By Paul Lukas
Special to Page 2

Uni Watch doesn't mean to kick the NHL when it's down, but have you been following the news coming from hockey HQ lately? Despite the lockout – or, more likely, because of it – the NHL and Reebok have big plans for a new uniform silhouette in 2006. One report described the new look as "flashier, sleeker and more form-fitting." Another told of a league official "who has seen the prototypes [and] describes them as 'sleek,' something that implies motion even at rest, like a ski racer's uniform or Spider-Man's costume."

Hmmm, Spider-Man on skis. Where could they have possibly gotten that idea?

You don't have to be a curmudgeon to see that this could be a disaster of Bengalian proportions. It dovetails nicely with one of the NHL's other brilliant marketing ideas, now being tested in the minors: painting the ice blue while changing the blue line to orange and the red line to blue. (For further depressing details, look here.)

Unfortunately, the folks at Reebok turned down Uni Watch's request for a sneak peek at the prototypes. "We feel it is best to hold off on unveiling the uniform until a more appropriate time," their e-mail said. "We value your column and see it being a part of our PR plans, to assist in creating a buzz through the industry around the time of the on-ice and retail launches." Ladies and gentlemen, Uni Watch doesn't know what to say – it's not every day one attains the exalted status of Reebok PR shill. Can't wait to get promoted to sales.

But enough of this cynical grousing – that's too easy. Instead, let's play devil's advocate for a minute. Even though Uni Watch generally likes the hockey uni the way it is, it's easy to see how the novice fan might find it to be a bit unusual – and that's without even knowing the players are wearing suspenders and garter belts beneath all those layers. Is a more streamlined look possible? Let's examine three problem areas that, at least for argument's sake, could stand some modernization:

1. The untucked jersey. Hockey's untucked look dates back to the days when the game was played outdoors and players wore wool sweaters. But hey, figure skaters used to compete outdoors, too, but you don't see them dressing like this anymore. Notwithstanding a few untucked aberrations during the sartorially challenged 1970s (the Marquette basketball team, the Chicago White Sox), most sports have stuck with the tucked-in look, and with good reason: Untucked jerseys look like pajamas. Hockey should consider getting rid of them.

Yes, yes, Uni Watch can already hear the objections: freedom of movement, so much padding to cover, what about the fight strap, blah-blah-blah. But come on, if football players can do it, so can hockey players. Remember, Terrell Owens wasn't fined for whipping out the Sharpie; he was fined because his jersey was untucked.

2. The short pants. The neat thing about hockey shorts, at least from a design standpoint, is that they provide a block of contrasting color. But let's face it, they kinda put the "dork" in "dorky." In fact, they put the "dork" in "Dude, you look so totally dorky that your sport's TV ratings have dwindled to zero and nobody even cares that you just canceled your season." At one point it looked as though the answer might be Cooperalls, which the Flyers and Whalers wore in the early 1980s, but that turned out to be a short-lived experiment. Now's the time to revisit it – can it really be so hard to come up with a sharp-looking pair of long hockey pants? Or full-length stockings, without the shorts? Uni Watch hates to invoke so shopworn a cliché as "If we can put a man on the moon ..." but the phrase does seem made for situations like this one.

3. The helmet. There's no denying that hockey was more fun to watch when you could see what the players actually looked like. But helmets don't have to make a sport boring. Just look at the NFL, where the helmet is the signature component of each team's visual identity – and the basis for lots of silly but lucrative merchandising. Can you imagine trying to sell something based on a hockey helmet? You'd have an easier time selling steak at a PETA rally. So here's a modest proposal: Smooth out all the hockey helmet's ridges and uneven surfaces and have each team put a logo or design up there. That way the helmet will be part of the uniform, instead of just a generic piece of equipment.

The trick is to make these changes while preserving the hockey uni's dignity. Can that be done? Probably not by Reebok (oops, there goes Uni Watch's PR career), so the task, dear readers, falls to you. Uni Watch hereby announces an NHL uniform design contest. Fine print is as follows:

The objective here is to provide a modern look while respecting the game's heritage, so all contest submissions must feature an updated version of one of the Original Six NHL teams (Rangers, Canadiens, Black Hawks, Red Wings, Bruins or Maple Leafs). You don't necessarily have to address the three problem areas outlined above, but those would be good places to start. Since we're creating a whole new silhouette, all submissions must show how the new uniform would look on a player – simple clothing templates will not be considered. Bonus points if your player mannequin looks like Peter Parker. In keeping with longstanding Uni Watch policy, purple-inclusive entries will be terminated with extreme prejudice.

Each submission should be accompanied by the designer's full name, town of residence and e-mail address (smart contestants will include this info as part of the image file, not just in their cover notes). As was the case with our "DC Expos" contest last fall, winning entries will be featured in a future Uni Watch column. They'll also be forwarded to our friends at the NHL, who will undoubtedly delete them after a cursory glance. If that sounds like your idea of fame and glory, send your entries here by April 3.

Maybe the NHL wouldn't need new uniforms if its logo characters were as consistently entertaining as the one used by the minor-league Danbury Trashers, now completing their inaugural season. Their jersey features an ingenious anthropomorphized garbage can (either that or else Oscar the Grouch has been moonlighting down at the Danbury rink), which is the single coolest thing to emerge from this misbegotten hockey season. Not only is he a great mascot – his official name is Scrappy – but as reader Jesse Swanko points out, he effectively turns any trash can in the arena into a potential promotional device: "Just paint a stick and some gloves on that thing, take some pictures with the kids, and you're golden."

But there's a reason Scrappy is stuck in the minor leagues: Look closely and you'll see he has five fingers on each hand – a major faux pas, since everyone knows cartoon characters only have four fingers, from Bugs Bunny and the Simpsons to the Hamburger Helper Helping Hand and hockey's own Peter Puck. If Scrappy wants to make it to the NHL, he might have to sacrifice the body, as the saying goes, in more than just a metaphorical sense.

And in still more news regarding hockey and hands, Uni Watch was fascinated to hear about former Rangers goaltender Dan Blackburn's recent minor-league stint with the Victoria Salmon Kings (whose jersey logo, incidentally, is barely a third-rate stick figure compared to Scrappy). Blackburn suffered nerve damage in his left shoulder in 2003, which left him unable to manipulate a goalie's catching glove. So he has been wearing two blockers, but the one on his catching hand is fitted with a small inner glove that he can use to freeze the puck and catch dump-ins.

Blackburn's dual blockers make him the spiritual heir of former Canadiens netminder Bill Durnan, who wore two catching gloves and shifted his stick from one hand to the other. (He was also the rare NHL goalie to wear the captain's "C", a practice now prohibited by Rule 14(d).)

Uni Watch doesn't know whether Blackburn believes in synchronicity or omens or any of that stuff, but maybe he should: Durnan won six Vezina Trophies in a seven-year span.

Masks' Last Gasp
It took a while, but Uni Watch has finally procured a photo of Pirates slugger Dave Parker wearing a hockey goalie mask attached to his helmet. And it was worth the wait – check it out.

Parker wore this mask while pinch hitting in the first game of a doubleheader on July 16, 1978 – his first plate appearance after breaking his cheekbone 16 days earlier. He was intentionally walked, and in the nightcap he switched to a football facemask, which he continued to wear for most of the rest of the season.

With Parker's goalie-style photo finally in hand (XXXL-sized thanks to readers John Oswald and Barry Riz, who provided the crucial info for tracking it down), our gallery of masked MLB players now appears to be complete. For those who missed the earlier installments, or who just want to see the whole roster in one place, here's the breakdown: In addition to Parker, we have Ellis Valentine, Gary Roenicke, Charlie Hayes, Kevin Seitzer, Terry Steinbach and David Justice.

That's almost enough to field a full team. But the equipment manager's gonna have his hands full.

Paul Lukas has always wondered why the cartoon world doesn't do math in base eight. Archives of his pre-Page 2 "Uni Watch" columns are available here and here. Got feedback for him, or want to be added to his mailing list? Contact him here.

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