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Winter Classic dressed for success

| Sunday, Dec. 26, 2010

Inquiring minds already want to know who will play in next year's Winter Classic, NHL merchandising director Keith Leach said. For some, the main interest is expanding their jersey collections.

"The jewel of our products," Leach said.

Jersey sales have steadily climbed since the first Winter Classic in Buffalo between the Penguins and Sabres on Jan. 1, 2008. Currently, Leach said, Penguins and Washington Capitals jerseys are selling faster than any before.

All of this year's Winter Classic jerseys, which are manufactured by NHL official outfitter Reebok, will be sold, Leach said.

"We are not sitting on any excess inventory," he said. "We planned a 20 percent increase in the jerseys, and we're seeing that demand being met."

The latest figures show a 24 percent increase in sales. In 2009, the year after the first Winter Classic, jersey sales doubled. There was a 15 percent increase the following year

.More Penguins jerseys than Capitals jerseys are available because the Penguins, as the host team, were afforded 60 percent of the run, Leach said.

Because of the annual increase in sales, it is likely that this year's Penguins model will be the top-selling jersey of the eight so far, NHL marketing director Brian Jennings said.

Like the Winter Classic itself, jersey sales have proven to be an unexpected boon to the NHL. But hockey jerseys in general seem to have their own identity, according to Jennings.

"When I go into an arena, I'm still blown away by the number of people wearing the jerseys," he said.

"The first event, we didn't know what it was gonna be like," said Leach. "What we saw was that the demand for the jerseys was high and we were able to service that demand, post-event."

Leach attributes the popularity of Winter Classic jerseys to the "great aura" of the game, plus the "retro" and "vintage" aspects, among other factors.

Without getting too deep, Jennings said, he believes part of the old-fashioned designs represents a "yearning for simpler times."

All Winter Classic jerseys incorporate elements of the teams' pasts. The Penguins in the first Classic wore essentially a throwback uniform replicating what their uniforms in their early days. This year's stripe-intensive version is more of an amalgam.

"It's a full collaboration between Reebok, the teams and the NHL offices," he said. "We start by initiating discussions with the team and inquire to what their objectives are. We listen closely, we give input, and it comes down to, in the case with Pittsburgh, many, many concepts and a result that's more of a fusion."

The Capitals, playing in their first Winter Classic, have gone the throwback route, wearing replicas of the uniforms from the franchise's first season in 1974-75.

Jennings and Leach estimate that jerseys represent 50 percent to 55 percent of all apparel sales. Revenue from all officially licensed merchandise, not including what is sold in stores owned by the teams, is divided equally among the 30 NHL clubs.

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