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So the past isn't necessarily better, even if sepia images—Rocket's glare, Hull's banana curve, maskless goalies and coaches in fedoras—sometimes make it seem that way. "Romantic," Wilson says. "These teams were an anchor at a time when we believed the world was perfect, even when it wasn't."
Wilson thinks the Original Six remain meaningful partly because they're also the Organic Six, the base of the league before what he calls "expansion on steroids." The jump from six to 30 led hockey fans to bond with what they knew, and it helped when older fans in Original Six cities migrated south and west. "They were like spores carrying the game," Wilson says. "They passed on their loyalties. You still see it. When I was coaching in Anaheim and San Jose, and Montreal or Toronto or Detroit came in, it felt like the buildings were 50-50. In Washington in the [1998 Cup] final, everyone in our building was in red and white and rooting for Detroit."
"When I was in Hartford, and Boston or the Rangers came in," says Shanahan, "we'd say, 'Let's score early to take the crowd out of it.'"
There's no longer a team in Hartford, but little else has changed. Along with the Cup champion Penguins, who were second to the Canadiens in NHL merchandise sales over the last fiscal year, Original Six teams continue to lure consumers; sales of those clubs' items grew 12% in the past three seasons and accounted for 45% of the league's overall sales during 2008--09. The Original Six form a multimillion-dollar brand, marketed by the NHL; it is the most recognized subgroup of teams to be branded and promoted by a sports league.
There is another reason why the Original Six matter, why Shanahan wanted to admire himself in the Red Wings' sweater: The outfits still look so damn good. "The Original Six have the best six jerseys, whatever order you rank them," says Poile, the Nashville G.M. "All the new teams, we've had to change our jerseys umpteen times. The original teams ... their logos are so good, their colors are so good. The Bruins, that spoked B, the Hub ... would they have thought of that today?"
"You could get the best designer in the world," Burke says, "and if that person could come up with a uniform to beat Montreal's or Toronto's, I'd be amazed."
In an age when graphic design qualifies as art and computers aid the imagination in running riot, it is striking that no hockey sweaters have been as aesthetically successful as those of the Original Six, whose primary colors—the reds of Montreal, Detroit and Chicago; the blues of Toronto and New York; and the yellowish gold of Boston—continue to make classical fashion statements. History gives these jerseys an obvious advantage, but their appeal comes from something deeper than mere familiarity. To test the theory, SI sought the professional opinion of Ellen Lupton, curator of Contemporary Design at Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, in New York City.
"I'm not much of a football fan," she warned before accepting the assignment.
She was told that was O.K. because these are hockey jerseys.
"The [Detroit] wing is very traditional like the [Chicago] Indian," says Lupton. "Both have a detailed, traditional illustration style. The [Boston] B and the [Montreal] C are traditional monogrammed designs. So those all feel like they're from a past time—not very contemporary—and classic. And the Rangers crest, that's really traditional, looks almost like a police shield. They all have sort of a classic, old-fashioned feel to them, like Americana, compared with some of these others, like the [Florida] panther thing that's very stylized and hyper looking. [Some of the Original Six logos] were probably designed by somebody at the printing company, you know? But why would you change if the fans know it and love it?"