The Montreal Canadiens' jersey has long been considered a sacred garment by hockey fans. It's the symbol of the NHL's most storied franchise. It even inspired a children's book called, appropriately, "The Hockey Sweater."
But when the Canadiens introduced new team captain Nick Suzuki last week, fans of the "bleu blanc et rouge" let out a collective "Sacre bleu!" when they spotted a new addition to the jersey: an advertisement patch for RBC Bank on the right shoulder.
For many fans, that was the moment when reality hit: Ads on NHL jerseys are here, and the hockey sweater will never be the same.
Immediately, fans started speculating about how long it would take for a second advertisement to be added and then more beyond that. Images of NASCAR jumpers and European hockey jerseys that look like billboards on skates were shared on social media to exemplify the concern.
"I can't even tell you that I heard of [those concerns] before this week," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN, adding that "there's been no discussion or consideration about expanding the patch program" within the NHL.
The NHL has been sliding toward jersey ads for over a decade. It first allowed ads on practice jerseys in 2010. Meanwhile, the AHL, ECHL, NWHL and European pro leagues had made jersey sponsorship commonplace.
The NHL and NHLPA placed ads on their 2016 World Cup of Hockey jerseys, leading to speculation that new official outfitter Adidas would usher in ads on NHL team jerseys.
Although that door cracked open, commissioner Gary Bettman said at the time that the NHL "certainly won't be the first" of the big four North American sports to allow ads on regular-season or playoff game jerseys.
"You'd have to drag me kicking and screaming," he said, before acknowledging, "we know what our exposure is worth. Can somebody go through that math and come up with a number? The answer is yes."
It was the NBA that helped fill in the equation. In 2017, the NBA announced it would allow 2.5-by-2.5-inch ad patches on its game jerseys for the 2017-18 season. The program was a success, generating over $150 million in additional revenue and attracting new advertisers to the association.
In August 2021, the NHL board of governors approved jersey advertising beginning in the 2022-23 regular season.
One ad patch. Nothing more. For now.
Keith Wachtel, NHL chief business officer and executive vice president of global partnerships, said that if you asked Bettman, he would say it will not expand beyond one ad.
"But we also had a position, like every league, to say that we weren't going to put an ad on our jersey," Wachtel said. "So you never want to say 'never' but that is not in the foreseeable future."
We spoke with Wachtel and others to get further clarification about other concerns fans have expressed regarding the jersey ad program, to find out more about its economics, and to look ahead to what could come in the future.
Where will the ads be located on the jerseys?
The NHL's jersey ads will be slightly larger than the NBA's. They'll fit into a 3-inch-by-3.5-inch space on the sweaters. Rather than a square patch, they'll use whatever logo the sponsor requests, provided it fits.
The NHL has designated four spots for jersey ads: left and right shoulders, and left and right chest.
"In the current program, it's one patch, in one area only," Wachtel said.
It wasn't the NHL that pushed for the restriction to one jersey sponsor, but rather the feedback it received from teams that established that standard. Wachtel cited the law of diminishing returns for teams.
"The more logos you put on there, the less value there might be. So the clubs wanted to go with the one ad. That's what we'll have for the foreseeable future. There was never a discussion about multiple [ads]. It's one brand on the sweater," he said.
The NHL said that the front of the sweater isn't necessarily more valuable real estate than placing an ad on the shoulders.
"Analysis will show that the shoulder, in some respect depending on the camera angle, will get more exposure than the front," Wachtel said. "With the NBA, it's obvious where the ad has to go. I think marketers are taking a wait-and-see approach to see what has the most impact [in the NHL]."
Can fans buy NHL jerseys without ads on them?
Absolutely. The authentic Adidas jerseys that are sold online will not have sponsor patches on them. However, the ones at the official NHL team brick-and-mortar stores could have ad patches on them.
Initially, the NHL's policy was that teams should apply a sponsor patch at arena stores only if fans request it -- otherwise, they'll have the chance to buy an authentic jersey without the patch. But fans started seeing authentic jerseys being sold with ad patches at preseason games. The NHL later clarified that "it is up to the discretion of the Club regarding if they choose to offer authentic jerseys with sponsor patches only, or to offer both options (authentic jerseys with a patch and authentic jerseys without a patch)."
Any jersey purchased from the NHL's online store, operated by Fanatics, will not have an ad patch on them. That includes the "Breakaway" fan replica jerseys, according to Fanatics.
Wachtel said this setup could change in the future. As of now, the only way fans can get the patch is at the physical team stores.
What ads aren't allowed on jerseys?
Not all ads are made the same. The league sees a difference between what can run as a commercial, what gets space on the dasher boards or what gets featured on the players' jerseys. Hence, the NHL is taking a more "conservative approach" to the latter category, according to Wachtel.
The NHL prohibits any jersey patches that advertise alcohol -- spirits and beer -- tobacco and marijuana products, or anything that's of a sexual nature. The league also won't allow consumer product licensing ads that might conflict with a partner like Fanatics.
One of the more complicated calls has been on cryptocurrency, which the league allows on other forms of advertising. Wachtel indicated that the volatility in that market doesn't jibe well with the multiyear commitment to a jersey ad, even as the Los Angeles Kings are playing in an arena named for a crypto business, for example.
"On signage, as a league, we allow crypto. But we have to be careful just given the long-term nature of these deals, which are three to five years," Wachtel said.
One category the NHL is allowing: sports betting ads, but with some specific restrictions.
The NHL introduced advertising on its helmets in the 2020-21 season. For the first two years of that program, it didn't allow ads from sports betting companies. But that rule was waived for helmets and jersey ads starting this season.
Given that sports wagering is legal in some states and not in others, ads for betting companies can appear only on home jerseys and helmets for teams located in states where it has been legalized.
Was there any guidance from the league on making the ads look aesthetically like the jerseys they wear?
The NHL approves all jersey advertisements, not just in content but in "creative as well," according to Wachtel. It works with Adidas, the teams and the brands on the design of the ads to make them look as aesthetically pleasing as possible. Wachtel cites the ads for Caesars Sportsbook with the Washington Capitals and Circa Sports with the Vegas Golden Knights as two of the better examples of that blending.
"We want to draw a balance between the importance and the heritage and the history of our sweaters, but with this newfound reality and opportunity that we have," Wachtel said. "I think we've done that with the deals that we've announced."
Will every team have jersey ads?
As of mid-September, the Arizona Coyotes, Columbus Blue Jackets, Minnesota Wild, Canadiens, Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues, Golden Knights and Capitals had all announced jersey advertising partnerships.
But Wachtel said the majority of NHL teams will not have a patch sponsor this season. That was something the NBA experienced when it began selling uniform ads. Wachtel estimates that about half of the NHL's teams will have a jersey ad patch at some point this season.
Wachtel said there was no rush to get these ads done before the 2022-23 season. The NHL has advised teams that they can sell ad space during the season or even into the postseason. Or, in some cases, not at all "until they get the value" they're looking for in a multiyear partnership. As one NHL team source said, "the market is flooded" when it comes to advertising at the moment.
"We did not expect it would be all the teams out of the gate because we want the value of the asset to be protected," Wachtel said. "And some people just want to see what [the program] looks like. We're actually happy that many of our clubs are taking a wait-and-see approach."
The NHL does anticipate that the majority of its teams will have a jersey ad partner in the 2023-24 season.
How much money can the jersey ads generate?
All of the revenue generated by the jersey ads goes to hockey-related revenue, which is split evenly between the teams and the players per the collective bargaining agreement.
How much revenue varies by club. It depends on the market, the success of the team and other factors. It can also depend on where the ad is placed on the jersey.
"We have some clubs that have gotten really good deals for all of their sweaters. And then there are some where the marketplace has decided it will pay more on a per-game basis but didn't want to buy the ad space in totality," Wachtel explained. "That's allowing for more demand for the second half, because it's less expensive than the whole."
Wachtel said that the NHL is "way ahead" of where it expected to be in jersey ad sales and is seeing deals get done "that are greater than what we anticipated."
As far as how much the ads generate, a sponsor that buys the patch for both home and road jerseys could ante up over $10 million, according to the NHL. One team executive told ESPN that he expects his team to generate more revenue from its jersey ad than it does from its arena naming rights deal.
Finally, is this jersey ad program the start of a "slippery slope" to ad-covered NHL uniforms like we see in European leagues or NASCAR?
Hockey fans have all seen the worst-case scenarios for jersey ads: those European league jerseys that have sponsor brands on every piece of equipment, from the helmet to the socks.
When the jersey ads were first approved, Penguins president David Morehouse said the NHL would never go down that road.
"Gary [Bettman] is never going to let anything be put on our jerseys that's going to make them look like NASCAR or European league hockey," said Morehouse, who is now a senior adviser to the Pittsburgh Steelers. "Gary's been very hesitant and very systematic in how he's approached this."
Now that the ads have arrived, the NHL continues to say that the first jersey ads are not a slippery slope to total advertising saturation.
"It's a small patch. We know how important the front of the sweater is. There's no reason to change that," Wachtel said. "Anyone that's getting hysterical about that is listening to the wrong hype or they're on Twitter. We have no intention of doing anything like NASCAR or what they do in European sports.
"We still have tasteful ice. We have tasteful boards. We've done this very tastefully too."