Sports franchises can be defined by their logos. They communicate identity and ideals; they represent everything from a team's character to its geographical roots; and, over time, they can become enduring symbols, shared on jerseys and hats and championship banners through the generations.
Back in 2005, Kristopher Bazen understood the gravity of his task. A graphic designer for Reebok, he was asked to invent a new logo for the Buffalo Sabres.
Bazen wanted to create something that conveyed speed and power, with a look that pushed the limits of logo design in the NHL. He wanted to make something that would become iconic for the franchise.
Instead, he helped create one of the most hated logos in professional sports history.
Bazen is the creator of the "Buffaslug," a furry horned cashew nut that spawned everything from ridicule to widespread — and eventually successful — fan protests asking for 'Death To the Slug.'
"It felt like [crap]," he recalled, reminiscing about the backlash.
Bazen, 32, was part of a collaborative effort between Reebok, the Sabres and the NHL that created the Slug. Ultimately, it was the team's call; but Bazen had a significant enough role in its inception that it stung badly when Buffalo's new logo earned a consistent place on "worst uniforms of all-time" lists.
He hasn't spoken much about his history with the infamous Sabres logo. He'd occasionally field questions on sports logo message boards like Chris Creamer's popular website, and popped up last year to defend the design after some other concepts were leaked, gaining coverage on the NHL logo site Icethetics. It was on Creamer's message board this week, however, where Bazen "came out" as the man behind the Slug this week.
He published a page of logo concepts on his personal blog, showing the evolution of the symbol from buffalo to Buffaslug.
The Internet is filled with designers who bemoan the quality of logos and jerseys; Bazen said one reason he decided to speak up about his work on the Buffaslug was to show "how the sausage is made" in creating a logo -- speaking as the man who fathered the Buffaslug.
"I wanted to show that we exhausted those options, and they decided to go in another direction. It wasn't due to a lack of effort," he said.
THE SLOW CRAWL TO SCORN
Bazen grew up in Canton, Ohio, spending the majority of his formative years drawing everything from Bart Simpson to Michael Jordan. "I'd always been a sports logo designer. I was the kid in the classroom that was drawing from the [NBA] Skybox cards," he said.
It was in middle school when he started to learn there was money in art: He'd draw note-perfect recreations of Chicago Bulls and Charlotte Hornets logos, and then "sell" those works for items in other students' lunches. Eventually, he made a career out of graphic design.
In 2005, Bazen was around 25 years old and working for Reebok, which had just partnered with the NHL in revamping the League's hockey sweaters to make them tighter, faster and more water resistant. The Sabres saw this as an opportune time to change the look of their colors and logo from the red and black sweaters they were currently wearing. One goal was to move back to the traditional blue and gold of their more beloved jerseys. Another was to rethink their logo for modern times.
"We wanted to create something that would be iconic and a little more forward thinking. Reebok wanted to push the envelope somehow. I give them credit, because they tried to be innovative. The Sabres also wanted to go in a new direction, based on what they decided on," Bazen said.
His first concepts resembled the Sabres' previous blue and gold jerseys, which featured a "buffalo coin" with swords crossed and a charging bison from right to left. Bazen began manipulating the buffalo in the logo, changing the perspective on it and giving it the feeling of forward progress.
During the process, Bazen's new logo lost its legs but kept its momentum. This new bison, the eventual basis for the Buffaslug, was placed inside the "coin." Eventually it was decided that the Sabres wanted something that didn't involve the circle.
"As a designer, I wasn't in those higher-level meetings. Based on what I gathered, the general idea was to become more progressive, more abstract, to be aggressive and take on a new identity. It was at the time when the Reebok EDGE jerseys were being introduced. So if you're going to go big, then go big," said Bazen.
"Some of the ones with legs on them, I felt strong about them. More of an evolution than a revolution. But then it got more and more abstract."
ANATOMY OF A BUFFASLUG
Director Jim Jarmusch once said, "Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination."
To that end, Bazen said the BuffaSlug was partially inspired by the San Diego Chargers' lightning bolt logo.
Slowly, the Slug began to take shape. There would be neither legs nor a tail. There would be two horns. The red eye of the bison found on the Sabres' previous jersey — affectionately referred to as the "demonic goat head" — would carry over to this version.
"We tried to convey this image of strength. For inspiration, we looked at the front end of the buffalo. I tried to take the boldness from that," he said. "The one thing that a lot of people get confused on: That front part is not legs; it's the gruff of his face."
Of course, many fans that saw the logo for the first time thought that it not only had a front leg but also a back leg; and that they looked like weird flippers.
The logo was also unbalanced, with sharp points on the hump, chin, and horn but not on the back corner. "I never understood why the logo came to that abrupt stop … that one was out of my hands," Bazen said on Creamer's site. "I agree, if it were up to me, the back would've come to a point, for consistency purposes."
The fans also didn't understand why one horn was white while the other was yellow.
"It was supposed to be a horn off in the distance. I was trying to show some sort of perspective. The color blocking may not have been ideal. You just hope that people would have gotten it," he said. "In retrospect, there are a few things I would have changed on that. And that being one of them."
Regrets, he had a few. But Bazen had no idea that the world was about to emphatically reject his months of hard work, and Reebok's vision for the Sabres.
DEATH TO THE SLUG
On June 27, 2006, Sabres Report leaked the new Buffalo Sabres logo. At 6:12 p.m. that evening, a poster on the Sabre Space boards spoke for the majority of hockey fans:
"What the hell is that?"
A few days later, a poster named Don wondered:
"Where are the legs? Why are there no Sabres? Why is it wearing a mask? If it's not a mask, then why is that blue strip on its nose? Is that a Breathe-Right strip that football players wear? Why is one horn white and the other yellow? Why does it look like it was inspired by Homer Simpson's sperm?"
Blogger James O'Brien called it "a horned guinea pig." Former Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek couldn't believe the logo change, saying, "When I saw it the first time on TV, I was shocked. It reminded me of Atlanta or something."
The Buffaslug arrived just as sports commentary on the web was becoming much more visual. Now, fans weren't just snarking about the new logo with the written word; they were constructing mocking commentaries on it through Photoshop and on blogs, creating a Buffaslug meme:
"It was nuts," said Bazen. "Seeing the logo on top of Donald Trump's head. Seeing it as Barney Rubble's hair."
It was about to get nuttier. Mockery transformed into outright anger, thanks to a 24-year-old Buffalonian named Drew Celestino.
Celestino, a web designer, created FixTheLogo.com, which hosted a petition to dump the Slug that grew to over 30,000 signatures and gaining national media attention as the voice of the offended Sabres fan.
"It's not aesthetically pleasing," Celestino told the Niagara Gazette in July 2006. "There's no focus, and it lacks character. It reeks of corporate doing, the same way that corporate people think that k-e-w-l is cool. It's come from some designers in an office building and it feels like it's from out of state and definitely not from a hockey fan."
Bezan was, of course, that designer.
"My reaction was 'eff that.' But over time, I was like, 'Damn, was it that bad?' You'd just hear comment after comment," he said. "In the process — and no blame on anyone here — you sometimes don't realize what effect you have on the purists."
The comments continued from the Sabres fans, and more campaigns started. Sites like Sabres Not Slugs popped up, offering caustic commentary on the new logo. Bazen read harsh criticism of his abilities as a designer via the web, sometimes with outlandish consequences.
"Someone said the artist deserves to be castrated," he said.
That seems a little severe.
"Yeah, I think so."
Years before Facebook and Twitter conquered social media, fans were organizing online to pressure the Sabres into eliminating the new logo. The team reacted swiftly, announcing that 15 of their 41 home games would feature throwback jerseys rather than the slug.
Yet despite all of this backlash, a funny thing happened in Buffalo: The Slug sold.
Five of the top 10 player jerseys sold in the first two months of the 2006-07 season were Buffalo Sabres slug designs. "That really soothed my ego," said Bazen. "I needed something."
Sabres fans remained skeptical. Charlie of Sabres Not Slugs believed the team's success on the ice was the catalyst: "Everybody loves a winner, even if their logo's a joke. Those jerseys would have sold if they had pink bunnies on them. I maintain that the slug's sales was a fluke, a perfect storm of winning, management avoidance, and genuine fans simply happy they got the blue and gold colors back. Winning though, was the main catalyst, and it still doesn't validate such a bad logo design."
LEGACY OF THE SLUG
In 2009, the fourth season with the Slug, Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn let it slip on Toronto radio that the controversial logo was going to be phased out. The following year, Paul Lukas of UniWatch declared that the Slug was dead:
"The Sabres have finally wised up and retired their accursed Buffaslug logo, which was the object of endless ridicule and no small amount of fan ire since being introduced in 2006."
"When they came out with the slug, I was livid," said Charles Pritt, a fan who reacted so viscerally he started one of several antislug blogs that sprang up, along with one online petition with more than 30,000 signatures. "I just kept burning and burning."
The Sabres had heard their fans' objections. "We always wanted to go back to the original uniform," said Larry Quinn, the Sabres' managing partner. He said the slug design was an effort to find a fit for the trim, postlockout Reebok uniforms mandated by the league. "It's been a five- or six-year process."
Over time, Bazen came to grips with the fact that the Slug was memorable for the wrong reasons, and that it wouldn't be a long-lasting logo for the Sabres.
"If it crashes and burns, it crashes and burns. I'd rather be out there swinging for the fences than watching the pitches go by," he said.
More importantly, he learned from it. Bazen, now 32, is the director of branding for Old Hat Creative in Norman, Okla. He's also gotten back in the sports logo business, helping to design the Washington Monument-inspired alternate logo for the Washington Wizards.
The Slow Death of the Slug, in many ways, was the Birth of his Career.
"I'm glad I faced this early in my career. I needed that ego check early," he said.
"It's not like you go out there with the intent to [crap] the bed. It's something you deal with. I've gotten past it, and it helped me become a better designer in the grand scheme of things," he said. "It gave me a chance to step back. If everyone had patted me on the back and kissed my ass, I would have ended up on a different path."
As for his role in creating the Buffaslug, Bazen said he felt like a part of sports history. And who knows: With the cyclical nature of pop culture, and our society's obsession with kitsch, perhaps Slug nostalgia will arrive one day. The Sabres already held a Slug Appreciation Day this season.
"I still have mine stashed away somewhere," said Bazen.