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Rapper Snoop Dogg before the Los Angeles Kings played the Dallas Stars at Staples Center on Dec. 9, 2021. Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports
Hip Hop at 50

Hockey jerseys have returned to hip-hop

The ’90s are back. Can the NHL get it right this time?

Hockey jerseys, a ’90s hip-hop fashion trend, have returned, with their vibrant colors framing logos from lightning flashes and bears to leaves and sharks.

Some of the biggest names in music such as Snoop Dogg, J. Cole and Drake have been seen wearing NHL team jerseys. And on the cover of her No. 1 new album SOS, SZA reps her hometown in a custom St. Louis Blues jersey.

The renewed popularity of hockey jerseys in hip-hop can be traced to two factors. The first is the return of baggy clothing styles. One of the most prominent examples of this is rapper Drake, who has been seen multiple times recently courtside at Toronto Raptors games wearing extra-large clothing, harkening back to hip-hop fashion in the ’90s when skinny jeans and fitted clothing were nowhere in sight.

Jennifer Ekeleme, vice president of multicultural engagement and integration at the NHL, sees the trend as an example of a fashion cycle.

“The resurgence of things happens in a generation, which is 25 years, and I’m not surprised that the ’90s are coming back now,” she said. “The opportunity for anybody who’s an influencer or an artist who has access to eyes and attention of people can take something as auspicious as a hockey jersey and completely flip it and turn it into something culturally relevant.”

In the ’90s, it was common to see videos with rappers in hockey jerseys. Snoop Dogg wore a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey in the “Gin and Juice” video as he rode down the street on a bicycle. Craig Mack rocked the blue, black and white of the Tampa Bay Lightning in front of the Unisphere in Queens, New York, in the “Flava In Ya Ear” video. (Gudda Gudda’s bar, “Wear a hockey jersey just to hide the vest,” was on Lil Wayne’s “Grateful” in 2016.)

Dart Adams, a Boston-based journalist and rap historian, recalled being at the center of the hockey jersey movement in Boston.

“My neighborhood rap group, TDS Mob, used to rock Boston Bruins gear. They were affiliated with Boston’s premier rap crew, The Almighty RSO,” remembered Adams. “By early 1990, RSO began rocking Bruins gear, too. Jackets, hats, T-shirts and the most enduring being Bruins jerseys.”

It wasn’t just NHL jerseys that rappers rocked during this period. The fascination with hockey jerseys resulted in hip-hop clothing brands creating their own versions.

“The trend resulted in everyone creating custom jerseys,” Adams recalled. “Too Black Guys, Walker Wear, Phat Farm – these led to the merch hockey jerseys by artists like Naughty by Nature and Onyx. They were one of hip-hop’s favorite accessories.”

Another factor that may be playing into the return of hockey jerseys as a fashion statement is that the NHL itself is changing. The league is loaded with young stars, many who, like Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine and Trevor Zegras, are eschewing hockey tradition, both in their off-ice fashion and on-ice play. Some of the league’s teams, such as the Toronto Maple Leafs, have relaxed their dress codes, allowing players’ personalities to shine through more.

Hockey jerseys are big business for the NHL. Which begs the question: Why didn’t the NHL capitalize on the original trend in the ’90s?

Ekeleme did not work at the league during the ’90s. But she said the missed opportunity for the league was due to not having enough people internally who understood the culture.

“You have to be aware culturally of what’s happening in a particular community. The NHL is just getting to that point now where we’re catching up internally and understanding and being exposed to these different cultures,” she said. “It’s easier now with social media versus back in the ’90s. We’ve also come a long way in understanding that hip-hop culture is not dangerous, it’s No. 1 when it comes to music. Back then you could argue that hip-hop culture still felt very niche and still only belonged to Black culture.”

“I think we’re in a space now to capitalize on it,” Ekeleme said. “I’m always thinking about jerseys from a cultural perspective, and everyone is talking about it here at the league. We need to think about how we’re offering the jersey as a cultural connection with existing and new fans without it being performative.”

The cautious approach is understandable. The NHL has had a challenging few years when it has come to its ability to speak to Black audiences and address news events and social issues. The league faced significant criticism following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer and its choice not to go out with a message that Black lives matter. More recently, the league and the Boston Bruins came under fire after the signing of Mitchell Miller, who had a troubling history of racism and abuse of a developmentally challenged Black classmate. The Bruins rescinded the offer, but the incident strengthened the narrative that the NHL has long had difficulty speaking to and respecting fans who aren’t white.

“The NHL failed to realize its popularity in the inner cities in the early to late ’90s or capitalize on it. Cats had every NHL video game just like we bought NBA Live and Madden for whatever console we owned,” Adams said. “On New York Undercover, Malik Yoba and Michael DeLorenzo are rocking NHL gear, but the league dropped the ball there.”

The NHL doesn’t intend not to drop the ball again, Ekeleme promises.

“Like any flower or plant that grows, there’s a lot of stuff that happens before you can see it actually sprout,” she said. “There’s work happening. You can’t see anything on the surface yet, but a lot is going on.”

Adam Aziz is a writer and consultant living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @brokencool.