It's that time of the year again, when eager NHL merchandisers and retailers prepare to unveil and release alternate jerseys. The Leafs's and Senators' third jerseys already leaked, and the reborn Jets are actually receiving praise for not making a third jersey cash-grab. Yet.
They are a cash-grab, make no mistake. Coming off a shortened season, the NHL hyped up their "Fashionable Authentic" line of sweaters and put them on sale before the 1995-96 season, even though the five teams in the pilot program would not actually don them on ice until the first game after the All-Star break.
There were supposed to be six teams, originally. On January 27, 1996, the Ducks, Bruins, Kings, Penguins and Canucks took the ice in their modern new digs. (It was the mid-90s. It was a different time. A different, uglier time.) But one was missing. The St. Louis Blues, hosting the Lightning, donned their usual home whites instead of that trumpeting monstrosity seen above. The league claims that the Blues third jersey was never officially set, but NHL lore steadfastly insists that only coach Mike Keenan's refusal to take the ice kept them from seeing the light of day. We'll never know if that threatened strike, combined with the Kings' horrible third jersey, was what led Wayne Gretzky to force a trade to St. Louis a month later.
The Blues' aborted abortion isn't the only legacy of that day. The once-reviled Kings' "Burger King" sweater is now loved, and only about 50 percent ironically. (The Kings now sport a fourth jersey as well.) The Islanders' "Fishsticks" jersey was a product of the same aesthetic as the 95-96 third jerseys, only worn every night. (They would downgrade them to alternates the following season, then phase them out altogether.) The Bruins go on to use their gold "Bear Head" jersey for ten seasons. And third jerseys have become ubiquitous in all sports, another hundred bucks to spend for the fan who has already has home and away.
Perhaps it didn't have to be this way. Perhaps, if Mike Keenan had let the Blues take the ice 15 years ago and shown off a jersey so laughable that it embarrassed the entire sport, the third jersey concept would have died in utero. Or maybe not.