A New Look, A New Age

Thanks to the scientists at Reebok and the NHL and its players, there’s more to the Dallas Stars’ new jerseys than meets the eye.

You’ve probably noticed by now, assuming you haven’t been hiding under a rock somewhere, that your Dallas Stars have fancy new uniforms. Beautiful, aren’t they?

But there is more to this high-tone, fashionable garb than meets the eye. Sure, they may look good, but beneath the surface is enough scientific mumbo jumbo involved to get even the eggiest of heads excited.

In short, these aren’t your daddy’s hockey uniforms.

First off, let’s talk aesthetics. Although the previous versions were popular both locally and around the league, the team has put together for this season what can only be described as a clean, almost retro look.

“It really is sharp when you take a look at it,” agreed Stars President Jim Lites about the description. “I like traditional. I don’t like a lot of junk. And, I think the fans are going to love it. I think it’s a great look.”

Gone is the star pattern across the bottom and sleeves that was the trademark of the previous jersey, replaced instead by smaller piping. The player’s number will be sewn both on the front and back of the uniform and the Stars logo on the white jersey is slightly smaller.

The biggest difference, however, is the elimination of the second sweater’s predominantly green color scheme of before. Now, the Stars will don black instead, harkening back to the appearance of the team when they first arrived on the Texas scene some 14 years ago.

“I always liked black, and we wore black in the beginning,” said Lites, who also enlisted Stars broadcaster Daryl Reaugh into the design process. “It makes the players look big, it’s intimidating and the fans like it. Remaining true to our history is going back to black.”

Part of the change to the black jersey will also include, for the first time ever, the addition of the word “Dallas” on the front instead of the normal Stars crest. Eventually a third jersey could come into play as well, which would feature Dallas on the whites.

“We think Dallas is a hockey city,” continued Lites. “It’s time to pronounce the fact we’re Dallas. It’s time for us to celebrate that fact.”

The big question is why? Again, they had a pretty good look going for them with the previous jerseys, don’t you think? Why change things up now? Well, because they had to. Which brings us to the aforementioned science. Hmmm, on second thought, let’s talk a little history next.

As anyone who’s followed the game can tell you, hockey is about as traditional as it gets and change can be a scary thing. Just think, although men have been competing for the Stanley Cup since the 1890s, goalies didn’t start wearing masks regularly until the 1960s. And skaters weren’t even required to wear headgear until 1979.

Likewise, the evolution of other hockey equipment moved at a glacier-like pace. Felt was the material of choice to protect elbows until the 1930s, and it really wasn’t until the 1990s that hockey began to catch up with technology. Pads became lighter yet more durable, composite sticks were introduced, helmets with advanced protection were made mandatory and Kevlar was added to skates. They even went so far as to improve the rinks themselves, adding seamless glass and dasher boards that would give on impact. Everything not only became more efficient, but safer as well.

This history of the jersey has really followed the same pattern, perhaps even more slowly. For the first 70 years or so, players did their work wearing wool sweaters, perhaps the worst possible fabric for an athlete. They were hot, they absorbed water, there was no breathability. Why worry about watching what you eat? You’d just sweat it all out in a night’s work.

No major transformation was made to the jersey until the 1960s when synthetics were finally introduced, and since then not much else has changed. In fact, heavy wool socks have always remained the norm.

Until, that is, Reebok stepped into the picture. You know Reebok – running, basketball, world domination one shoe at a time. In 2004, Reebok spent some $202 million to purchase The Hockey Company, a joint venture between the National Hockey League and longtime equipment company CCM, and in doing so took over the brands of CCM, Jofa and Koho hockey. Along with the deal came an agreement that was already in place to provide uniforms for the league over the next 10 years.

The Hockey Company had started the research into creating something new and unique for the NHL. Now having the deep development resources of Reebok, who had already dabbled in cutting edge jersey materials for football and track, only helped the cause.

“The two groups discussed what we could do as the main uniform and equipment manufacturer to help assist the league,” said Keith Leach, Reebok’s category director for NHL uniforms. “And the league said, ‘we’d like you to look at the uniform. We think it needs improving.’ Things like sticks, skates, helmets and gloves had all been kind of moving forward, yet the uniform hadn’t changed for over 20 years.”

Reebok basically threw out the old, traditional jersey and started from scratch, the obvious first step being to make the sweater less bulky.

“I don’t think the average fan is going to notice the difference other than the jersey is slimmer and more streamlined,” said Steve Sumner, the Stars’ head equipment manager.

“It’s really been changed more in its anatomy,” said Leach. “It fits better on the equipment. It won’t fight the equipment as much.”

There are really two advantages to having a more sculpted jersey – players should be able to move more easily with less drag, and there will be less material for the clutchers and grabbers of the world to be a drag.

“What I was mostly worried about was I like (my jersey) to be real loose,” said Philippe Boucher, who wore the new uniform system at the 2007 All-Star Game. “But they allowed us to do that. The sleeves are a little tighter, but the jersey itself is not that tight.”

“You’d think our position would be the biggest critic of it being tighter,” said Marty Turco, speaking from a goaltender’s perspective. “But there actually hasn’t been one goalie that has complained. It actually feels like we can move more freely. I actually went to a smaller jersey because now I don’t want that overhang.”

The lab coats at Reebok also worked repeatedly on other ways to achieve their objectives of improving performance and safety for players through better uniforms. Given that they spent nearly three years in development, suffice it to say this was not an easy task. But believe it or not, they actually came up with something. Make that five somethings.

Okay, now we can talk science. Ever heard of stretch mesh or PlayDry or X-trafil? How about 4Way Stretch Pique? Bead Away? Of course, we know you haven’t because this vocabulary that sounds like something out of a new-age yoga class hasn’t been around that long.

But, you’ll now find all of these elements built within all 30 NHL team uniforms. The stretch mesh is a material constructed to provide better ventilation and greater range of motion. The designers sewed this into the underarms and back of the jersey. X-trafil is the strong stuff, the durable goods. You’ll find this in the high abrasion areas of the sweater like the shoulders and elbows. The 4Way Stretch material was used for the core body of the uniform, also providing freer movement for the player.

The real kicker of this is the PlayDry and Bead Away technology, the true icing on the proverbial cake. The stretch mesh and material around the neck of the jersey have the PlayDry fabric incorporated to allow heat and moisture to evaporate more quickly. They blended in the Bead Away technology through the 4Way Stretch and X-Trafil areas. Like the name sounds, Bead Away, which for now is exclusive only to the NHL, is a water repellent system.

“This will not absorb any kind of water or sweat in front of the jersey,” said Sumner. “So when you see the goalie pouring water over his head or in his mouth, and it runs down the jersey, it won’t get his jersey wet.”

“The combination of having the Bead Away and the PlayDry, it’s moving moisture as a system,” explained Leach. “We’re pulling the extra perspiration away from the player’s body where it will dry quicker. We’re also keeping the exterior moisture out. So as a system, the uniform is drier and cooler throughout the game.”

All in all, the uniform created by Reebok, including socks made from X-Trafil and Bead Away, is a full 14% lighter in pre-game weight than the old model. That’s roughly the equivalent of a game puck of heaviness removed.

Even more impressive, the weight of the new uniform post-game compared to the old version is a full 25% lighter. That’s due entirely to the jersey’s ability to not collect water, ice and sweat. Reebok even went so far as to develop a new pant system, which can be customized to the player’s size, position or playing style, with far greater protection, particularly for the hips. They also incorporated some of the same fabrics in order to make the pant breathe more.

While the jersey and socks will be mandatory for all teams beginning this season, the pants will not be. Players will still be allowed to use their existing pads. But as a complete ensemble, this is being dubbed the RBK EDGE Uniform System. Catchy.

What this all really means is that skaters will move easier, they’ll stay drier and cooler, which in turn should improve their effort on the ice. How does Reebok know all this science will work? They had a few scientists check it out.

“Reebok had some new design concepts, and they were trying to get some estimate of how it would affect player performance and comfort,” said Dr. Kim Blair. “Based on material selection, the overall cut of the uniform, things like that, we felt that there may be some benefit, and we might be able to demonstrate some benefit in thermal management as well as aerodynamics.”

By we, Dr. Blair was talking about himself and his crew at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That’s MIT to you and me. That’s brains in large supply.

The first element that Blair wanted to check was the uniform system’s drag. Using the same wind tunnel tests as those used by world-class cyclists, he had a MIT hockey player pose in a number of positions wearing both the old jersey and pants and several prototypes of the Reebok one.

His findings showed 9% less drag created by the new technology. Usually when a cyclist goes in for these kinds of tests, he’s ecstatic if he can find an improvement of 1%. So these results, just by cutting out all the bulk of the old jersey, could easily be characterized as dramatic.

“Yes, it was significantly different,” cautioned Blair. “But certainly the NHL uniform designs had never been applied before. The bar was not set too high.”

Next, Blair and his team focused on the thermal aspect of the new system’s material, and for this they moved their testing to Central Michigan University. Again, they had a hockey player from the school wear both the old version and prototypes of the new one, only this time he jumped on a treadmill and started working up a good sweat.

“We looked at a couple of things,” explained Blair. “One was we tried to figure out where the moisture was going and actually weigh the uniform components, old versus new. We were also able to track skin surface temperatures on several locations on his body, and then also take thermal imaging of the uniform.”

What they found was that the water repellant technology caused the new uniform to retain 76% less moisture throughout the game. They were also 10% cooler than the traditional outfits. That, my friends, is significant.

“For the amount of testing we did, in my opinion it would be hard to make a scientific statement that says, ‘yes, there is a performance improvement,’” stated Blair. “But certainly we saw lower skin surface temperatures on the old versus the new, and a lot of the new materials involved do a lot better job of shedding moisture, which means the player is not carrying around as much weight throughout the game.”

Obviously, if the player is cooler and has less weight to lug around, it stands to reason that he should be able to maintain his endurance for a longer period of time and thus perform better. Right?

“Is it comfortable? Is it lighter? Sure,” admitted Boucher. “Are guys trying to have lighter equipment all the time? Probably, but underneath my jersey, I’ve got my good, old gear that I’ve had for years. It’s not the lightest, but it’s what I like. Can it change anything for your energy, for lasting longer or skating faster? I’m not the one to say, but I’m anxious to try it all out.”

Actually, Reebok did want Boucher and the NHL to have their say. Leach and Reebok had to go through several presentations in order to get approval from the league. Everyone from equipment managers to general managers to the Board of Governors had to be convinced.

“The advantage we had was, with the NHL being our partner, we had great access,” said Leach. “We did have to go through a lot of levels, but they could see the performance increases and enhancements that we were bringing to the table.”

“You have to commend Reebok for taking the initiative of asking for players’ input because we are the ones having to wear them and perform in them,” continued Turco, who wore the new uniforms at the 2007 NHL All-Star Game. “Without the players’ approval, I don’t think they could feel 100% satisfied with all the technology and work they did.”

Reebok first worked with ex-players and minor leaguers in the off-season, then had a couple of different college teams give the uniforms a try. By the time they were ready to start testing with NHL players, they already were ahead of the curve.

“We were pretty confident that we had the right technology,” said Leach, “but we really needed to dial in the fit. We ended up on the jersey side probably hitting it right out the gate. The fit was just right, but we were surprised to hear that we needed to do a lot more work on the sock.”

Testing was done with 28 of the 30 teams, including the Stars, who wore the new jerseys last year during a practice or two. They also had an unveiling of sorts when every player wore them during the All-Star Game. After each instance, Reebok associates dutifully garnered feedback from the players, which resulted in changes here, tweaks there.

“If I’m not mistaken, the one from the All-Star Game seemed a lot thicker and warmer than what we’re going to use now,” remarks Boucher about the different changes he saw. “What we have now is thinner and lighter.”

“There’s been more prototypes than people could imagine,” agreed Turco. “You’d put it on and you’re like, ‘Well, did you think about this or that?’ And, they were like, ‘Oh, I never even thought about that.’ The players’ input has been very important.”

And now, you the fan get to see them as the NHL brings their jerseys into the 21st century. Well, you can see the cool, retro look of the Stars’ new uniform, but you might have to take our word for it on the whole science aspect of these duds.

Which brings us back to the reason for the Stars’ redesign. See, given the different materials – you know, PlayDry and the like – creating the jersey style of old became virtually impossible. Thus, the Stars and several other teams had to change things up a little, a proposition that no one certainly seems to mind.

“To me, a jersey change is exciting,” said Turco. “It’s one of anticipation and you’re anxious to see them and hear what other people think. It’s just an exciting time.”

Should be. After all, these aren’t your daddy’s hockey uniforms.

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