Comparing Aesthetics: Hockey and Soccer
With the World Cup finale happening today, and for probably the only time until 2018 that most people in North America will be paying attention to anything soccer*-related, it’s a good time to discuss the world of sports aesthetics and, specifically, how hockey and soccer compare to each other.
(Just a note, this post is going to take a different tone than the usual posts here on HbD, as it’s much more research driven and informational, but hopefully you still enjoy it. A lot of work went into it.)
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned while writing and maintaining this site for the last three years, it’s that the branding of hockey is much different than the branding of any other sport…and the same is true for any sports honestly. What works for a hockey jersey, won’t work for a football jersey. What works for a baseball jersey won’t work for a soccer kit, etc, etc. Each sport has their own unique design vernacular that is riddled with tradition, history, cultural influences, sociology and production limitations. Because each sport has a distinct region in which the game is predominantly popular in and historically tied to (Canada for hockey, England for modern soccer – although versions of soccer can be found as far back as Roman and Greek antiquity), there are different influences that determine not only the nature of the sport, but also the aesthetics of the sport.
The interesting thing with hockey and soccer is that some of those ties are very much connected, and really, they are very similar sports. Both are based on continual movement and action with few opportunities for set plays (powerplays and corner kicks) over the course of the game and are comparatively low-scoring affairs.
Both sports are very team-oriented, meaning that there’s almost no one-on-one match-ups to demonstrate individuality outside of the team. Sure, there will always be some star players who have more skill than others, but those players still need the teams to succeed. The lone individualistic exceptions are penalty kicks (for soccer), and penalty shots/shootouts and face-offs (in hockey). The obvious and main difference between the sports is one is played using feet on grass, the other with skates and a stick on ice. Otherwise, the overall concepts of the sports are identical: put the ball/puck past the keeper/goalie into the other team’s net.
But there’s also a shared history between the sports, both being developed in the last few decades of the 19th century (albeit, soccer predates hockey in professional development by about 20 years or so). Canada, being a part of the British Commonwealth and, at that time, also being extremely pro-Loyalist to defend themselves against those ‘dangerous’ independents to the south, would undoubtedly have some shared social values with Mother England despite being separated by the Atlantic. All this is to say, there’s fundamental cultural and conceptual similarities between the two sports and it becomes obvious in the aesthetics surrounding them.
Other than helmets and gloves in hockey which (with the exception of the goalies) have almost no visual design on them at all, the uniforms of hockey and soccer teams are also remarkably similar: Pullover shirts, laces at the collars in some cases (historically speaking), shorts and high socks. In fact, it’s strange that a sport that originated by being played outside in the dead of winter in cold climates on ice would have a uniform that used shorts.
It would be wrong to think that it was meant to duplicate soccer uniforms, as shorts allow for more flexibility and movement in the legs compared to pants, but the visual connection is still a remarkably comparable one. In terms of the actual uniform, hockey is soccer on ice, but with a lot more padding underneath.
Looking back at the beginnings of the design of the uniforms and jerseys/kits for both sports, there’s more obvious connections: heavy use of stripes or solid colours. Team logos, if visible at all, are featured on the front. Shorts are a different colour than the shirts and socks, which are generally have striped as well. In the late-19th century and early-20th century, you could have taken the exact same design of most hockey jerseys, slapped them on a soccer jersey, and it wouldn’t look strange (and vice versa of course). But, of course, there are subtle ways that the two sports’ uniforms began to visually differentiate themselves, and that began in the 1910s.
By climatic necessity, hockey traditionally used woollen sweaters as their uniforms, each knitted individually for a team of only 7 to 12 players, depending on the team and era. Although it was difficult to find any specific information about it, I’d guess that the thickness and heaviness of the wool made it much easier – and less of a burden, as woollen sweaters are already quite heavy – for large team logos to be sewn onto the sweaters. Soccer kits used logos on their kits very rarely until the 1940s and 1950s, when it starting gaining popularity among professional teams. Again, I’d hypothesize that it’s because of advancements in production to make it easier to produce and better to use.
But what is certain is that the soccer kits in those years were polo-style (commonly, but not exclusively, with laces or regular crew necks styles also used), with 3–4 buttons extending down from the collar. Having a huge version of the team logo over the entire chest – as hockey started using early on – wouldn’t have worked because the shirt style would get in the way. So when soccer teams did start introducing the team logos regularly on their kits, it was a small version over their hearts which didn’t conflict with the buttons. It made sense production-wise, but it also harkened back to the roots of modern soccer – universities and colleges around England – which had similar styles of uniforms, with the school crest over the heart. Hockey, however, didn’t need to worry about buttons or any other physical restrictions from their sweaters, letting the logo take centre stage over the entire front of the sweater.
For soccer, you can see those early traditions continue. The early restrictions from the polo-style shirts commonly used are no longer, with all teams wearing v- or crew-neck styles, but if a team were to have a hockey-style design with a large logo on their chest, it would look strange and probably derided by the soccer community. Or, at least on the international level anyway. The city-based leagues have prominent sponsor logos on their chest all the time, something that hockey (thankfully) has avoided (mostly). At least, the NHL has avoided it.
The other common difference you’ll find in earlier hockey sweaters and soccer kits are the direction of the stripes. Early soccer kits had stripes going horizontal, vertical, or patches of colour being used. Hockey only ever had horizontal stripes. The reason is, in the production of a woollen sweater, it’s much easier to construct it with horizontal lines than vertical ones. For soccer kits, the striping/patterns were produced as most cotton-based clothes were, using dyes. Makes perfect sense when you think about it.
And again, this tradition continues to this day, even though modern production of jerseys would allow for any amount of patterns/striping/images that you want (sometimes unfortunately). It’s not until the 2007 switch to the Reebok Edge jerseys that any sort of vertical lines were regularly used in the league, following the new curves of the jersey. Some teams had been playing with new lines as early as the mid-’70s, but not with much popularity.
Of note, soccer was also the first major sport to use third jerseys/kits regularly, starting as early as the 1940s, sometimes using drastically different colours from the ‘regular’ home/away kits. Hockey’s doing that now, but it still never strays too far from the team’s branding.
As mentioned earlier, soccer kits had way more flexibility in their designs compared to hockey, and that also continues to today, as you could have seen every day at the World Cup over the last month. Yesterday, a Dutch team wearing a blue kit filled with subtle gradients, chevron-shaped stripes laden over vertical stripes took the field. Or Portugal’s multi-striped red kits. Or Cameroon’s African-print themed kits. Or Japan’s sunburst blue kits. Soccer’s big experimentation from traditional patterns happened in the ’70s with the introduction of new kit manufacturers competing for business, so the sport has had over 40 years of design experimentation. In hockey today, these types of designs would be (and have been) murdered by critics, because that history just doesn’t exist with the sport.
But that’s not to say it never could. Hockey jerseys have come a long way in their 100+ years of existence, but every step in jersey design evolution is a small one, incrementally changing over decades – a rate that doesn’t make jerseys look odd, unfashionable and (most importantly today) unsellable. Hockey’s experimentation in jersey design didn’t really start until the mid-’90s, when the third jersey program was introduced, so soccer has 20 years on hockey in that sense. In another 20 years, hockey jerseys could be much more diversified like the World Cup jerseys we’ve just watched this past month, and we may love them then as strongly as we’d criticize them today, but it’s going to take a bunch of baby steps to get there.
But what has really allowed soccer to experiment and grow aesthetically and visually is the globalization of the game. Hockey is a sport whose popularity is restricted to North America and northern Europe, while soccer is the most popular game on the planet. Thirty-two countries competed in this World Cup, with over 150 countries trying to get in. Hockey couldn’t get 32 competitive national teams together if it wanted to. The 2014 Sochi Olympics had 12 teams. The last World Cup of Hockey in 2006 had 8 teams.
How that all affects the aesthetics is that a huge variety of countries are at the table with soccer, each with their own visual culture, visual identity and all of them wanting to bring that into their national soccer branding/identity, because they want their uniforms to have an obvious connection to their people. What worked for Ghana’s kits wouldn’t have worked for England’s. And vice versa. Simply, soccer has the diversity in nations and cultures that allows for (and inherently forces) diversity in aesthetics. Hockey has never that sort of legacy to bring to its table.
There are tons of other comparables between the two sports: similar striping on the shorts traditionally, similar striping on the socks too (because they were, as with hockey, woollen socks originally), the large numbers and player names on the backs, etc. They have a similar history, share a similar concept, and of all the major sports in the world, are probably the two most connected to each other in terms of the spirit of their respective sports. These similarities are evident aesthetically as well, but history, production, popularity and culture have created a greater visual rift between the two sports.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know what you think, or share any comments you have below. I’d love to hear them!
*I generally prefer to call soccer ‘football’ myself, as it just makes more sense to me, but I fully realize that within the North American demographic, I am in the vast minority with this, so ‘soccer’ it is.