Worst to First Jerseys: The Toronto Maple Leafs

Jonathan Willis
January 18 2013 01:41PM

By John van der Woude

Worst to First Jerseys:This installment of the Worst to First Jerseys features the Toronto Maple Leafs, and much thanks to Leafs Nation for letting me guest post on their blog. On my own blog, I talk about about graphic design in hockey and I'll be doing the jerseys for the rest of the league over time, so come by Hockey By Design to check it out.

I started this series with the Vancouver Canucks, who in just 40 years have produced 8 very distinct jersey designs. Now, with the Maple Leafs, here's a team that in 85 years (since renaming themselves the Leafs from the St. Pats in 1927) have essentially had one jersey design with slight modifications over the years. It makes things slightly more difficult in ranking the Leafs' jerseys – or even in clearly defining different jersey designs that they've had – but I'll have a go at it anyway, because there's definitely still some winners and losers here.

Here's how this works: I'll count down, from worst to first, all the jerseys the Leafs have ever worn. Homes and aways will be lumped into the same category (so, more of a jersey "era") and I won't worry about small changes (like slightly changed positions of piping for example). Third jerseys will stand on their own. And I'm focusing on the jerseys only, not the entire uniform. The jersey images are compliments of the fine people over at nhluniforms.com. For the Leafs, there's 7 different jerseys/eras. And we'll start with the worst one:

7. 1927–34 Home and Away Jerseys

Holy stripes! Holy different look between the home and away jerseys! Holy wacky leaf design! First, the stripes on the road blues. There's overkill. Then there's overkill. Then there's Overkill. And then there's the stripe pattern on this jersey. Granted, I'm talking about a jersey whose aesthetic is rooted in a society that really seemed to like stripes on their hockey jerseys (something the Bruins, the Blackhawks, the Detroit Cougars and the NY Americans can attest to) and not necessarily reflective of today's style. And I confess I have no idea as to the production and design restrictions for hockey jerseys of the area, so that could definitely be coming into play as well. But still, this is a bit much. (I know I'm using the term "jersey" in a case where the term "sweater" is more apt, but I'm sticking to jersey for the sake of consistency.)

I'm usually a big fan of historic aesthetics and how they defined a certain era in hockey. In this jersey's case though, it's the constant variety between the width and the pattern of the stripes, which just doesn't work when being repeated how it is. If you're going to use these many stripes, you need some sort of consistency to it, like the Senators or the Montreal Maroons had. The other strange thing about these jerseys is how incredibly different the home whites are from road blues, being the complete opposites of each other aesthetically. Again, maybe there was a practical reason for this, but it completely throws out any sort of modern-day idea of branding. Sort of like Apple (who usually goes for very minimal aesthetics) product designing the website for the latest iPhone based on your old Angelfire website from the mid-90s. At least the Leafs made sure both jerseys are only blue and white.

That being said, I actually like the extreme minimalism of the home white jerseys. Back in the '20s, it may have been an issue of cost and production to leave it like that, but in today's sports-design world, such a design would be seriously ballsy. Maybe something for the 2013 2014 Winter Classic? Maybe not. But even though I like the simplicity of it, it's little more than a logo on a white sweater and by today's design aesthetics, are more like pajama tops than a hockey jersey. The wacky leaf logo is, I would assume, a product of a design era more than anything, and critiquing the logo isn't the main focus of this post. It's the jersey. But still, that's one strange-looking leaf.

Jersey Recommendation: #6. The number of Irvine "Ace" Bailey, one of only 2 numbers officially retired by the Leafs and, quite frankly, the only name I recognize on the Leafs' roster during this era. Oh, and did I mention he's also in the Hall of Fame?  

6. 1970-92 Home and Away Jerseys

This one is easily the worst jersey in the modern era of the Maple Leafs, and it's predominantly because that large solid stripe that goes from cuff to cuff, over the shoulders. There's not too many teams that employ this sort of element in their jersey design, and I discussed it at length in my previous post about the Winnipeg Jets jerseys, who did the same thing for their jerseys from 1979-1990. That being said, the Leafs employ it more successfully than the Jets did since they stuck to only a single band going across, which is something similar to what the Flyers currently use on their jerseys. While the simplicity and strength of the solid stripe is admirable, it automatically dates the jersey to a specific era.

It was a jersey that worked well during its time, but like most things from the '70s and '80s (like Wendel Clark's porn moustache and perfectly coiffed mullet), it's not something that's timeless. Plus, these were the Harold Ballard years, so what Leafs' fans want to remember it anyway. The reason it works better on the Flyers' jerseys of today is that it flares out near the cuffs and gets broken up with a black ring around the cuff. The solidness of the band on the Leafs' jersey is certainly cleaner in that sense, but it's a fine line between simple and striking vs boring and ordinary. This falls in the latter. Hockey is a game of finesse, speed and motion and a solid stripe across the width of the jersey doesn't exactly embody this. The boringness is duplicated around the bottom of the jersey, with another solid band. If the road jerseys positioned at #7 on this list fell victim to the illness of window-blind-itis with its manic striping, this jersey took way too much of the antidote.

Jersey Recommendation: #27 Sittler. He's the best player the Leafs had during the '70s and one of the best Leafs ever. Or, how about #17 Clark. He was their star draft pick in 1985, and pretty much the only thing that went right for the Leafs in the '80s.  

5. 1927 Jerseys

This jersey lasted only half a season, from when Conn Smythe bought the Leafs on Valentine's Day 1927 to the end of the 1926-27 season. It's also the only jersey ever worn by the Maple Leafs that's not blue and white (aside from 3 seasons in the 1940s where, oddly, the writing on the Leafs' logo was red on the road blues). So there's a certain amount of historical significance and uniqueness to this jersey. But back to design. As I said above, there's a fine line between simple and striking vs boring and ordinary. Pajama tops aside, the fact that these jerseys don't have any sort of design element at all aside from the logo and the players' numbers is both unexpected – at least in today's design stylings – and unique – even for the rest of the jerseys worn in 1927 – places this jersey strongly in the former: simple and striking. And, because of its simplicity, that's about all there is to say about it. So I'll bore you with some historical ramblings about the jersey.

Conn Smythe bought the Toronto St. Pats on Valentine's Day 1927 and immediately changed the name to the Maple Leafs. The name is based on the Canadian WWI Maple Leaf Regiment. The regiment, being a proper noun, would be pluralized as Leafs, not Leaves, which is why this peculiarity still exists. But the hockey team was not the first team to be called the Toronto Maple Leafs, or wear only blue and white, as there was a baseball team that existed at the same time with the same name and a very similar logo. So Conn Smythe was basically a blatant plagiarizer and should not have a trophy named after him. How about the Harold Ballard Trophy instead?

Jersey Recommendation: #15. Worn by Bill Carson, the second-highest scoring player on the team that season, behind Ace Bailey. Or at least I'm pretty sure that's what number he wore. Not a lot of documentation on the matter from that time.  

4. 2007-10 Home and Away Jerseys

Speaking of pajama tops... In 2007, the NHL switched all the their jerseys to the Reebok Edge model, changing the contours and look of the hockey jersey. Some teams, including the Leafs, took the opportunity to try removing the piping along the bottom of the jerseys. Before 2007, all hockey jerseys were flat at the bottom and having solid straight lines at the bottom of jersey then made sense. But now, with a curved and contoured bottom of the jersey, these teams thought that maybe this particular element of a hockey jersey should be rethought, so logically, I can see why it would make sense to remove it. What wasn't necessarily expected was how integral and important those lines along the bottom were for a hockey jersey to be considered a hockey jersey. It's true, at first, they looked more like practice jerseys, or pajama tops. Over time, I think they've been more accepted and there's still surprisingly many teams still using this method with varying degrees of success. But when you have a brand that's basically only one colour like the Leafs, it might not be the best choice.

Really, the only difference between this jersey and the one preceding it on this list from 1927 is a few skinny stripes and the numbers on the sleeves, and the blue colour rather than green. It's extremely minimal, which again, is not necessarily a bad thing as this jersey also falls into the simple and striking category (rather than boring and ordinary), but it's a visual mis-cue for a classic hockey jersey. That being said, I still think it's a damn fine-looking jersey and nearly perfect. In fact, from here on in, the differences between the jerseys are incredibly small. But sometimes the smallest things can make a big difference, like habanero peppers, as Al Gore just found out.

Jersey Recommendation: #19 Seguin? Sorry, couldn't resist. It wasn't a great era for the Leafs, but how about #81 Kessel, as 2009-10 was the beginning of his era with the team.  

3. 1958-67 Home and Away Jerseys, 2000-07 and 2008-11 Third Jerseys

When the Leafs do a jersey redesign, it seems they generally just go back in time and re-use old jerseys. It's a good thing for them that pretty much all of their jerseys are well designed. Could you imagine in Tampa Bay tried that? *Shudder* The differences between this jersey and the previous jersey is the addition of the stripes along the bottom of the jersey, the blue shoulder bars on the whites and the thicker bars of colour at the end of the cuffs. There's also the addition of the laces which, from 1958-67 were not considered that odd at all as more teams than not had them on their jerseys. As a third jersey in the '00s however, it gives them a historical and nostalgic feel. I'm a big fan of the laces.

One element thought that I'm not as much of a fan of is the blue bar of colour on the shoulders of the white jerseys. Compared to the minimal and clean aesthetic of the blue jerseys which – unlike Scott Stevens – delivers a clean shoulder, it adds too much clutter to the sleeves. It's not too bad on the front of the jersey, but still feels unnecessary, especially given that the collars of both jersey use a different colour to add a bit of contrast. That's all that's needed. The striping pattern along the bottom of the jersey is something that's iconic with Leafs jerseys – an element that they've used on the majority of their years as the Leafs. It's a look that no other team uses today (some, to their detriment) and very few others have ever used. It's a Leafs design element that when repeated on the sleeves creates a minimal but iconic look to the jersey.

Jersey Recommendation: #27. Frank Mahovlich's number is an easy selection for this era, one of the dominant players of his time and one of the best players to wear a Leafs sweater. If you don't like the idea of wearing a number of someone who later went to play for the Habs and you like goalies, a #1 (Johnny Bower) is a must. Or if you like doughnuts, get a #7 (Tim Horton).  

2. 1934-58, 1992-2007 and 2010-present Home and Away Jerseys

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Everything I just said about the previous jersey you can pretty much repeat here. But this jersey gets the higher nod because of one difference between the two jerseys: the elimination of the bar of blue on the shoulders of the white jerseys. It gives the white jerseys a slightly simpler and cleaner look. There's a couple other things though that they removed that could have stayed. Namely, the white collar on the road whites, and the laced collars. But otherwise, everything that's right with these jerseys is what I've already talked about. It's an iconic Leafs jersey with the double-thin stripes and the simplicity of the blue-and-white that (up until the Lightning stole it) belongs solely to the Leafs organization. It's a wonderful jersey, but still not the best one the Leafs have ever wore.

Jersey Recommendation: #13 Sundin. He may not have left on the best of circumstances, but he's one of the best leaders that Toronto has ever had and one of the best players to ever wear a Leafs jersey period. If he's left too bad of a taste in your mouth, how about a #93 Gilmour, an iconic Leaf during the '90s. And if you wear that jersey, you might get to make out with Don Cherry. And Ron McLean will watch.  

1. 1967-70 Home and Away Jerseys, 2011-present Third Jerseys

Okay, all the things I said about the iconic double-stripe on the previous jerseys can be thrown out the window for just a second, because this is a damn fine jersey. For one, it's got what is the best logo the Leafs have ever had. The shape of this maple leaf has a little more personality than their current logo, both in the shape of the leaf and the arced "Toronto" text. (Note: You can read my rundown of the Leafs logo on my blog.) The font, although quirky, feels more like a hockey font – more movement, strength and personality – than their current usage of Kabel, which is just too friendly and passive of a font for use in a hockey logo. It's like having Barney Rubble on your hockey team.

But aside from the logo, this is another example of the Leafs continuously reaching back into their history for a jersey redesign, using the exact same pattern from the 1927-34 jerseys (ranked last on this list), but obviously not in the crazy over-repetitve manner that those jerseys used. The result is a striking and bold jersey design – simple, yet strong and distinctive. It really is a well-designed jersey with the laces at the collar, the logo I talked about earlier, and all matched with the elegant simplicity of blue and white. The only drawback, the bar of blue on the shoulders. A minor quibble, and not enough to keep it from the top spot. This is one of the finest jerseys for any hockey team in the league to wear, so if anybody mocks you for being a Leafs fan, remember that there's a very good chance that at least your team has a better looking jersey than their team has ever had.

Jersey Recommendation: #18. The number belonged to Jim Pappin, the last Leaf to score a Stanley Cup winning goal in 1967. He also led the league in playoff scoring that year. Or #14, for Dave Keon, the Conn Smythe Award winner that year and another Leaf great.

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Jonathan Willis is Managing Editor of the Nation Network. He also currently writes for the Edmonton Journal's Cult of Hockey, Grantland, and Hockey Prospectus. His work has appeared at theScore, ESPN and Puck Daddy. He was previously founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue. Contact him at jonathan (dot) willis (at) live (dot) ca.
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#1 Adam
January 18 2013, 05:58PM
Trash it!
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trashes
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props

"Irvine "Ace" Bailey, one of only 2 numbers officially retired by the Leafs and, quite frankly, the only name I recognize on the Leafs' roster during this era."

Don't recognise Hap Day? Because he wore that jersey as well.

Also you're nuts for saying the awful RBK pajamas from 2007-2010 are 4th best. 2nd worst should be their highest position.

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#2 kary
January 20 2013, 01:08PM
Trash it!
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trashes
+1
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props

I've been a Leaf fan all my life, but have never bought a jersey, until a few days ago. I'm happy to see that my choice of jersey is #1 on your list, it is a gorgeous jersey. I love the style of the Leaf and the "old timey" font. In my opinion, on the home blues, the piping is perfect. The only thing I would like to see is the multi-point leaf that are on their current standard jersey should patches on here. But, that's minor, and the jersey is fine without it.

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