Q&A: Flames director of marketing on the return of the retro jerseys

Matthew Tkachuk. (Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

TORONTO — Every rink around the NHL is a world unto itself. Each with its own rich history, its own traditions, its own inimitable energy. Spend one night in the Saddledome, and that becomes abundantly clear.

The atmosphere in which the Calgary Flames take the ice in their home threads is a point of pride for the Albertan faithful that fill the arena’s stands 41 times a year. Key among the reasons why is those fans themselves — the droves of locals packing the ‘Dome’s seats, who for years have all been clad in the same particular jersey, as if attendance required a mandatory uniform to gain entry.

It’s the sweater the club brought into circulation right before the most memorable few months’ stretch of the past three decades in Calgary, when Jarome Iginla led the team within one win of a Stanley Cup championship. It was one year prior, in 2003, when the Flames upended franchise tradition with the introduction of the ‘black C’ jersey — red threads stamped with the club’s flaming ‘C’ logo rendered in black, after 23 years in only red or white, giving the impression the crest had been burned into the front of the sweater.

Calgarians emptied shelves of them immediately, returning to the ‘Dome with their new jerseys proudly in tow for that 2004 march to the Cup Final, the image of nearly 20,000 fans decked out in the exact same sweater giving life to the still-standing nickname for the Saddledome crowd: the ‘C of Red.’

Fifteen years on, the passion for the team’s aesthetic has only intensified, and while many a fanbase around the NHL is constantly consumed with their team’s look, the in-house identity of the Flames faithful grants Calgarians’ jersey obsession a novel spin.

“It’s kind of a unique situation for us, because our fanbase is iconic in terms of how they’re presented in the building and what they wear,” says Flames director of marketing, Ryan Popowich. “They’re identified as the C of Red, and that’s very much a reflection of the jersey itself. We’ve had comments all the time from other teams, administration staff come here and they view a game and they’re like, ‘Wow, did you guys hand out all these jerseys?’”

It isn’t just about the visuals, though. For Calgary, it’s also the sense of unifying against the opponent entering the barn each night. And about celebrating the nostalgia of the team’s better days — the best years of the 16 that Iginla spent as a Flame, and that miracle playoff stretch that nearly saw him lift silver.

It all started with a simple decision back in ’03, after the league instructed its clubs to begin using dark uniforms at home. The Flames opted to introduce the home reds, and every branding decision for the nearly two decades since has been affected.

“The C of Red doesn’t exist without a red jersey. Even back in the original days in the ’80s, the C of Red was always around, it was a thing, but it really came alive in 2004,” says Popowich. “… From that point on it’s been synonymous with the fanbase. That jersey really got solidified as what you identify with, not only for the team but for the fanbase itself. They’re really invested in what the jersey looks like — if we change it, we’re changing their identity, so we have to be very cognizant and very mindful of what they want and what they’re expecting.”

With Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Matthew Tkachuk ushering in a new era in Flames hockey, the fanbase has finally moved on, with many clamouring for a permanent switch to the red-and-yellow retro jerseys that have taken hold as the team’s alternates. Popowich spoke to Sportsnet to break down the complicated process NHL clubs go through to enact a permanent jersey switch, whether Flames fans will one day see a return of the cult-classic Blasty jersey, and what the evolution of branding in sports means for the Flames and the NHL.


This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Sportsnet: Take us through the process a team goes through if they want to change their primary Home and Away jerseys over to a new design.

Ryan Popowich: I wish it was a really quick and easy process — some people probably think we just flip a switch and say, ‘Well we’ve decided we’re going to wear these now’ — but it’s not. There’s definitely a process to it, and obviously when you’re in a league you have to adhere to certain policies and procedures. No team can just decide they’re going to change their name and colours or whatever they want to do.

As for the process, we’re constantly evolving, taking note of what our brand is, what we look like, how the fans are resonating with that. And what the fans’ feedback is, because we get that constantly — especially in this day and age, you hear from fans consistently about what they want for their team. So the process is always ongoing when you want to change something — but it really starts with discussions internally of, ‘What do we think the feedback is? What direction do we want to go?’

While we’re doing that, our jersey partner in the league, Adidas, they’re coming forward to us all the time with concepts and ideas. We wait for that, and then when they present those programs, like the third jerseys and things like that, then we can apply all the stuff we’ve been thinking about. So if we want to change a jersey at any time, the process really is, ‘OK, we have an idea, we’re ready to do that,’ and then when programs come along from Adidas, that’s where the process really starts.

SN: How much of a role does the league play — I assume you have to coordinate a jersey change with other teams’ changes or a league-wide shift. How much does that come into play in terms of the timing, even if something does get approved, of when that can be rolled out?

Popowich: Yeah, there’s quite a bit of process and rules to it. All the teams in the league are limited to a certain number of jerseys in terms of what the programs are. They’re also limited to a certain timeline in terms of adding a jersey or changing one of the jerseys that we already have. So, the league’s very involved.

It’s pretty structured. The way it is nowadays in terms of jerseys with fans, in the other leagues you see that everyone else is really experimenting with sort of non-traditional takes on how many jerseys they have. Obviously the NBA’s doing a more evolutionary thing with the amount of jerseys they have — they don’t even think about Home and Away jerseys anymore. Our league, we’re still pretty traditional in terms of the concept of what the jersey is — you get your Home and Away, and then you get your third jersey, and then deviating from that would require a special program that’s really a directive from the league in terms of additional jerseys or a special-instance jersey.

So when we have our outdoor games — we just recently had the Heritage Classic — that’s a directive from the league saying, ‘You now can have a new jersey for that specifically.’ So we sort of have to wait for the league to designate times and windows where we can change our jersey or add new jerseys.

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SN: Every league looks to learn from other leagues to a certain extent, and play off each other — is that something you’d be interested in, one day getting to a point where you have more freedom to experiment with other jerseys like the NBA does?

Popowich: Me personally, for sure. As a league, I would love to see us evolve that way, because I just think that’s where it’s going. In terms of the fanbase and the audience reaction and the next generation, that’s what they’re used to — they’re less tied to the sort of traditional structure of the Home and Away jersey. But there’s still that thread of what a jersey is to a fan, it really is the first sort of branding and representation of your team and that’s a real connection point for people.

In hockey, we’re definitely more traditional — it’s not that we’re stuck in our ways, but we’ll probably be the last in terms of evolving to stuff like the NBA’s doing, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I think we’ll do it at our own sort of pace. But I’m looking forward to the day when we’re a little bit more fluid with what we’re doing. We’re getting that way. I think we’re going at the right pace. Since we brought Adidas on, they’re a very forward-thinking manufacturing brand — that’s one of the reasons they were brought on, to move the evolutionary process of the jerseys along.

You can see that in terms of the programs they’re doing with third jerseys, and there’s more programs coming with Adidas and the league here in the next couple seasons that we’re going to launch that are really exciting. So you’re going to see more and more flexibility with the jerseys going forward. And you see that also with a lot of teams, with warmup jerseys and things like that, we’re experimenting with unique one-off jersey concepts and things like that.

So it’s coming, it’s going to get even more and more, but I don’t know if we’ll ever get to the extreme of being like what the NBA’s doing. They’ll probably be a bit ahead of us, but it’s a different mindset of that particular sport — I think the jersey itself with hockey is a little bit more tied in that traditional sense to how the game’s represented. It’s a little more like a piece of equipment versus some of the other sports where it’s more the uniform you wear, so just a bit of a different scenario in our world. But I like how it’s moving for sure. I like the opportunities we’ve had recently and that we’re going to have in the future.

SN: There’s plenty of interest in Calgary in making the switch to the retro jerseys permanently as the primary Home and Away — is that a change the team’s planning to make?

Popowich: Obviously it’s been something in discussion — it’s not really a secret that we’ve thought about it for a while. We’ve introduced the retro jersey as a third jersey for a number of years now, so it’s been in place here, and we’ve been toying with hit. Obviously we use it more and more. But again, there is a process — flipping your actual primary Home and Away jerseys takes a bit of time in terms of process, if you’re going to go down that road.

So we’re thinking about it. We constantly get fan feedback, so that’s on the agenda — that’s what the fans have indicated to us. The retro jerseys resonate really well with everyone, and we were really excited this year when the opportunity came, with the Heritage Classic, to do the retro version of our original Home and original Away jersey, the white version. It seems like all the pieces are falling into place now that we have the Heritage Classic jersey and our third-jersey retros in red. It’s a really good path we’re going down and we’ll see what the future holds. It’s definitely something we’re thinking about.

SN: How much input do the players have in swaying which direction the team goes jersey-wise as they get to test some of these out with the thirds and the outdoor games?

Popowich: A lot actually. They’re the guys that have to wear them, so you know — look good, feel good, perform good, all that stuff. That’s the reality. Funny enough, hockey ops is very involved in terms the total process of any jersey development. So, I’ll just take you back through the first steps we were talking about in the jersey process — so, Adidas will come to us and have concepts of jerseys, then all the stakeholders involved internally here will get involved with those concepts. Generally speaking, the stakeholders that we have are marketing, from my perspective, and then retail is probably the next biggest stakeholder, so our director of retail, Brent Gibbs, he’s very involved as well. We’re probably the primary boots-on-the-ground stakeholders, in terms of the jersey concepts. But senior management has a very, very big stake in it and take on it, and then hockey ops as well.

So those two and us and various other departments all get a look and input into it. But once Brent and I think we have a winning concept, senior management and hockey ops get the final say. So they’re very involved. And the great thing is they trust us in terms of the marketing perspective and the retail perspective, because they know we’re the connection to the fans. It’s always fan-first — if the fans really want this and they think it looks good, then the players are happy with it as well. 

We know when we’re on a bit of a win in terms of our concept — a really good example of that would be our third jersey, our retro jersey. Because just recently in the playoffs last year — every team has the opportunity to designate which jersey they want to wear for the playoffs, and we submitted to wear our third jerseys. And obviously the fans’ reaction to that was fantastic, people were really excited about that news. But really that request came from hockey ops — they wanted to wear those retro jerseys, so they asked us if we could submit the third jersey as the jersey of choice.

So they like wearing it, the fans really like it, it was kind of a no-brainer. So we know we have a winning concept with that jersey.

SN: There’s such a strong passion in Calgary for the jerseys — you think of the Blasty jersey, I remember when the ‘black C’ first came into the mix. I don’t know if every fanbase across the league is quite as invested in the jerseys in that way — what does that say for you guys about the passion of the fanbase?

Popowich: Yeah it’s cool, it’s like if I say anything about a jersey on Twitter, it turns into a hundred-thread discussion on Blasty or the ‘black C’ or the retros — ‘When’s that coming back? When are we changing over?’ So it’s great, and the passion is fantastic.

Jarome Iginla, clad in the Blasty jersey, after scoring his 50th goal of the season in 2002. (Brian Kersey/AP)

SN: Even among our office, there’s been divided opinions on Blasty. I’m personally a big fan of it — where do you land on the Blasty jersey and what’s the thinking on that potentially coming back in the future, given it’s become a cult classic in a way?

Popowich: That’s the great thing about this day and age too, everything has now become a cult classic. I love that the retro now is everything that was made fun of back in the day. It’s now super cool again. To be frank, internally, when we had that jersey we were really excited about it when it first got launched — I wasn’t part of the club, but being in the city, people were excited when it first came out. But then the backlash was sort of 50-50, it was sort of a mixed reaction and as it grew, people fell out of favour with it.

The horse-head jersey — initially it was actually designated The Stallion, but then everyone called it the horse-head, and then it got its real moniker, Ol’ Blasty. We had it for a long time. People forget, it’s sort of synonymous with the height of Jarome Iginla’s run and era. It’s synonymous with him. There was a debate here even internally in terms of some of the imagery we were going to use on his jersey retirement night, on how much Blasty should be a part of that. So that’s the cool thing now — you saw that with Phoenix with their jersey, stuff that had mixed reviews in the past or people didn’t like, is now super trendy, because it’s nostalgic.

So, I love Blasty for that very reason — I think more about it in terms of Iginla and those teams, and that’s very iconic with our fanbase. So Ol’ Blasty definitely has its place. But one of the issues like I said is that the C of Red is an identifying factor. The red jersey really has solidified as the number-one thing that we need to have, in terms of our primary representation on our jerseys. We can’t really have a primary jersey without red now.

Even when we were introducing the white jerseys for the Heritage Classic, people loved it and this year they’re wearing it in the ‘Dome and you see a smattering of white now in the C of Red — it just sort of breaks it up. We’re cognizant of that. We know the fans like a black jersey and it would be cool to have, but it would affect the C of Red. But I have an affinity for it and a lot of people do — Blasty needs a place in our history, in our team, in our organization, so we’ve been working hard on ways of introducing Blasty back into the fold, brought back some apparel and some hats. We have a couple things being released here in a few weeks with our apparel, evolving Blasty.

I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Blasty, let’s just say that.

SN: A few years back before the retros, there was the other third-jersey design with ‘Calgary’ across the chest — what went into that design process?

Popowich: The Western jersey — that’s how we classified the scripted jersey, the ‘Western’ jersey — initial concepts were brought to all the stakeholders involved internally, and again it’s just a process of ‘These are the ones we like, a little bit of this, a little bit of that.’ And sometimes it’s a compromise — some stakeholders may feel really strongly about one concept, and one group of stakeholders may feel strongly about another concept, and then we sort of have to come together and figure out what’s best.

I know the Western jersey, that third jersey, in the end was probably a bit of a compromise in terms of what our total concept look was, and that’s what we were happy with. And again, when we launched that jersey it came out with mixed reviews just like Ol’ Blasty, so I have a funny feeling probably 10-20 years from now, people will be clamouring to have that jersey back like they did for Ol’ Blasty. But for now it’s retired officially and you won’t see it for a while, at least.

SN: What are some of the most interesting jersey concept ideas that you’ve seen that were considered behind the scenes but never made it to the light of day?

Popowich: We get concepts and then the next stage of the process is we actually get prototypes, and then we usually get to keep the prototypes. So one of the cool things about my job is I’ve got a closet full of these prototypes — I keep them under lock and key because some of them are pretty cool. One of my favourites was from when we were reintroducing the third jersey, the Adizero version of the Adidas jersey just recently.

We opted to go with the retro jersey again, and it looked pretty much exactly like what we’d done previously. But we did go through some concepts and prototypes of modernizing the retro jersey, had some different looks at it, and a couple of the concepts I have I really, really fell in love with. Really modern takes on what the current retro jersey looks like. So, I get to show people once in a while what could’ve been. But in the end we thought it was best not to fix what wasn’t broken, so that’s why the retro jersey looks the way it does now, very close to the classic version of it. Maybe one day we’ll see something out of these prototypes — that’s why we keep them, as ideas for the future.

A peek at the unreleased concept jerseys kept under lock and key by the Flames. (Courtesy Ryan Popowich)

SN: Stepping back and looking at how you guys market the team in general, there’s been a call from fans at times for the league to do a better job of marketing its stars, especially with so many talented, young players in the NHL right now. You guys have one of the best in the game in Johnny Gaudreau — what’s the thinking behind marketing him and raising his profile in the sport?

Popowich: I mean, obviously with the age of the NHL now and the stars we have, your core players now are very much more closer in age to your actual fanbase, a good portion of it demographic-wise. So when you’re listening to your fanbase, you’re probably in line with the players in terms of what they like and how they want to be represented. As a team a lot of the discussions we’ve had internally, and what we want to do as a league going forward, is really connect with the next generation of fans. That’s the great thing about our sport — it’s very traditional in terms of also being passed down from a fan point of view. Your dad was a fan of a team, your mom was a fan of a team, so you are a fan of that team.

So I think it’s just a really unique opportunity that I don’t think we’ve ever had before as a league, a lot of our players being the age that they are, they’re so much closer to that next generation. It’s just so much easier to have those guys speak and be representative of the team, because they speak the language and they’re closer to the fans now, the ones that we really want to capture and nurture and grow.

The thing that we want our players on board for is putting them out front and interacting with the community as much as they can, on a platform that that fanbase really acknowledges and wants to be a part of. Social media is a big part of that obviously, but there’s other platforms in the future too, in terms of what we’re doing with eSports and video games and things like that. There’s new levels and new platforms coming out and new ways of engagement — they’re moving at light-speed and evolving, so the players are going to be a big part of that. Guys like Johnny are going to be a big part of that, because that’s their world. That’s what they grew up in.

So things like what your brand looks like and how we interact with and engage with fans with the players we have, it’s going to be very different than it has been in the past 20 years, even 10 years.

SN: There’s been a shift among today’s generation of young stars as well in terms of being a bit more open with their personalities, being a bit more individualistic. Looking at Matthew Tkachuk, he’s become a big name in the game not only for the way he plays but because he’s got an engaging personality too, and he’s not afraid to show it. How does that affect the work you do?

Popowich: I think it would be a disservice to rein in anybody’s personality, anybody who has those platforms and are willing to be out there in terms of what they want to say and how they want to be perceived.

The players now, they’re their own brands within a brand. You see that with other leagues — with basketball, they’re at the forefront of that. Their players are literally brands within a brand. So obviously that can evolve here as well. Because of this day and age and the platforms that are available, what the players can do and how they can engage with the fanbase, they’re going to become their own brands within a brand. I’m all for that. And I think all teams are really all for that because like we discussed, they really are the future in terms of how we market our brand and our teams going forward.

So, they should have personalities when they have them, and they should be allowed to flourish and nourish as much as they want to. I think that’s all part of the business.

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SN: We talked a bit about the NBA, how they handle their jerseys and marketing their stars — looking at the other major leagues in general, is there anything the others do marketing-wise that the NHL or the Flames could learn from?

Popowich: To me, the NBA is probably at the forefront in terms of the future of branding and engagement with players and the actual league, where the league’s not as big as the actual product itself. I just think that’s the way to do it. But again, it’s not the same for every league, and that’s one of the things to consider.

So in terms of ‘What do you want to do like other leagues,’ it’s also, ‘What do you want to do for your league that works?’ Maybe the NBA’s got a really good model in terms of what they do for their players and their branding and their engagement, but you can’t just cookie-cutter it and add it to any league. It wouldn’t work for baseball or even football to a certain degree. Each major league has its own nuances, so you have to sort of work within that structure.

I like to look at what every league’s doing, but I like to look more at what each market is doing, because every market is different, too. So what other similar markets are doing, whatever the sports team is — every team has a different evolution in terms of what they’re doing in the market.

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