Death of a Fisherman: Sabres fans can learn from Islanders' jersey mistake

Getting philosophical about the fisherman

The Islanders' fisherman jersey is the tin-standard among bad sweater designs. But with some newcomers challenging for the title, it's important to see the lessons behind the chaos.

It's been a bad summer for hockey jerseys.

The Dallas Stars unveiled a new logo and uniforms to mixed reviews. The San Jose Sharks and Carolina Hurricanes trumpeted new designs that were barely distinguishable from the old versions. Nike's designs for the Sochi Olympic national teams ranged from "meh" to "ugh" to "NOOO!!" And the Buffalo Sabres took everyone's breath away with a reveal so excruciatingly long and a jersey so instantly despised that the team president doesn't even want to talk about it.

Whenever the subject of bad uniforms come up, the unofficial Bad Hockey Jersey Hall of Fame will inevitably be recalled. Members include the Los Angeles Kings Burger King jersey, the Mighty Ducks Wild Wing jersey, the Tampa Bay Lightning's weather pattern jersey and the Ty Cobb of bad hockey jerseys, the one-and-only New York Islanders fisherman jersey.

Why revisit this nightmare? One, the fisherman jersey really did happen and, like it or not, is a part of Islanders history. So we might as well deal with it.

Secondly, for franchises and fans that are experiencing Jersey Anxiety Disorder, there are great lessons to be learned from one of the worst team identity switches in pro sports history .

SETTING SAIL

It's not hard to see why the Islanders would have thought about changing their jersey and logo in 1994. The dynasty era had ended a decade prior, and the last 10 years had been marked with inconsistency and indistinctness. The team had a few highs, a lot of lows and struggled to remain in the middle of the pack. Oh, and their biggest rivals had just won the Stanley Cup.

"Everyone agreed that the bayman was the one, although the entire process was a huge concern. There was always self doubt."-logo designer Ed O'Hara

With a season ticket base diminishing by the year, ownership decided it was time for a face-lift. The bosses, a quorum of local businessmen known as the Gang of Four that had taken managerial control in 1992, thought the Islanders needed to connect with a more current generation of fans.

Peter Botte and Alan Hahn's book Fishsticks: The Fall and Rise of the New York Islanders explains the thought process behind the change:

Still, after the 1993-94 ended in a disgraceful first-round playoff sweep by the Rangers, Islanders management "began to feel that younger fans were starting to think about the old logo in terms of the futility of the previous years, not the four Stanley Cups," according to [team co-chairman Robert] Rosenthal. (pg 18)

Islanders Point Blank founder Chris Botta was working for the Islanders at the time of the fisherman's conception and corroborates the team's desire for something a little more modern.

Or, at least, what marketers consider "modern":

Yup, when some rocket scientist had the bright idea to mess with the Islanders logo, it was an especially dopey time to be around the organization. It didn't matter what the new logo was; it just happened to be a fisherman because said rocket scientist insisted the map of Long Island with the stick and the puck had to be replaced by something animated.. You know - like a Tiger, a Lion, a Panther.

Yeah, like a Yankee, a Red Wing or a Canadien.

The logo wasn't meant to be product tie-in with Gorton's Seafood, nor an homage to broadcaster Stan Fischler. It was supposed to be a tribute to the nautical history of Long Island and the ceaseless working men of the South Shore. In theory, that's great. But based on how things played out, it also makes the whole episode even more sad.

[Islanders co-chairman Stephen] Walsh, who allowed his children's opinions to influence his decisions, had a vision of a maritime theme. [Design firm] SME submitted a proposal to the Islanders with three to five concepts. In April, designs with various colors and logos of a lighthouse, a bearded grimacing mariner and the steering wheel of a fishing boat were offered.

"Everyone agreed that the bayman was the one, although the entire process was a huge concern. There was always self doubt," [designer Ed] O'Hara said. The NHL approved the entire concept in early fall of 1994 for implementation during the 1995-96 season. (Fishsticks, pg 19)

O'Hara should have listened to his gut. The logo leaked to the New York Daily News just prior to the official reveal and according to Botta no one was happy, including the merchants that were supposedly being venerated.

We hadn't even made it to the press conference, and a colleague and I were already planning our approach to ownership about a transition back to the old logo.

For the press conference, baymen were honored for their work on the East End. At that point, the response to the Daily News story confirmed what we already knew: the new uni was going to be hated by more than 99% of the fan base. So a desperate, transparent effort was made to remind people that the Islanders were honoring Long Island's culture.

Holy mackerel, even the baymen acted like they wanted no part of it.

Before the season even started, plans for the fisherman's funeral were underway.

DIVER DOWN

Even the excitement of the fisherman jersey's home debut on Oct. 14, 1995, couldn't mask what was going on behind the scenes.

By the time the Islanders hit the ice in their new uniforms, the fans had made their feelings very, very clear: throw the fisherman overboard.

Barely one week after the official introduction on June 22, 1995, 78 percent of 1,006 respondents to a Newsday poll asking for responses panned the new logo. To prove there's no accounting for the taste of the consumer public, Team Licensing Business, a publication that tracks purchases of sports apparel, reported as of March 31, 1996, that the Islanders had moved up to No. 17 of the 26 clubs in jersey sales. According to the NHL, that was three or four slots higher than the previous year (Fishsticks, pg 19)

Management was very aware that the fisherman wasn't having its desired effect. New fans weren't embracing it as much as they had hoped, while old fans outright despised it and, by extension, the team itself.

Almost from the day it was introduced, the cosmetic makeover became a lightning rod for the organization's failures.

"We want fish sticks," Ranger supporters chanted derisively during the team's first trip to Madison Square Garden. It wasn't long before the Islanders' own patrons echoed the line. They began an extensive letter-writing campaign in support of the old look. They protested in front of Nassau Coliseum. And, in time, they succeeded in convincing the powers that be to jettison the bearded fisherman in favor of the Long Island outline with which the franchise had been identified since its inception.

It didn't help that the 1995-96 Islanders were a terrible hockey team, outside of Zigmund Palffy's 43 goals. They finished 22-50-10, endured the ongoing distraction of Kirk Muller's malcontent presence and had a starting goalie, Tommy Soderstrom, that "paced" the team with 11 wins. No uniform contained enough lipstick for a pig like that.

"After careful review, a fairly short review, we realized that we made a mistake."-Islanders co-chairman Robert Rosenthal

Mercy came just before the end of the season. Rumors, perhaps borne from wishful thinking, began swirling that the Islanders wanted to revert back to their original logo.

But in April of 1996, the Daily News reported that team COO Ralph Palleschi had told SportsChannel that a change was indeed going to take place. A few days later, the Islanders made the official announcement everyone wanted to hear. Less than a year after being introduced, the fisherman was done.

The Islanders took a step in that direction today when they announced that they would replace their fisherman logo with the original logo, the block letters "NY ' with a drawing of Long Island. Because the Islanders applied for the change in January, past the deadline, they will wear the original logo with the updated blue, orange, white, silver and teal colors as a third jersey for approximately 15 games next season, mostly divisional contests. For 1997-98, the fisherman will officially be extinct.

It was a blow to me and to every other guy who wore that jersey for so many years," Clark Gillies, who played for the Islanders in their glory years, said of the fisherman logo.

...

"A little bit over a year ago, this franchise made a decision, a bold decision, to change its logo," the co-chairman of the four-member management committee, Robert Rosenthal, said. "Since that time we have heard from our fans and many of our alumni, and they spoke with us with passion and with emotion about the change that we made. After careful review, a fairly short review, we realized that we made a mistake. Because our original logo was, and is, the heart of New York Islander tradition, we have decided to bring it back."

The "third jersey" - original logo on the wavy sweater - was the result of an agreement between the club and the NHL, who would not grant the Islanders an extension of the jersey change deadline and permission for a full-scale do-over for the next season.

Still, for the beleaguered fans, it was better than nothing. After one more season, including fifteen games in the more palatable third jersey, the fisherman would be buried at sea for good.

SHIPWRECK

Painful as it was, the Islanders fisherman fiasco teaches teams and fans a few valuable lessons about how to deal with and perhaps avoid similar situations.

One, there is Civic Pride and Sports Pride and the two don't always coincide. After 25 years, four Stanley Cups and countless memories, the classic Islanders logo meant more to sports fans than a naked attempt at garnering favor with the locals. Celebrating Long Island's history is appreciated. But doing it at the expense of a crest that held real weight to millions both on and outside Long Island was misguided.

On that same token, you can't fool people into liking a team with a new jersey. Only one thing fosters new generations of fans: winning games. Kids didn't flock to the Islanders in 1995 because of the jerseys but because watching them could be considered child abuse. It didn't matter what they wore that season. Bad teams draw bad crowds, even with uniforms people like.

One thing fosters new fans: winning games. Kids didn't flock to the Isles in 1995 because of the jerseys but because watching them was child abuse.


Third, whenever you choose to make a team logo, don't design it to look like an already licensed property. It just makes the jokes easier.

Finally, and most importantly, the shiniest silver-and-teal lining surrounding the fisherman debacle is that fans can be heard and owners can apologize and admit mistakes.

From the get-go, it was clear that the fisherman wasn't wanted. Once the Daily News leaked the logo, and Photoshopped it onto a picture of Denis Potvin holding the Stanley Cup, the knives were out. One picture was all it took. And the waves of anger and frustration and disillusionment were so strong that they reverberated all the way up the Islanders Ivory Tower and into management's ears.

The petitions and the the protests were seen and heard. The newspaper polls were analyzed. The sales data was analyzed. It was clear. The people didn't like the logo. And in a matter of mere months, before the end of his maiden voyage, the fisherman was sunk and his creators actually said the words, "we made a mistake and we're sorry."

So Sabres fans, if you don't like the gold-with-the-blue-cape number your team just unveiled, there is hope. Those disappointed in the Olympic jerseys... are probably out of luck this time. But the powers that be are watching. And voting with your wallets, fingers and mouths can make a difference.

Plus, you might be surprised at who agrees with you.

"Good," Islanders defenseman Darius Kasparaitis told reporters after he was informed of the reversal back to the original logo. "We looked like idiots." (Fishsticks, pg 20)

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