Hip Hop and Hockey: Don't Just Wear the Game; Learn the Game

Recently, the good folks at Mitchell & Ness had a short post on its blog titled “Hockey and Hip Hop.” The Philadelphia-based sports apparel maker wondered if the NHL is making its way back to hip hop fashion (though, one can assume they meant the mainstream, not underground):

The 1990s pop culture was filled with bold color blocking and licensed sports apparel trends. Craig Mack, Snoop Dogg, and (A Tribe Called Quest’s) Phife Dawg were just a few rappers that were known to wear NHL jerseys in their videos during that decade. Is the trend returning? Last month, Drake, originally from Canada, performed at the 2012 NHL All-Star Game and The Roots performed at the NHL Winter Classic. If the NHL hip hop trend is returning, that sure is a pretty great start.  

In recent years, NHL threads have made their resurgence within the ghettos, ‘hoods and whatever nomenclature you can associate with urban minority-heavy neighborhoods. And while one may not see a lot of Claude Giroux or Dustin Brown sweaters in the streets, there are plenty of vintage-themed shirts, hats, jackets, and hoodies being adorned from Inwood to Inglewood. Maybe this is one of those life imitates art moments or perhaps hip hop took a cue back from their fans; notably the impressionable high school youth.

It may be unfair to make the assumption, but chances are that if you walked up to any of these kids and ask them about the team whose logo matches their Dunks, they’d most likely reply with “I dunno. I just like the colors.”

This is no different from most other trends that resonate with the high school crowd; just ask those who actually studied up on the life of Che Guevara while a few of their friends were wearing shirts that adorned his image because it gave off the look of ‘different.’ And not unlike the extreme political example, there is something unfair and strange about taking on the look without understanding the game itself.

So why the NHL? The Mitchell & Ness post sort of answered that question. There’s a sense of expression through the vibrant colors some teams have and the edginess of others; what were the Charlotte Hornets, Florida Marlins, and Oakland/L.A. Raiders are now… well, just about the same. In the case of the NHL, the teal zeal of San Jose, the badassness of the Los Angeles Kings, and the Original Six classics for whatever reason, suit the skinny jeans and ‘ironic’ t-shirts crowd.

And, of course, the last thirty years taught us that when you can’t innovate, you re-create.

Another possible reason for the surge in NHL merchandise in ‘urban’ youth is that the league itself has regained just about all of its mainstream attention (and then some), as the 2004-05 lockout dims in the rearview. Despite the minimal coverage on ESPN, hockey has never been more available on TV, and that’s amplified thanks to this very internet. As all athletes, NHLers are starting to play the marketing game a smidgen more than in the past in order to keep a growing spotlight on the sport. They may not exactly convince people to buy some skates and pads, but they certainly have gotten more face time in sports media. Said face time – bigger broadcast contracts, more commercials and league promotions – can lead to at least a passing glance.

Of course, someone could probably say that the sport doesn’t exactly embrace minority fans, but that’s probably a bit short-sighted. As discussed in Norman Einstein’s Magazine in 2009, there is a concentrated effort from the league and teams to introduce the game to ‘non-traditional’ fans. Though the league’s European presence continues to grow, so does that for players of minority decent; although a bit smaller in scale.

Consider this: some continue to opine about baseball’s struggle to develop black players and retain minority fans while the Latino and Asian presences in the game continue to grow. Yet, the sport can thank hip hop for a huge percentage of its merchandise sales (outside of Yankees fans and LeBron James, is there a better known fan of the team than Jay-Z, the rapper who made the cap requisite after hours wear?).

Most kids probably won’t take to looking beyond the logos and colors they wearing, because they’re too busy looking for another fashion to co-opt. Yet, there’s probably a high school sophomore with a throwback Vancouver Canucks cap on reading this. Do yourself a favor: Watch them play sometime.

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