Uni Watch: The NHL's new canvas

The custom footwear craze has finally reached the NHL, with Alexander Ovechkin as the pioneer. Napoleon Kerber

Custom-painted footwear, which has become a huge phenomenon in the NFL, is coming to the NHL, courtesy of one of the sports biggest stars, Alex Ovechkin.

When the Washington Capitals warm up before Thursday night's game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, a game that the Caps are promoting as Russian Heritage Night, Ovechkin will be wearing custom-painted skates -- believed to be a first for an NHL player.

The two skate designs feature themes relating to Ovechkin's native and adopted countries -- Russia and the United States. The left skate features Moscow's famous Saint Basil's Cathedral on one side and a stylized Russian flag on the other, while the right skate shows the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., and an American flag. The skates will be auctioned off, with proceeds benefiting the American Special Hockey Association. Ovechkin has a longstanding relationship with the group, which provides opportunities to individuals with physical and developmental disabilities who wish to play hockey. (Additional information on the skate auction is available here.)

"Alex is a very creative person," said Ovechkin's agent, David Abrutyn, who helped coordinate the design and production of the custom skates in conjunction with the Capitals, the NHL and Ovechkin's skate supplier, Bauer. "It's no secret that he's passionate about where he's from and where he plays, and these designs reflect that."

The paint job was executed by Nicholas "theheyymann" Avery and overseen by Napoleon "Polo" Kerber, a Buffalo duo that has attracted attention in recent months for the custom football cleats they've produced for an increasing number of NFL players. After ESPN.com ran a story on Avery and Kerber last November, they soon heard from Ovechkin's representatives, who expressed interest in having them do a custom skate job for the Caps star.

It's not surprising that Ovechkin would be the first NHL player to give his skates a custom-painted look. He routinely wears yellow skate laces, which qualifies as a rebellious style move by NHL standards. He's also attracted attention for wearing a mirrored visor and has spoken out against the league's ban on tucked-in jerseys.

As for the design, devoting one skate to the USA and the other to Russia seemed like a natural approach, given that Ovechkin has strong ties to both countries. (Asked to choose between the two, he recently declared himself to "neutral.") And with American-Russian political tensions recently in the news, the skates seem particularly topical.

When Avery and Kerber design football cleats for NFL clients, the players usually offer little if any creative input. But Ovechkin was more involved. "He and his agent went back and forth with us with some ideas," said Kerber. "We did a mock-up for them, which is something we usually don't do. And when the Capitals came to Buffalo to play the Sabres in December, we went down to their hotel and showed Ovechkin how it was coming along."

The paint job was a challenge for Avery, who had never worked on a hockey skate before. "Painting on hard plastic is very different, so I had to change up a few techniques," he said. "The fabric on sneakers and football cleats has some give, so I usually use razor blades to do fine details and fine lines. But I wasn't able to do that here, so I had to do a lot of brush work, and I also used a lot of hand-cut stencils."

The design also involved an unusual amount of detail. "Saint Basil's Cathedral has so much color and so many shadows," said Avery. "It's probably the most challenging thing I've ever done." The project ultimately took him about 30 hours -- his longest custom footwear job to date.

With Ovechkin poised to become the first NHL player to wear custom-painted skates, the question now is who'll be next, and whether the phenomenon will catch on as a leaguewide trend like it has in the NFL. So many NFL players were wearing custom-designed cleats this past season, despite being fined for uniform violations, that the league designated a specific week in the 2016 schedule when players could wear the flashy footwear to highlight various charitable causes.

Could something like that eventually happen in the NHL? "It's probably too soon to talk about that," said Abrutyn, the agent. "What the NFL did was a really remarkable thing. If that were to occur with the NHL, with this being a jumping off point, that's probably a discussion for others to have, but it would be wonderful."

If it does, Avery and Kerber will be ready. "There are lots of amazing artists doing goalie masks, but the skate thing is a whole new realm," said Avery. "I'd love to be part of that."

Paul Lukas writes about uniforms for ESPN.com. If you like this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted or just ask him a question? Contact him here.