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NHLers have mixed feelings on jersey ads: 'You knew something like that was coming'

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Max Domi is poised to begin his first season with the Chicago Blackhawks after previously playing for the Montreal Canadiens.

His dad, longtime enforcer Tie Domi, suited up for both the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers.

The family will have donned jerseys for four of the NHL's Original Six teams once the 2022-23 schedule gets underway.

The younger Domi understands the league's move to include corporate sponsor patches on its sweaters beginning this season — especially as the game continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic's crushing economic fallout. 

On some level, however, it also doesn't sit right.

"It's a catch-22, especially when you have a jersey like that," the winger said of the NHL's classic, storied threads. "You don't want to mess with those too much.

"It's tough, but we've got to make some money back any way we can."

The NHL's board of governors approved the plan to include sponsor patches on the front of jerseys last year. The NBA started selling jersey sponsorships in 2017-18, adding more than US$150 million in revenue to the league's coffers on an annual basis.

Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said at last week's NHL/NHLPA player media tour outside Las Vegas he expects roughly half his league's 32 teams will have jersey patches this season — they will measure roughly nine centimetres by 7.5 centimetres — not because some can't sell the space, but because the clubs can't yet sell it for what it's deemed to be worth.

"They're going to be smart about it and make sure they get fair value for the real estate they're giving up," said Daly, who declined to put a dollar figure on what ads will mean to the league short-term. 

"Over time, it's going to be a significant source of revenue."

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had previously said the league would have to be dragged "kicking and screaming" for sponsor logos on jerseys to become a reality.

What it took was a pandemic.

"Just a matter of time, particularly with COVID," said Richard Powers, an associate professor at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. "COVID saw reduction in revenues, they're looking for other forms of income. This was inevitable. 

"They started off at a slow pace. I don't think we're going to see ads like in NASCAR for a long time."

The Canadiens were the first Original Six team to unveil a jersey sponsorship last week when Nick Suzuki was introduced as the 31st captain in franchise history — with an RBC patch opposite the "C" stitched on his chest.

The response from fans after seeing a corporate logo on the front of the team's classic red, white and blue sweater was mixed at best, while Greenpeace Quebec criticized the club for inking a deal with what a spokesperson called, "The worst bank in Canada, the one that contributes the most to climate change."

In terms of esthetics, Suzuki said he doesn't mind the RBC logo.

"Just the way things are going in this generation," he said. "I know people like the pure jersey. I would like that too. But it's how it is. 

"It's where the NHL is going."

The Leafs earlier this week unveiled their jersey sponsor patch — the Dairy Farmers of Ontario's "Milk" logo.

The NHL added corporate sponsors to helmets ahead of the 2020-21 season, largely to help make pandemic-impacted business partners whole.

"You knew something like that was coming," Leafs captain John Tavares said of jersey patches. "We saw the helmet ads come in, which I think probably makes it a little bit easier to see."

Vancouver Canucks head coach Bruce Boudreau, who played in the NHL when rink board advertisements were first being introduced, said he thinks a solitary sponsor logo on jerseys is just the beginning.

"If they’ve got the right colours, everything's good," he said, before adding of the Leafs' sponsor: "Milk for kids — that's a pretty good message, right?"

"We started to wear (ads) on helmets," Calgary Flames head coach Darryl Sutter said. "You know jerseys is the next one."

But Powers said the RBC blowback is an example of how teams will have to navigate this new arena of advertising.

"Their choices will be based on a risk-reward template and identifying those potential risks, and the likelihood that somebody is going to speak up," he said. "Who would have imagined RBC getting controversy from that? But maybe (animal rights advocacy group) PETA comes in and says, 'Listen, we can't have milk on there because cows are being mistreated.' 

"There's risks with every decision."

Players continue to owe NHL owners money as part of an extension to the collective bargaining agreement that helped get the league back up and running in the summer of 2020.

In short, the more hockey-related revenue — jerseys ads are now part of that pot — the sooner that cash gets recouped.

"It's growing the brand," Philadelphia Flyers winger Cam Atkinson said. "But I also love having that clean-cut jersey ... the stickers on helmets, too. It still gets a little silly in my opinion, but I get it. Companies want to grow their brand on the best stage in the world, so I go back and forth. 

"But I also like a clean-cut look."

That's now a thing of the past.

"I don't think fans will be too upset," Powers said. "I think they'll appreciate it, particularly if this is the alternative to raising ticket prices. 

"And maybe teams can keep the beer at $18 a pop."

-With files from Gemma Karstens-Smith in Whistler, B.C., and Donna Spencer in Calgary.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 23, 2022.

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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press