Why the Olympic Jerseys are just Like That

So! It’s a big year for hockey as the Winter Olympiad slowly lurches into view, and with any new and oh god…oh dear…

A quick list of complaints here…

…Alright. Let’s talk about why Nike’s hockey jerseys, specifically for the Olympics (and subsequent international competitions), are both Like That™, and also why they tend to be pretty…bad.

First thing’s first, they’re working off of a different kind of fabric from regular hockey jerseys.

To let you in on what I mean, I would like to share with you a fact: I have many hockey sweaters in my life. Which means that I am quite deeply aware of the kind of fabric that hockey jerseys use and what it feels like on bare skin and over sweatshirts and the like. One of whom happens to be the 2014 Sochi USA White sweater. It feels so different from the other two teams.

Part of the problem is the material; while I’m sure it’s made from the same level of not-natural fabrics that your average NHL jersey is (double-knit polyester and Lycra, if you’re curious), there’s undeniably something different about the fabric used by Nike, and that changes a lot of the “feel” of the experience of physically wearing one.

Most jersey manufacturers, from the titans of Adidas to the more specialty-build AthleticKnit to the individual hobbyist designers building for a group of maybe eight people in a beer league, use a special form of knit or double-knit fabric that typically has a very specific “feel” to it. A uniquely tough fabric that is both comfortable to wear and easily pliant. Nike…doesn’t use it. They use something similar to what their other sportswear is made of, a thinner, theoretically more “breathable” material that is formulated to look good on the body…so long as it clings. Further, they use two kinds, ones with noticeable holes in them and ones without, creating kind of an uneven feel.

Second, the way the jerseys are constructed are done rather awkwardly.

So remember when I said I have that 2014 Sochi jersey? Here’s another admission.

I haven’t worn it a long time. I have worn plenty of the other sweaters on a regular basis before, but that Sochi 2014 sweater is one I can say with confidence I don’t think I’ve worn since I got it in early 2014 as a Christmas present. And part of why is that it feels strange on the body. Not like a regular hockey jersey at all.

For those of you who picked up your Kraken sweaters early or for fans migrating in from other teams, you must be staring over at your jersey and wondering “…the hell is he talking about?” allow me to explain;

The typical hockey jersey, stripped of all adornments, typically looks something like this:

Note that there’s plenty of room in the elbows and entire shoulder area, while may not always fall flat on the body, but will be comfortable to wear with anything underneath it.

Nike’s template meanwhile, looks something like this, with the collar being interchangeable.

Not terribly different in theory, but here’s where it changes; the sleeves of the sweater are not “scooped” like they are in the typical one, meaning that it rides up into your armpit, not giving you the range of motion you would’ve had and having the jersey ride up when you move your arms…ever. It’s an unusually snug fit, and that’s not always good because…well…

Where you might just throw a sweatshirt under your sweater to get some warmth, your Olympians have to put on pads underneath their sweaters to protect themselves. And that turns a very “clean” jersey into both a cramped and honestly kind of “lumpy” look.

Also it means that they don’t look good with elbow stripes on because Nike doesn’t want to die the inside arm fabric and it SUCKS.

And all of that happens because…

Nike’s design philosophies simply don’t gel with what could be called traditional “Hockey” aesthetics…which feeds right back into the first two points.

I feel like I should make it clear that I am painting with rather broad strokes when discussing the Nike design philosophy. Nike is a sportswear and fashion super-conglomerate that employs over 73,000 people to design, create, market, and distribute their gear. There’s a pretty high chance there’s something in your wardrobe right now that bears Nike’s logo on it, even if you try very very hard to keep recognizable brands out of it. This both allows Nike to be the sole brunt of any particularly damning or especially weird or unpleasing designs if they happen to be guilty of producing them, while also ensuring that there’s an internal brand consistency made by at least a few designers who are put in charge of a project.

There are all sorts of positives and negatives regarding that sort of thing, but one thing that can absolutely be a drawback is that some sports just won’t vibe with Nike’s internal brand consistency.

And Nike’s “brand” has a lot of trouble with Hockey.

See, Hockey aesthetics are very different from most other sports; the hockey sweater is a lot of mostly loose-hanging fabric that is designed to both keep the athlete from being cold and also from getting wet but also be instantly identifiable by the audience, even if they can’t see the logo on the front. That means that whole parts of the sweater can and often are differently colored and adorned in ways that most sports just don’t have the space on their own uniform to customize, and therefor don’t bother.

Nike’s aesthetics…don’t like that. Nike is clean, austere, the kind of thing you’d put on a mannequin that already has the physique of a runner in a store window. Their normal sportswear is all based around staying cool in very simple, easy to recognize colors and fabric, and their uniforms to date have all largely kept to that theme; simple, with few adornments. A Nike running shirt has that same distinct feeling ten years ago as one made now. The one made now might have half-recycled materials as the company attempts to backpedal hard on being one of the many major creators of pollutants in our atmosphere and oceans doubles down on it’s commitment to better use of it’s materials, but the point is very clear. The Nike brand is extremely up front about this, too. On the web, their website is the same clinical white that their store in New York feels like it is, and that simply doesn’t jive with how Hockey does things.

Hockey uses tons of different colored fabric; big blocky chest logos and elbow stripes, almost none ever being consistent from team to team and all being an expression of one’s city, country, or even Neighborhood. Nike’s designers probably get this, but are hamstrung to build an unquestionably “Nike” brand into it, which…can’t translate.

It’s like trying to explain a word that has no direct translation in English, or asking someone who knows the Romance Languages by heart to write a sentence in Javanese. There’s just going to be a natural disconnect.

Which is why you end up going from something like this…:

…To something like this:

It becomes too clean. Too sterile. Fans see it and go “soccer jersey”, not hockey jersey. Where it unfavorably gets compared to the USA Basketball jersey. Where the basic design language cannot translate between the two, and spits out this.

Thus, fans look at it and go “this sucks”. It’s a no win scenario.

Nike are still one of the major uniform sponsors of the Olympics and other IIHF events, and that means that, until someone else jumps up to take the hockey sponsorship away, they will continue to cram these kinds of exceptionally mid designs down our throats. We will always of course have the ability to make our own using templates and the like…

But until then, we are stuck with what we’re seeing here until the next Olympics.

Is that really so bad?