- Emily Kaplan is ESPN’s national NHL reporter.
As the 2021-22 NHL season opens, the Arizona Coyotes are the only team with plans to fully relax their game-day dress code for players, according to an ESPN survey of all 32 teams.
The NHL is the only one among the four North American major men’s professional sports league with a strict gameday dress code spelled out into its collective bargaining agreement. Exhibit 14, Paragraph 5 of the CBA reads: “Players are required to wear jackets, ties and dress pants to all Club games and while traveling to and from such games unless otherwise specified by the Head Coach or General Manager.”
The NHL told players they can dress however they wanted to games during the 2020 postseason bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton, something players generally enjoyed, but the league reverted back to the CBA policy last season.
But not the Coyotes; Alex Meruelo Jr., the team’s chief brand officer, approached former team captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson with the concept before last season to ease the dress code for home games, and Ekman-Larsson loved it.
“[Meruelo] is very open to the idea of going to the game and growing our fan base and anything we can do to be a little unique and different, they’re always open to trying different things,” Coyotes defenseman Jakob Chychrun told ESPN. “To be the first team to go no dress code was awesome. The guys loved it. I think it’s great to be able to show a bit of your personality and your closet other than just your suits. I had fun with it. I enjoyed it. I’m glad it’s something we’ll continue to do.”
Chychrun said he was most excited to wear a “funky sweater” last season by Balenciaga, with a “crazy print.”
“It was loud, and fun to wear,” he said. “A little statement.”
NBA and NFL players regularly turn arena entrances into a fashion show, sporting designer and streetwear looks that get shared on social media and can even generate their own news cycle, such as Toronto Raptors center Serge Ibaka’s beanie, sweater and extremely oversized scarf look in 2020.
Some players wish they could follow suit, including one of the game’s biggest stars, Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews.
“I wish there was no dress code for games and stuff,” Matthews told ESPN in a recent interview. “I don’t mind wearing a suit, but it gets old, I guess. It gets old pretty quick. I think it’d be fun to wear different things and be able to express yourself, similar to what the NBA does or even the NFL a little bit. I just wear what makes me happy outside of the rink and even in the rink. But when it comes to games, obviously we have a certain attire that we have to meet. Hopefully it’s not too much longer we’ll be doing that.”
The Columbus Blue Jackets and Nashville Predators said they both have plans for players to wear team-issued track suits to games this season. Other teams have done away with the tie requirement, only stipulating a suit.
The expansion Seattle Kraken have asked players to dress “business casual” for game days in the preseason. The NHL’s newest franchise hasn’t figured out its regular-season code yet, but the Kraken are considering relaxing it from the traditional suit and ties mandate.
The Dallas Stars switched to a “bubble casual” policy for games over the last two months of last season but said they will be reverting to suits and ties for the 2021-22 season.
According to sources, the NHLPA has been pushing behind the scenes for a league-wide change so that players can express their personality through fashion. The NHLPA believes this will help players build their individual brands and “grow the game,” which has been a longtime league mantra.
One league source predicted that NHL teams will fully relax the dress code over the next five years, but it takes time to change longstanding norms. The source noted that the NHL is a copycat league, so once a few teams latch on, it will snowball from there.
One NHL player told ESPN that he and his teammates have openly talked about their desire to follow the Coyotes’ lead.
“Our general manager is so old-school, though. I just don’t see it happening,” the player said. “It’s ridiculous. Whatever I wear to the rink is not going to affect the way I play. In fact, if I’m not wearing a stuff suit and tie for an hour on a bus and I’m wearing something I’m more comfortable in, maybe I’ll play better.
“I understand the tradition aspect. I understand that we are representing the organization and the last thing an NHL team wants is to be embarrassed. But this feels like a great example of why the NHL is stuck behind the NBA and NFL in some ways, because our league says it wants to grow, but it’s afraid to. We need to move forward.”
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