CHICAGO — The order was placed the morning after the Blackhawks clinched a trip to the final. The hats and T-shirts have been kept under lock and key ever since.
On Monday night, we may finally get to see the final product: “Chicago Blackhawks, 2015 Stanley Cup champions.”
When a team lifts the Cup, the official championship gear always seems to appear out of thin air. But it is actually the product of months of planning and an intricate — not to mention sensitive — set of logistics designed to ensure that it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.
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The biggest concern is keeping the losing team’s “championship” apparel from entering the public realm. Hats, T-shirts and towels were also produced before this series with a Tampa Bay Lightning logo on them, but the earliest they can get unpacked is after a potential Game 7 on Wednesday.
In the event they lose another game, fans won’t ever get a glimpse.
“You put in all sorts of mechanisms and fail-safes to ensure that doesn’t happen,” Brian Jennings, the NHL’s executive vice-president of marketing, told Sportsnet. “To guard against it is always one of those nerve-racking concerns that we have.”
The practice of producing merchandise for celebrating players began in 1988 or 1989. Jennings got his first taste of it as a NHL employee in 1990, when former boss Fred Scalera saw Conn Smythe winner Bill Ranford doing a post-game interview with reporters.
“He goes: ‘Jump up on the platform and put a hat on him,'” Jennings recalled. “And I was like ‘Are you kidding me?’ And he was like ‘No, no, no, go.’ I literally jumped up and you can see an arm reach over and hand it to Bill.
“Bill puts the hat on and literally continues the interview.”
Needless to say, the process has been refined and improved over the years. Hats are now brought out to the bench and distributed immediately after the handshake line is completed.
Should the Blackhawks win on Monday night, captain Jonathan Toews will already be donning a championship cap when he accepts the Stanley Cup from commissioner Gary Bettman for a third time.
By the time a celebration eventually moves to the dressing room, NHL staff will have neatly placed more merchandise at each player’s locker, hung a Stanley Cup champion banner on the wall and laid out buckets that will be filled with champagne and beer.
Since only the Blackhawks can clinch in Game 6, the Lightning’s championship apparel is still being stored at NHL headquarters in New York.
The most challenging scenario for Jennings and his team is a Game 7.
Should that happen, the 144 Chicago hats, T-shirts and towels will be flown from here on Tuesday. The Lightning’s merchandise will be brought in separately from New York. It is during travel that the NHL takes extra care to protect those items.
“We have a pretty tight chain of custody,” said Jennings. “Even though we can’t carry on because they’re giant hockey bags, we’ll work with the local airport security to let them examine the bags but then we can put on some type of tie so nobody can grab any of the hats and T-(shirts) out of there.”
At the conclusion of the championship series, the losing team’s merchandise is brought back to the NHL office and eventually returned to Reebok to be destroyed. There is also an option to have it sent to developing countries, but it’s not common practice because of how small the shipment is.
The other important aspect of the operation is what eventually becomes available to fans. Retailers and the teams have the option to order apparel ahead of time so that they can begin selling it immediately after the Stanley Cup is presented.
Of course, they must carry a financial risk because there’s always a chance there’ll be no product to sell.
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“Typically they play it pretty close to the vest but it’s a competitive advantage for them if they can beat someone else into the market,” said Jennings.
So as the teams play Game 6 on Monday, Chicago’s exclusive championship merchandise will be in the building along with the Stanley Cup. Depending on the result, it will either be presented to players or quietly whisked out of the United Center.
“We really try to blend in,” said Jennings. “If you see me or any member of my team, we usually are going by at a pretty hastened pace with a giant hockey bag.”
After months of preparation, they have to be ready for either possible outcome and act quickly.