By James Matthews
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Deion Sanders coined the swag athlete’s magnum opus in 1989: “If you look good, you feel good. If you feel good, you play good. If you play good, they pay good.”
The Vancouver Canucks certainly have “pay good” down, but seem to be missing the rest. J.T. Miller's new contract kicks in next season, just in time to kick more pucks to the opposition. Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s anchor contract will have him anchored to the team’s bottom defensive pair for a half-decade. Brock Boeser has a $6.65-million cap hit, but has hit the back of the net just three times this season.
That leaves us with “play good,” which is a hard no; and “feel good,” where the vibes are definitely off. So, perhaps it all boils down to that “look good” part. If the reverse retro jerseys the team has trotted out in two of the last three seasons are any indication, then it’s a failure in that area, too.
Like the team on the ice, expectations for the Canucks’ new attire were cautiously optimistic.
For those not in the know, reverse retro jerseys are alternate jerseys crafted to resemble— but—remix a design from a team’s history. Often, colours are simply switched, hence the “reverse”. The Canucks this year decided to pay tribute to a classic Western Hockey League logo for theirs. Used by the WHL Vancouver Canucks in the '60s, it features a pacey lumberjack, colloquially known as Johnny Canuck, on the front. The original jersey’s red, white, and blue have been remixed with navy, green, and cream. It’s the second time in quick succession that the team has leaned into that palette.
For the 2021 season, the Canucks harkened back to the early 2000s and remixed a jersey worn by Markus Naslund, Brendan Morrison, and Todd Bertuzzi during the West Coast Express era. The reversal of the original’s maroon with remixed green gave the jersey a nickname: The Sprite Can. The Canucks’ winless record while wearing the jersey gave it a spot in the scrap heap. It was never worn again.
After a year off, the reverse retro campaign returned this fall.
It’s a campaign that seems perfectly tailored to a team like the Canucks, whose uniform history can best be described as “unhinged.” While many teams max out at one mass rebrand, the Canucks are already on their fifth. This gives the team more options than most to pull from.
That rebrand history is highlighted most by the Flying V jerseys that took the world by storm—or, shock—in the late '70s and early '80s. That was followed by a logo—the flying skate (or the bowl of spaghetti, depending on your hunger level)—that actually stood the test of time: it survived for a decade after the Flying V’s death.
While the Canucks changed the team's crest to an orca in 1997, which stands to this day in the longest sustained logo run in franchise history—the downward skate logo has a cult following. All this makes the Canucks ignoring the logo’s notoriety, now for two reverse retro campaigns, so surprising.
Technically speaking, the current Johnny Canuck alternate jersey is not true to the Canucks’ quintet of rebrands.
While first appearing on the sweaters of the WHL Canucks in the '60s, JC was first invented in the '40s as a Canadian folk hero dedicated to protecting Canadians from the Nazi menace overseas. (While we’re talking trivia, the WHL-era Canucks once employed an aging defenseman named Don Cherry). Johnny Canuck faded into history for hockey fans when Vancouver in 1970, got the call up to the big time as NHL expansion city. All this means that the orange NHL logo emblazoned on the collar of the current Johnny Canuck alternate alludes to a league in which the original version of the jerseys were never a thing.
Speaking to a weird lack of imagination, Johnny Canuck has a spot on yet another Canucks jersey: the American Hockey League affiliate, Abbotsford Canucks. For the team’s first season in 2021, Abbotsford eschewed alliteration-approved names like the Aviators, and instead matched the moniker of its parent team. When the team needed a logo, it unearthed Johnny Canuck. When the NHL team wore the jersey for the first time on November 1 and predictably lost, there was a gift-wrapped joke. Insert “looking like an AHL team, playing like an AHL team” comment here.
This jersey represents the ills of the Canucks organization. There’s a lack of creativity. The jersey is a visual representation of ownership's endless distancing from a rebuild and its ongoing inability to acquire capable defensemen. This year, the team is mired in blue-and-white mediocrity after a putrid start. Sure, the reverse retro jerseys have seen just one win in the games they've been worn this year, but it’s not like the team overall has been playing perfect hockey. It does, however, play better in black.
The black skate logo jersey, worn by the likes of Trevor Linden and Pavel Bure, has been trotted out by the Canucks as a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency last resort. It’s been a balm to take the sting out of what are inevitably disappointing seasons. It almost always works. The team has a record of 5-1-1 whenever the specialty jersey has been busted out, starting with the 2015-16 season. For example, the Canucks wore the black skate three times in the 2021-22 season and had a sterling record. This included a 7-1 thrashing of the rival Calgary Flames back in February.
If there is to be another generation of the reverse retro campaign, the Canucks should look, again, into the team’s past. But, it should take inspiration not from lumberjacks or marine mammals. Instead, the answer has been right there all along: the black skate. Or is it the bowl of spaghetti?