March 11, 2009
Maria Farneth of Pittsburgh walked through the concourse before her Penguins faced the Washington Capitals on a Sunday in March. In a sea of jerseys that were red, white and blue or black and gold, her bright green T-shirt stood out in the crowd.
"I wanted to get something that was in the spirit of the month," she said of the shirt, which had the word "Penguins" in large type over a mischievous leprechaun. "I thought it was very festive. Very fun."
The NHL is counting on the fact that she's not alone. For the third year, the League has produced a line of St. Patrick's Day gear and collectables available online, in the arena and inside the NHL's stores. There are 13 games scheduled for March 16 and 17; the League and its teams are pushing to make hockey a vital part of the annual Irish holiday.
"The fact is that we are playing our games in the month of March and on St. Patrick's Day. In the early beginnings of this, it became an in-arena promotional platform in and around St. Patrick's Day. But each year, the program has gotten bigger and bigger," said Jim Haskins, VP of consumer products and marketing for the NHL.
"It came out of the fact that so many of our cities really line up with large Irish traditions and heritages, on both sides of the border."
The NHL's St. Patrick's Day gear has all the traditional iconography: Several different shades of green -- even for such distinctly colored teams as the Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks; shamrocks, leprechauns and what appear to be Irish family crests; even Alexander Ovechkin's name was given a Gaelic flourish on the back of a green T-shirt.
Haskins said this season is also the first season in which the NHL is doing St. Patrick's Day jerseys that can be personalized. "This is the first time that we're doing jerseys. And this came from a lot of fans, through blogs and through inquiries at our team stores," he said.
But missing from the T-shirts and sweatshirts and the jerseys is, perhaps, the most popular aspect of the holiday in North America: the consumption of alcohol. No beer mugs, no pubs, not even a single reference to booze on the clothing.
Can the NHL make St. Patrick's Day an unofficial hockey holiday without also embracing its inebriated spirit?
Haskins said the NHL has produced this line of green gear at the request of its teams.
"As teams do more and more things in celebrating the holiday in their concourses and putting a green jersey on their mascot and giving away a shamrock pin for fans to put on their hats ... those are all the things that we're asking our retailers to push," he said.
"What ends up happening is that our avid fans are seeing this take off, and they want to be part of the party."
But it's the party aspect that's missing from the NHL gear. Sure, there are leprechauns with attitude; but you'd have to go to Old Navy to find the "my drinking team has a hockey problem" T-shirt.
Haskins said this is a calculated decision by the League.
"We have not necessarily gone after that piece of it," he said. "You can see in the graphics that it really celebrates the Irish tradition, but it doesn't focus on the consumption of alcohol."
Ben Rothenberg is a blogger at The Flyer Frequent, and recently reviewed the St. Patrick's Day gear available for the Philadelphia Flyers. He thinks the NHL St. Patrick's Day clothing hits the "Urban Outfitters" look it was going for, and he likes the gear with official logos on it. But he's baffled as to why the NHL hadn't played up the drinking aspect of the holiday.
"The league really seems to be on a family-friendly kick of recent, especially with some of the anti-fighting stuff," he said. "The Red Wings are offering three dollar beers for an hour on St. Patrick's Day, but other than that I haven't seen too much explicit drinking promotion for St. Patrick's."
Rothenberg believes the NHL is missing a chance to reach a rabid consumer base.
"There definitely could be some ad campaigns with drunken fans in their team's St. Patrick's gear that could move the product well," he said, "but I think it might be smartest for the league to get the fans drunk before they try to sell them the stuff."
One potential factor in the NHL's decision is the delicate balance between pushing product for St. Patrick's Day and exploiting it in an offensive way.
For example, The Ancient Order of the Hibernians has targeted Spencer's Gifts this year for selling shirts that substitute lewd words in the classic "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" slogan. The shopping mall mainstay was going for edgy humor; the Irish advocacy organization wasn't laughing, and is now organizing a phone and e-mail campaign against the retailer.
The bottom line is that the NHL's St. Patrick's Day push is still in its infancy. The League does offer commemorative pint glasses -- in order to "watch the big game while enjoying a frosty beverage" -- in its online store for the holiday; so there's at least some acknowledgement of the holiday's boozy traditions.
Perhaps if the demand is there, St. Patrick's Day revelry in pubs and bars will join the shamrocks and leprechauns on officially licensed gear. Until then, fans will have to settle for such items as green Blue Jackets.