Ottawa in the growth and development of North American hockey. More importantly to many fans, and to the team's coffers, the celebration called for a swanky 20th anniversary crest. Gradually, the team began to leak out details of a new heritage jersey. Of course, the notion of a "new heritage" uniform is inherently oxymoronic, but that's beside the point. Unlike a collective bargaining offer, the Senators revealed only snippets of the jersey, building anticipation for the awesome garb that was eventually leaked by over-eager store clerks.
The new heritage jersey was greeted with much fanfare and a lot of purchases which were probably ill-advised. From Rundblad's to Foligno's, Sens fans coughed up dough to wear the new black and off-white stripes. Of the umpteen iterations of Sens jerseys that have been sold at Sensations The Sens Store, from awesome 2-D centurion on black (hey, Peter Sidorkiewicz!) to seemingly mascara-wearing "I'm looking at you" centurion on red, black and gold to in-your-face SNES jersey on ugly (two hundred and sixty dollars?), this one may have the most widespread support among fans of the team. Along with the release of the jersey, the team announced twelve games in which the Senators would sport the new sweater. Since the only means of accurately judging anything remotely related to hockey is by a causal analysis of wins and losses, how did the heritage jersey fare in its first season?
- As part of the jersey's early sales, fans were offered an opportunity to purchase the jersey, a heritage-themed toque and scarf and two tickets to the game where it would make its first appearance: an October 13th home game against the Colorado Avalanche. One can almost picture the reasoning: "Even for a rebuilding team, this one shouldn't be too tough, right? Seems like a safe bet." "Wait," one might have interjected, "since they are also a rebuilding team, wouldn't it be slightly more embarrassing if we get totally pummeled by them? Like, beaten really badly? Why don't we introduce the jersey on the home opener? The team will be fired up and it will also be anti-Heatley night, so we can show him all the things he's missing by turning tail on the team and its fans. Things like our fashionable new jerseys." Alas, they went with the game against the Avalanche and got buried in one of two "touchdown" games, losing 7-1. After its introductory night, the best accessory to a new heritage kit was a paper bag. It wasn't an insult to the Senators' heritage, so long as they were trying to reach back to the current franchise's first few seasons.
- After its inaugural embarrassment, the team bounced back with a Sunday evening win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. The game had a few standout plays that live on in our memories now that the season has past. The first was a remarkable laser pass from David Rundblad that sent Colin Greening in alone against Jonas Gustavsson for the first score of the game. The other one was Kaspars Daugavins' first career NHL goal. Thanks to a takeaway by Z. Smith (who did not give a crap what he was wearing), Daugavins skated in on the wing and fired a weak wrister on net. Somehow, the Monster's lazy slide across the crease didn't prevent this puck from going in the net. Daug's teammates were ecstatic, and we had the chance to see him bark his way down the bench. What a celebration. The goal was popular in Latvia, too. The most liked comment on the YouTube video is something that translates, I imagine very roughly, to "day morning, have succeeded!" A big win for the heritage jersey.
- The jersey suffered from two setbacks in back-to-back losses to division opponents Montreal and Boston. It restored its integrity slightly with a 6-4 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins, including a five-goal burst in the middle frame. Jason Spezza had a four point night: he felt the heritage.
- The heritage jersey Senators couldn't seem to figure out the Montreal Canadiens until the season had nearly come to a close. They lost their first three, one in overtime, including a post-Christmas 6-2 clobbering. Z. Smith, once again totally unfazed by what he was wearing, scored the first for the Senators. That was it. They eventually bounced back and finished 1-2-1 against the Habs.
- The Senators finished the heritage portion of their season with a 3-1 loss against the Toronto Maple Leafs. For whatever reason, the team didn't actually suit up with the jersey, but they were scheduled to, so I'm going to count it anyhow. Despite the frustration of losing to the Leafs, the pride in his team's heritage gear seemed to awaken a primitive fire in Sergei Gonchar, who dropped the gloves with Clarke MacArthur. Yikes. Let's, uh, call it a wash.
On the whole, the Senators' heritage jersey had a rocky first season in the league, finishing 3-7-2. Obviously, we can make causal connections and safely conclude the heritage jersey hindered the team's performance early in the season. As time wore on, the team grew more comfortable in their new look. The overall heritage record is fairly disproportionate to the Senators' overall 41-31-10 record, but I have confidence this young jersey inspired by old themes will continue to mature next season, will improve its flexibility, absorb sweat more efficiently and stare down lesser logos to become a veritable force in the NHL.