The jersey, or as traditionalists prefer, hockey sweater, is a staple of the National Hockey League fan’s wardrobe. Some fans have one go-to piece worn for all occasions. Others obsessively collect sweaters like trading cards. Some fans rock the jersey of their favorite player, while others personalize it with their own name or message. Whether a replica reproduction or authentic model complete with fighting strap and stitched name plate, the hockey jersey is the only player equipment mass-produced for fans.
It immediately identifies a fan as one of the pack, part of a larger cheering community. The jersey is also the most discussed piece of equipment. Fans criticize them, speculate on possible changes, even create their own designs. With the NHL bringing its third sweater program back for the 2018-2019 season after a one-year hiatus, it is a good time to look back at the history of third sweaters worn by the Capitals and across the league.
The NHL officially debuted their third, or alternate, sweater program for the 1995-96 regular season. Prior to then, only a handful of teams had worn a third color sweater in a given season. From the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s, the Boston Bruins occasionally wore a black sweater in place of their home gold or road white. The Pittsburgh Penguins wore a gold jersey for a couple games per season during the early 1980s, and for the NHL’s 75th anniversary season (1991-92), the Original Six franchises wore throwback jerseys in select games. Not all teams participated in the third sweater program every season during its first run from 1995 to 2008. The Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings, and New Jersey Devils have technically never used a full-season third sweater, but each team has donned vintage sweaters for various holiday games, Winter Classics and NHL Heritage games. Like in 2017-18, the program was suspended for the 2007-08 season when the league switched jersey manufacturers. In the ensuing 10 years, until last year’s hiatus, teams moved toward more traditional, throwback-style uniforms for their third sweaters. This, of course, was in stark contrast to the wild, colorful third jerseys of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
When teams joined the third jersey parade in the late 1990s, many tried to create memorable marketing opportunities to boost franchise visibility and jersey sales. Some teams were successful, while others were memorable for all the wrong reasons. Probably the most iconic of all the third sweaters was the New York Rangers Lady Liberty Jersey, followed closely by the Ottawa Senators stately “O” sweater. Some of the more critically-panned thirds were the Dallas Stars’constellation/steer’s head combination, the Mighty Ducks’ ice-smashing Wild Wing character, the Calgary Flames’ fire breathing horse head, the Los Angeles Kings’ King of Spades logo, and the Tampa Bay Lightning’s storm jersey that looked more suited for a roller hockey team of the future than an NHL rink.
The Washington Capitals have been a mixed bag when it comes to alternate sweaters and uniforms. The Caps debuted a third jersey in 1997, two years after switching from red, white and blue, to the blue, bronze, and black era. The jersey was black to match the regular pants, and featured bronze striping, arching name plate, and new a new primary logo. The logo, two hockey sticks crossed behind the Capitol dome, was criticized as boring, but three years after becoming the alternate jersey, the black kit, with a few minor adjustments, was promoted to the full-time road uniform.
This remained the case until 2007 when Ted Leonsis brought back the red, white, and blue color scheme. The Capitals went a little over a decade without a third jersey (2000-2011) until debuting a throwback uniform for the 2011 Winter Classic. This set hearkened back to the Caps’ inaugural season, minus the white pants worn early in that first campaign.
The uniform remained the official third set until the team switched to red throwback from 2015 through 2017. For the 2015 Winter Classic and the 2018 Stadium Series game, Washington skated in two unique uniforms that incorporated different shades of the team’s current colors and included subtle nods to Washington D.C and its architecture.
The third sweater experiment has been fun since officially adopted by the NHL in 1995. As information is released, or in some cases leaked, about new third sweaters for the upcoming season anticipation builds among fans. The Capitals are expected to announce a third jersey so speculation abounds. Will it be another throwback nod to tradition? Something completely new like the Stadium Series navy blue? Perhaps a Weagle or a color-corrected red screeching eagle? Whatever the case, whatever the uniform, one thing is for sure: it will be proudly worn by the defending Stanley Cup champions.
By Bryan Hailey