TORONTO — Dan Near and his team at Adidas saw the numbers and were brainstorming about how to proceed.
The NHL had just released a survey on fans' favourite all-time jersey designs, and 22 of the top-25 were either retro or now-defunct looks.
"We sat around a table and said, 'What do we do with this?'" Near recalled. "Throwbacks had been done. We certainly didn't want to go and just do a bunch of retreads."
Fast-forward two years and Adidas unveiled its response to that question Monday — a league-wide set of alternate "Reverse Retro" jerseys for the 2020-21 season that aim to represent the past while also refreshing designs and colours for a never-before-seen look.
Think of the new threads as modern remixes to classic songs.
"(We're) looking to innovate and create and bring something new and something cool," Near, the senior director for hockey with Adidas, said in an interview with The Canadian Press from Portland, Ore. "A dimension that maybe brings the sport onto a pedestal it doesn't normally get."
The release marks the first time each of the league's teams have participated in an all-encompassing launch at the same time.
Neal said design and collaboration for the jerseys, which will be worn for "multiple games" by the NHL's 31 clubs this season only, was an "enormous" undertaking.
"Something I've frankly never seen," he said. "Typically when we do an NHL project, we meet with the team. They present us with a brief — what they see their brand looking like. It's impossible to do that for a program like this where essentially we're presenting a formula.
"Some (jersey concepts) were obvious where we got out of that first meeting and the team would be like, 'Yes, this is what we want.' And there were others where there was a lot of back and forth, a lot of: 'What do we want to represent to our fans?'"
As for Canada's seven NHL franchises, the Calgary Flames chose to pay homage to their black third jersey of the late 1990s, the Edmonton Oilers went with a remake of their design from the franchise's first NHL season in 1979 that features an "orange yoke on a white jersey" for the first time, while the Montreal Canadiens' blue threads are a nod to the record-breaking 1976-77 roster.
The Ottawa Senators, who were already going back to their classic two-dimensional centurion logo, went with a red version of the team's uniforms from their inaugural 1992-93 campaign, the Toronto Maple Leafs will don a hybrid of designs that started to appear in the late 1960s, the Vancouver Canucks are going with a new take on their third jersey from the early 2000s, and the Winnipeg Jets are combining a classic style from the original team's early years with their current colours.
Teams that no longer exist also feature prominently in Retro Reverse.
Fans of the Quebec Nordiques, who moved to Colorado in 1995, will see echoes of their past with the classic igloo logo and a hem featuring multiple fleur-de-lis as part of the Avalanche's new look. The Carolina Hurricanes, meanwhile, are honouring their years as the Hartford Whalers, while the Minnesota Wild will sport a tribute to the North Stars, who moved to Dallas in 1993.
Near said striking the right balance for relocated franchises was a delicate process.
"A great deal of thought and consideration about how it's going to make people feel, about what the different eras represent," he said. "There was a great deal of care."
NHL teams started teasing the designs on social media last week ahead of the launch, and Near said Adidas was pleased with the online buzz and fan engagement.
The company also expects traditionalists will come around on the jerseys.
"They might not be the first to embrace it, but they're going to embrace it when it's reasonable ... as long as it respects the integrity of the brand and the heritage of the team," said Near, who worked for a decade with the NHL before joining Adidas in 2016. "I honestly don't know that there is a lot here that traditionalists are going to be blown away or upset by."
Originally from Markham, Ont., Near is confident the jerseys will be popular in each team's home market, but added the goal is to also get rival fans excited about their opponents' garb.
And he was impressed with how a league and a sport that's been criticized for a lack of forward-thinking in the past tackled the Reverse Retro project.
"There were a number of teams — more than three — that said 'I want to be one of the top-3 jerseys ... I want to be one of the ones that when people see this all come out together, they say that's the coolest one,'" Near said. "I give them a lot of credit on this.
"Because that's not always the way hockey has traditionally thought."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 16, 2020.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press