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Uni Watch's Friday Flashback: Why Hartford Whalers' logo endures

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Uni Watch Friday Flashback: The Hartford Whalers (1:51)

Paul Lukas of Uni Watch looks back on the timeless uniforms of the Hartford Whalers. (1:51)

Your friendly uniform columnist was attending an NHL game the other day. Two guys sitting nearby, who looked to be in their early 20s, were discussing NHL teams that no longer existed -- the Quebec Nordiques, the Atlanta Thrashers and so on -- and eventually one of the guys mentioned the Hartford Whalers.

"Such a great jersey!" said the first guy. His buddy enthusiastically agreed, and then they shared a look that basically said, "Yup, that's a universal truth right there."

To put this in some perspective, the Hartford Whalers have not existed since 1997, when these two guys would have been about 4 years old. The team never won a Stanley Cup or even a conference championship, and it was plagued by chronic attendance problems that ultimately led the franchise to relocate to Raleigh, North Carolina, where it now operates as the Carolina Hurricanes.

Despite the team's unremarkable on-ice history, the Whalers' logo and jersey have proven to be surprisingly durable and popular -- even among fans who are barely old enough to have seen the team play. Whalers merchandise was reintroduced in 2009 and has reportedly become Reebok's top seller among defunct NHL teams. The team's merch has even been championed by a number of celebrities, most notably comedian John Hodgman.

At the heart of all this is the Whalers' logo. Unveiled in 1979 -- when the team joined the NHL as part of the NHL-WHA merger and changed its geographical signifier from New England to Hartford -- it's a strong, bold design with an ingenious stealth element: The negative space between the whale's tail and the "W" forms an "H."

If you're just perceiving the "H" for the first time, don't worry -- lots of fans have gone years, even decades, without realizing that it's lurking in there.

The logo was created by a designer named Peter Good, a Hartford native who still maintains a Connecticut-based design practice. Courtly and soft-spoken, he shared his story recently in a Uni Watch interview. Here's how our conversation went:

Uni Watch: How did you end up being hired to design the Whalers' logo?

Peter Good: I was hired by an agency, Jack Lardis Associates, which was handling the advertising for the Whalers. Jack was an old friend, and he hired me to do the design. He said, "You'll work directly with the Whalers on this," so I met with Howard Baldwin [the team's founder and owner at the time], Bill Barnes, the marketing director, and Jack Kelley, the general manager. We talked about their goals, and I prepared some preliminary designs based on that.

What did they say their goals were?

Oh, you know -- "We want an exciting logo," or something like that. It's the same thing every client says when they want a new logo.

Were you already a fan of the team at the time? Were you even a hockey fan?

No, no. It was a totally new experience. At that time my children were young, and they were involved with junior hockey, but I wasn't really a hockey fan aside from that.

Had you previously done any sports-related design work?

No. And the whole thing was on a fast track -- they were in a rush -- so I came back about a week later with several drawings. Some used a whale, some used harpoons, some had a trident shape. And I said, "This is just a way of thinking about the logo." And Howard Baldwin pointed to one that had a "W" and an "H," and he said, "Oh, I like that one. We'll go with that one."

So that was that?

But it didn't have the whale's tail yet. I asked him, "Why do you like that one?" And he said he liked that it had the "H." OK, but that hadn't been one of their initial requirements or requests, so I said, "I'm not really happy with this. Now that I know you want the 'H,' give me another week and let me play around with it." And that's when I started experimenting with different ways of doing it.

The team's previous logo included a harpoon. Why did you move away from that?

Well, you know, a harpoon is used to kill whales, but the whale was the team's mascot. So there was something not quite right about that, some cognitive dissonance -- you don't want to kill your own mascot! And they agreed with that when I explained it to them. So that's when I came up with the whale's tail. I had done some other whale-based designs in that first presentation, but nothing that just had the tail. And I discovered that it worked really well with the "W." It didn't happen right away -- it took a while to get there. I still have the developmental drawings.

This was the late 1970s, so obviously you weren't using computers or digital software. What tools did you use?

The way of drafting back then was to do a sketch and refine it using traditional drafting instruments, like pen, ink, templates and so forth. For an organic shape like the whale's tail, I cut a template out of acetate and then refined it by sanding it down. It sounds so crude compared to today's digital programs, but that's the way it was done.

When Baldwin said he wanted an "H," did you immediately think you could achieve that by using the negative space?

Yes, because I had done something similar to that in one of the sketches from the first round. But once I added the whale's tail, it really evolved.

You know, I've heard lots of people say, "This is one of the most ingenious logos of all time, because of the 'H.'" And then there are the people who say, "I've been looking at this logo for 20 years and didn't notice the 'H' until just now!"

Yeah, people used to say the same thing to me.

Do you see that as a strength of the design, because of the stealth factor? Or if some people can't even find the "H," is that a problem?

No, it's a strength, because it engages the mind. And even if you don't see it initially, there's something about it that plays with perception, and that gives it a certain energy.

Did you also have a hand in designing the team's uniforms?

Yes, we did, my wife and I.

And what was that like, considering you hadn't been much of a hockey fan?

We did a lot of research, looking at the other teams' uniforms. We felt there was something very clunky about most hockey uniforms. They had this lower center of gravity -- massive tops and then the jersey comes over the pants, which makes the players look like they have shorter legs. So we tried to raise the center of gravity by raising the stripes [on the torso] higher. But then we got in a conflict with uniform makers, who liked to do things the way they'd always been done, so we had to compromise there. All in all, though, it came out pretty well.

Were you also involved in designing the team's merchandise?

Yes. Tote bags, umbrellas, aprons -- a bunch of things. But we learned a lesson there. Sports fans like their graphics really big and bold, and sometimes we tried to be too subtle or sophisticated. But it was still fun doing it.

Do you recall how much you were paid to create the logo?

I think it was $2,000 -- something like that. But there was no contract, which later became very complicated. It's now a very popular logo, and the NHL makes a lot of money off of it, and so the question becomes, who owns it? We talked to some lawyers, and they agreed that I probably have the rights, but it got very complicated on the legal front, so I've given up on that.

Are you surprised by how many hockey fans -- and not just in Hartford -- seem to have a strong affection for the design?

Yes, I am. Really, it's incredible -- people have actually written doctorate papers on it! The team doesn't exist, so it's gotten into the popular culture, beyond sports. And you know, they did no market research -- it was just three people in a room who said, "Yeah, I like it." If you did it today, there would be focus groups and it would go on and on. And it would probably end up being changed during that process.

Do you like the logo as much as other folks do? Looking back on your career, do you think it's one of your better designs?

I do, I do. You have two symmetrical letterforms, which is kind of unique in itself, and then the whale's tail is also symmetrical -- all those things work together.

In the early '90s, the team put the logo on a silver-gray background and compressed the tail a bit. How did you feel about that?

We had nothing to do with that. You know, when teams start performing poorly, they think, "We'll just change the logo, that'll fix everything." In fact, at some point I got a call from someone at the Whalers who said, "Is there any way to make the logo more aggressive?" And I said no. I said, "Try winning some games -- maybe that will help." Anyway, I never liked that revision to the design. It took some of the grace out of it. Change for change's sake.

The Whalers also had a secondary logo that was a smiling whale. Did you have anything to do with that?

No, I didn't. But I thought it was fine.

It's been nearly 40 years since you created the Whalers' logo. Have you done any other sports logos or sports-related design work during that time?

No, oddly enough. We've done a lot of other logos and identity work, but not involving sports.

So this was your one shot, and you nailed it.

I guess so.


As a side note, Good said he had nothing to do with the Whalers' brief experiment wearing Cooperalls:

Hey, Cooperalls would make a great subject for a future Friday Flashback, right? We'll put that on the list. Meanwhile, if you'd like to nominate a uniform to be showcased in a future Friday Flashback installment, send your suggestions here.

Paul Lukas went to college at SUNY-Binghamton, where the local minor league hockey team at the time, the Binghamton Whalers, turned Peter Good's logo on its side to form a "B." If you liked this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted or just ask him a question? Contact him here.