The NHL’s Cocaine Years (Not Really, Though)

by Kolby Solinsky

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I like to think every person, nearly every individual thing, goes through cocaine years.

You know, like the middle scenes in Goodfellas or Blow or Casino or The Wolf of Wall Street or… any movie like that, really. There’s always some long, drawn-out drive to the bottom, punctuated by a montage of white powder going up noses, red eyes, and (in a Scorsese film) the last know Rolling Stones song the director hasn’t already used earlier in that same movie.

Not all of you out there will go through actual cocaine years. But you will go through long periods of incredible highs slammed shut by sadness, where you probably think you look damn good in that moustache or that brown leather suit but, to everyone who can see you, you need help. You’ll probably go through a couple weeks where you drink too much, puke in the morning, and then laugh it off as “college” but, really, is that any different from Henry Hill’s post-jail snort fests?

And teams go through this, too – sometimes, entire leagues go through this.

Take the case of the NHL and its weird, 10-year twist through the 1990s.

Now, because the NHL is predominantly Canadian in its culture, we have to assume the Nineties didn’t arrive in the National Hockey League until 1994 or so.

(Everything that happens in America, like the Eighties’ coke craze you see in Wall Street or you just assume took from Colombia and landed on Mickey Rourke, bubbles up at least a year or two later in Canada. This is a well-documented and popular joke. How I Met Your Mother used it with the Robin Sparkles video in Season 2. We still don’t have Hulu up here. My dad bought an Acura MDX in 2000 and it came with a dashboard and a large GPS screen, only the GPS never worked because Canadians didn’t have GPS yet.)

So that whole era of the ‘Charlotte Hornets Starter Jackets’ and these posters and the Taylor boys’ Portlandia style from Home Improvement, that didn’t flesh through fully above the 49th until the 1994 NHL All-Star Game went with these jerseys and Wayne Gretzky started rollerblading.

(For some reason, they thought ‘inline skating’ would be less embarrassing than calling it ‘rollerblading’ so they went with that instead.)

Below, Gretzky and his buddies use the wardrobe from Blossom to teach kids everything but icing:

As soon as the NHL started rolling this stuff out, it was too late.

All the formerly blue collar, steel mill-dependant towns that the game had relied on in the 80’s and back had given way to this new California cool. And everyone just slouched into it and followed suit without really noticing how ridiculous they were or sounded, like how we started saying ‘YOLO‘ a couple years ago for no reason or how Jonah Hill actually almost bought these jeans.

But that’s all just a blur now, right? Just like the cocaine montages from the movies. We were lucky to come out of it with anything close to dignity intact, with the A-HA! moment undoubtedly being this glowing puck and a team called ‘the Florida Panthers’ making the Stanley Cup Final.

The intervention was absolutely imperative, but luckily we snapped ourselves out of it without rehab necessary.

Unfortunately though, evidence exists.

And as always, it exists in the uniforms.

I will never understand why a team with a great uniform, especially one that’s winning with that great uniform, feels the urge to change it all. After 20 years of failure and fugly tunics, the Vancouver Canucks had a great uniform in the early Nineties. And the team was great, so much so that when its coach from that era passed away, the entire city spent a week in mourning (that week is this week, of course). But when the Canucks’ ownership changed hands – from the Griffiths family to a group called Orca Bay – the new powers that were powers decided, “Hey, why not fu*k up everything we’ve got going well here? Sure, we’ve been handed a solid product and a team that just recently went to a Stanley Cup Final, but you know what would be cool? To replace the black, red, and yellow with dark blue, maroon, and silver! AND LET’S REPLACE THE C-SHAPED SKATE WITH A FREAKIN’ WHALE! You know, ’cause Orcas, right?”

The New York Islanders made a similar play, switching out the jerseys they won four straight Stanley Cups in for something resembling the frozen fish sticks you buy at Safeway.

What about the Edmonton Oilers? In the Nineties, they ditched their entire identity for something darker and, eventually, something created by Todd McFarlane.

The Boston Bruins have kept their unis basically the same since Eddie Shore wore No. 2, but even they used Tarantino’s decade to tinker with one of the league’s all-time worst alternate jerseys, that so-bad-it’s-good, Dude Where’s My Car? level of awful, Winnie the Pooh, radioactive yellow third. (Seriously, they made Ray Bourque wear this.)

The Los Angeles Kings ditched those awesome black and silver, Raiders-esque uniforms for the Burger King and then a less-than-royal purple trim. (The infuriating thing again with L.A. is, they had those black-and-silver duds when they went to the Stanley Cup Finals with Wayne Gretzky in 1993, which was their greatest franchise moment until they returned to the black and won two Stanley Cups in 2012 and 2014. Why did they ever change? Why would they ever force their rapidly thinning fanbase to invest $200 in a shirt they would just scrap later on?)

Sadly, most franchises are still climbing out of this foggy mess. As mentioned, the Kings and Canucks have pieced together some identity with well-intentioned redo’s, Stanley Cups, and Presidents Trophies. (Although the Canucks should really ditch that ugly-as-hell ‘VANCOUVER’ and the Orca logo and just go all-in with the Stick in the Rink already.)

The Oilers and Islanders went all the way back to the Eighties, while the Minnesota Wild and the Columbus Blue Jackets have done their best to create something passable. (Come on, they’re trying. Is it really their fault they were born into a rough neighbourhood?)

Of course, the evidence of all this exists. As much as we can forget it, the police and your accountant probably have some record of everything that happened, what you bought and what you ingested.

Add to that, the league has relapsed several times – huh and WTF – and there have been plenty of things we’ve seen we can’t un-see, like Chris Chelios in a Thrashers jersey or Peter Forsberg as a Predator. (Props to TheScore‘s Justin Bourne for this wonderful post, with more on that.)

But you know what? We’re 14 years sober, and it’s finally getting a little easier to get up every day, put on that jersey, and cheer.