I don’t want to be one of those people who feel it’s their mission in life to tell people how to do things – how to save, how to be successful, how to be happy - my goodness I find that offensive when someone is that full of themselves. But one thing that does guide me as I wiggle my way through life is the thought that we’re probably never as smart as we think we are, nor are we as far off the mark as we might fear - the truth usually lies somewhere in between.
With that in mind, I’d like to tell the story of our first poster, The Original Six, which is in all likelihood is one of the best selling posters in Canadian history. It’s hard to say with certainty what the best selling posters are simply because poster sales isn’t a statistic that is kept/recorded.
The Original Six - One of Canada's best selling posters of all time
I recently did a fun interview with a wonderful man by the name of Paul Lukas. Paul is the genius behind Uni Watch, an incredible blog/website devoted to what Paul calls “The Obsessive Study of Athletics Aesthetics”, or more simply, a blog about sports uniforms. It’s incredibly popular and the readers of uniwatch are great contributors of uniform bits and pieces – the amount of uniform information in the site is frightening, a remarkable achievement.
During the interview with Paul, he asked me how and when I became interested in jerseys and uniforms. What came to mind were two things:
1. While I was in university a million years ago (1978-1981), I had a collection of roughly 20 hockey jerseys that I wore around campus. I’m not entirely sure of my motivation for wearing them, if any, but in retrospect I sense it had something to do with being a Canadian going to university in New Jersey and wanting to make it known in some way that I was Canadian, and what better way than wearing hockey jerseys 24/7. I remember hearing someone describe me as “you know, the guy who wears the hockey pajamas”. It was a bit of a dog’s breakfast of a collection of jerseys - some were jerseys that I had as a kid, others were ones friends gave me, and a handful were ones that I bought. The point is that even that long ago, I was somewhat obsessed with jerseys.
In 1975 I traded a guy from Sweden a great 1972 Team Canada jersey for this jersey - not quite sure what I was thinking but this is the sort of jersey I wore on a daily basis in university.
2. In an earlier blog, I wrote abut my wonderful grandfather Bert Powell and a great three-volume collection of books he gave me called “The Trail of the Stanley Cup”. These books trace the history of Stanley Cup competition from 1893 to 1967. Remarkable stuff. Among a lot of other gems, the books contain approximately 64 simple colour sketches the author Charles Coleman made of great jerseys from the 1890’s through the 1920’s. These sketches stayed in my mind for years and I am certain they played an important role in my interest in jerseys.
Charles Coleman sketch from The Trail of The Stanley Cup
In the late 1980’s, I had the idea of creating two posters - one showing watercolour paintings of historic jerseys of every Toronto-based team that had competed for the Stanley Cup from 1893 to the present, and the other showing Montreal teams. The idea rattled around in my head for some time, and in 1992 I shared the idea with a hockey-mad friend who was looking for a project and we came up with a prototype.
This is the original prototype of our jersey posters - it shows Montreal jerseys largely because Charles Coleman offered more images of Montreal teams than Toronto teams.
The idea sat for a couple years. By 1994 I had started my own business, Maple Leaf Productions, and I made the decision to apply to the NHL for a license to produce the historic hockey jersey posters described above. I was turned down.
I applied again in 1996 and once again I was turned down. It subsequently came to my attention that there may have been some skullduggery going on between the NHL’s existing poster licensee “Norman James” and the-then person in charge of licensing, and if that was the case, so be it, I guess that’s the way the world works.
I was determined to get an NHL license and it was clear I needed a strategy. What I decided was that if I could produce and sell a successful hockey poster, one that didn’t require NHL licensing, when I next applied to the NHL for a license, I would likely be given a far warmer reception.
This was 1996. Chicago Stadium had closed in 1994, Boston Garden in 1995 and the Montreal Forum in 1996. This left Maple Leaf Gardens as the last of the Original Six arenas – the last one standing. So my poster idea was to create a poster honouring the six great arenas of hockey once again using artistic renditions, not photographs. The idea then morphed into producing two virtually identical posters – one called “The Original Six” and the other called “The Last The Best of All”. Both posters would show all six arenas, but in the “The Last the Best of All” poster, Maple Leaf Gardens would be in colour to reinforce the fact that it was still “alive”, and from a Toronto perspective, “the last the best of all”.
Here is the actual prototype poster we came up with:
Note the poster title we initially contemplated - a bit wordy!
In my mind I was fairly certain that of the two posers, “The Last The Best of All” would be the most popular. Of course I was dead wrong – The Original Six went on to become a best-seller and The Last the Best of All was forgotten fairly quickly. As I said, you’re never as smart as you think you are. Incidentally, if you have one of The Last The Best of All’s, hang on to it – it’s rare (so rare that even I don't have a good electronic copy of it to show you)!
The Last The Best Of All - 2nd place in a two horse race
It turns out that one thing I wasn’t so far off the mark with was that 18 months later, when I applied for an NHL license with a now-successful poster under my belt, the NHL granted me a license.
And that’s the story of The Original Six, one of the best selling posters in Canadian history.
Three final quick asides:
A. It should be noted that the third time I applied for an NHL license, the gentleman who had been in charge of NHL licensing, the one who may have had too close a relationship with the Norman James Corporation, was no longer in the employ of the NHL.
B. Once we became an NHL licensee, we re-published the Original Six poster using NHL team logos and they made the poster that much more appealing – I really think it completed the poster. But I’d like to tell you about the logos we used in this poster. The NHL didn’t give us these logos as is usually the case – at the time the NHL didn’t have any vintage logos to give licensees. Instead, I had a copy of a terrific glossy NHL licensed products booklet that the NHL and their then-licensing director Fred Scalera produced in 1993-ish. This booklet was brilliantly produced and had some great vintage logos among many historic photos and other images. We scanned those logos using the highest resolution equipment we could at the time (a monster drum scanner) and re-created those logos electronically. The NHL liked the logos so much that they ended up asking us for the logos. And as far as I can tell, these images are still in use by the NHL today – all scanned from Fred's NHL product booklet.
These are the logo images we scanned from Fred Scalera's great 1993-ish NHL product booklet.
C. Our poster was titled “The Original Six”, an expression that was part of the public domain at the time. A few years later, the NHL licensing department demanded (and I use that term deliberately) that I sign a document disavowing any claim I may have had to that expression. What an impossible situation for a licensee to be put in – if I wanted to retain my NHL license, I had no choice but to sign. In my opinion, being a bully is not the way to run a business. And now thus it is that any time you see the expression “The Original Six”, you’re likely to see the ubiquitous TM close by.