Branding the NHL Winter Classic

The NHL’s Stanley Cup Finals crowns a champion, but the annual Winter Classic does so much more. The January 1 event ties fans to nostalgia, history and and the game’s beginnings. The NHL Winter Classic takes hockey lovers outside, puts them in a well-known stadium and gives them a regular-season NHL game like no other.

The Winter Classic game has turned into the NHL’s marquee event, and the branding needs to reflect that.

“It is about the game itself,” Paul Conway, the NHL’s vice president of creative services tells HOW Design. “The Winter Classic is certainly what we have been building equity in. It is a time for the NHL to shine its shield and show the level of event it can put on.”

So in that way, the branding is about the game—the tradition—and not necessarily about the teams. Moving from city to city each New Year’s Day, the mark conveys the change. In 2015, the mark reflects the nation’s capital, with the game in D.C.’s Nationals Park.

Branding the Mark for the NHL Winter Classic

“We like to have a slightly different personality for each mark,” Conway says about the seven-year history of the designs, “reflected in different components. There is equity in the game now, and we wanted to build equity in some of the branding.”

In that way, expect consistency in the typography, with a script flowing “Winter” dominating a serif-faced Classic. That hierarchy has remained constant over seven iterations. But there has still been plenty of evolution.

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The inaugural look in Buffalo started a bit more generic, Conway admits. Since going to iconic stadiums plays a central theme in the allure of the game, when the NHL visited Chicago’s famed Wrigley Field, the game’s mark captured the well-known colors and shape of the stadium’s marquee. Boston’s Fenway Park mark offered much the same opportunity.

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In Pittsburgh, the mark splashed the visually striking yellow bridges of the city. Philadelphia offered the Liberty Bell as a dominant city tie-in. “You spin the wheel and see what other opportunities present themselves,” he says about not automatically choosing the Liberty Bell, “and end up back to the obvious.”

Last year, though, wasn’t as obvious a choice. The game traveled to Ann Arbor, Michigan, home of the University of Michigan’s Big House, the largest collegiate football stadium in the nation. The 2014 mark captured the massive video boards in Michigan Stadium.

NHL Winter Classic 2015: Branding the Nation’s Capital

The question was raised for 2015: How do you choose something in a city full of recognizable landmarks? Washington, D.C., offers up nearly any monument along The Mall, the Capitol Building and even the White House.

“We knew we would probably utilize the Capitol, but we looked at other elements as well,” Conway says. “We knew the White House was probably not the way to go. The (Washington) Monument is vertical, a little light to carry the aesthetic. We ended up with the Capitol, but we wanted more than just the Capitol.”

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The well-known dome of the building has been heavily used in logos of all kinds over the years—including a now-retired logo for the NHL’s Washington Capitals—Conway says he desired differentiation.

His separation comes from the inspiration provided by historic presidential elections, a way to create a primary mark with extra elements, a template for secondary marks and a way to tie to the nostalgia of the Winter Classic.

Working with New Jersey-based Fanbrandz designers and principal Bill Frederick, the design team brought in the stars and stripes from the early campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s. “We liked the simplicity of those graphic elements of stars and stripes, there is something nostalgic about that,” Conway says. “There is strength in using features from those past campaigns.”

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The simplicity of the color blocking, use of striping—both horizontally and vertically—and even the button shapes helped accent the primary mark and really define those secondary team marks.

“Whether Nixon or Kennedy, there’s a lot of materials out there to reference,” Conway says. “Sometimes simple is the best way to go. Event marks in general have a tendency to get a little complicated, a lot of information into a visual. Some of these supporting graphics really support our primary mark. Secondary logos help offset repetition.”

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With the primary mark focused on the game itself, you don’t see any mention of the two teams playing in the game, only the city. The two separate secondary team marks—identical other than the team they represent—have reason to be used plenty on websites, ticket promotions, digital campaigns or merchandise.

Primary Logo Reigns in the NHL Winter Classic

But everything points back to the primary logo where the design must convey a sense of hockey to fulfill the goal of promoting the game. In past designs, the pucks have frequently slid through snow or ice in some fashion. The Philadelphia logo took a different twist, with the puck turning into the striker of the Liberty Bell. In 2015, the puck slashes and crosses the “t” in Winter.

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“This event reaches all of our fan base and reaches out to casual fans,” Conway says. “It’s a subtle cue to reinforce the game.”

The design team starts creating the logo as soon as the city and venue get selected, often about 12 months out from the event—because it’s appearing in so many locations and applications leading up to Jan. 1. The one ever-important spot that does require a bit of design tweaking to make it work: center ice.

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The logo is painted on the center ice for the actual game, playing to a packed stadium and national television audience. The design for the logo must account for the red line running straight through the center of the mark. It’s for this reason that the NHL shield gets offset. When painting the art, Conway says a few small nuances allow flexibility for legibility, whether with the typography or elsewhere.

But that’s acceptable. This is the NHL’s marquee event, a chance to connect the game of hockey to fans of all types. The NHL Winter Classic needs a brand to match—even when applied to ice.

Tim Newcomb covers sports design for HOW Design. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.


T5491_coverDig into more insider stories about branding brand giants in the HOW Expert Guide, Logo Design and Branding: A New Approach to Better Logo Design and Branding for Designers and Managers. Dr. Bill Haig explains the process of applying credibility principles to a company’s logo, branding and advertising to create a mark and image that has both longevity and value. 

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