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May 17, 2012

Mullin: The 16 greatest CFL uniforms of all-time

The CFL has a rich history of uniforms which are tied to the history of their communities. As a result there are some classic designs for uniforms.

I attempted to judge the classics on five elements:

Tradition:  Most CFL teams have a deep tradition and roots connected to their communities. It’s not a coincidence that Calgary’s dominant colour is red, or the Argos led the way for all Toronto sports teams with blue. To not respect your traditional elements costs you points.

Functionality: Are the numbers on the uniform discernible to the naked eye if you’re sitting in row 50? There are a surprising number of new designs in the NCAA which violate this basic premise of having a uniform in the first place.

Continuity: The development of a solid and reliable brand is evolutionary. Nothing reeks of desperation quite like an overhaul of your colours and logo.

Originality: How does your team’s persona stand alone in the crowd? How have they been able to take the technological innovations of the time and incorporate them into the story of your team?

Balance: In the same sense that one should not wear a baseball cap with a business suit, teams should thoughtfully coordinate and balance all elements of colour in their uniforms. All black uniforms with a different coloured helmet are the biggest offenders of this rule. Also, do your stripes match up? Are they the same pattern throughout the uniform?

All elements are scored out of 10. The total score is divided by five for the final placing.

Here’s my take:

16. 1994-1995 Baltimore Stallions

From the US experiment, the Baltimore Stallions roll into the final spot of the Top 16.

Abandoned in the night by a team of Mayflower moving trucks in March of 1983, football returned to Memorial Stadium in the form of the CFL in 1994. This odd combination of one of America’s hallowed grounds of gridiron combined with the established league from another country was the best of all of the stateside experiments for the three down game.

The owners originally started with the Colts name and revived some traditions. However, they couldn’t duplicate the Colt uniforms which were continued in Indianapolis. What followed was a package that rightly saluted Baltimore football history, modernized the look by adding silver to the blue and white.

The logo may have inspired a redesign in another NFL city after the Stallions success attracted the Cleveland Browns to relocate in the 1996 season.

Tradition: 8
Functionality: 8
Continuity: 8
Originality: 8
Balance: 8
Score: 8.0

15. 1948 Calgary Stampeders

The last undefeated team in CFL history looked good in the process. Their uniforms were cutting edge back in the day.

Long before the facemask was required protective wear, the Stamps screamed ‘Cowtown!’ in this red and white ensemble.

The shoulders and socks match and balance. The numbers on the front and back are clear to read.  

The pattern was used by a few teams across North America with different colours.

The best part is the leather helmet. Three red stripes are facing the front, three facing the back. It flows into three red stripes on the shoulder, and three white stripes on the socks.

The white uniform wasn’t used as much, nor is it as coordinated as the red. However, if you look down the side of the jersey you’ll see an innovative track of stripes on the inseam, which is something that’s now in use with some teams today.

Tradition: 8
Functionality: 7
Continuity: 8
Originality: 8
Balance: 9
Score: 8.0

14. 1958-1963 Edmonton Eskimos

The Eskimos colours and uniforms were born from necessity. Scraping up the resources to get the team function in 1949, the WIFU club managed to get hand-me-downs from the University of Alberta Golden Bears who had been in business since 1910. The Green and Gold tradition for football in the Klondike City was cemented.

This uniform represented the first Eskimo dynasty. Green, gold and nothing else. No need for white or the ubiquitous black which would permeate every uniform in subsequent years.

The simple double shoulder stripe was a familiar pattern for many teams during that era, but the Eskimos made it look that much better winning in them with a team chock full of future Hall of Fame players.

The only real knock on this outfit is that on a muddy field, gold numbers on a green background can be difficult to read at times.

Tradition: 8
Functionality: 7
Continuity: 8
Originality: 7
Balance: 10
Score: 8.0

13. 1991-1993 Toronto Argonauts

This team was like the spawn of the 1971 Eastern Division champions, so why not take the field in a modernized remake of those uniforms?

When Bruce McNall, Wayne Gretzky and John Candy bought the Toronto Argos, the first thing to go was the name. They would be the Argonauts again, instead of the abbreviation previous owner Harry Ornest imposed on them.

The second thing to go was a wretched uniform, replaced by one that combined the best of the seventies and eighties together for a fresh start for the 1990’s.

Rocket Ismail, Matt Dunigan and company would sport the “A” on their helmets once again. It was more of block style used by Arizona, but with a light blue border tied in nicely with the rest of the stripes which were consistent on the pant and armband.

The Double Blue had returned. Alas, only for a while. Candy passed way while on the set of Wagons East, and the ownership team disbanded.

By 1994, the regrettable change from double blue to navy and slate green was forced upon fans. But at least there’s the replay of Ismail gliding by a flying beer can in the ’91 Grey Cup to showcase those fine threads.

Tradition: 8
Functionality: 9
Continuity: 8
Originality: 7
Balance: 10
Score: 8.2

12. Montreal 2001- 2010

For team who have lost their way, “Neo-retro” is great way to find your tradition.

When the Stallions arrived from Baltimore, the look was somewhere between the two cities. I’m thinking Plattsburgh, NY.

In 2001, the Als grabbed the best elements of the classic red, white and blue look form the mid to late 70s, kept the silver they brought from Maryland and applied it to a modern template.

The designers of the uniform make the statement through the design that the team is obviously playing in a current era. Those who know the history can also see a reflection of the past.  That uniform was part helped build a bridge of branding over the chasm where Montreal didn’t have the CFL for over a decade.

Somehow, the “MONTRÉAL” on the front of the road uniforms works. It’s not a professional hallmark, and it failed miserably with a Toronto design in 1989-90.  

Vive la difference.

Tradition: 8
Functionality: 8
Continuity: 9
Originality: 10
Balance: 7
Score: 8.4

T-7. 1969-1973 Toronto Argonauts

This uniform represents the acme for the Toronto Argonauts.

The design was not stunningly unique, but was made iconic by the large characters that played or coached in double blue.

The three white, two colour design on the sleeve was employed by teams in college and the NFL stateside like the Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins. But the pattern in Oxford and Cambridge blue was owned by the team the same way they owned the city in 1971.

The Boatmen were led by Canadian Football Hall of Fame coach Leo Cahill, Heisman runner-up Joe Theismann, underclassman running back Leon McQuay, multi-purpose iconoclast Dick Thornton, author Mel Profit, scholar and inaugural Hec Crighton winner Mike Eben.

With a lineup of charismatic personalities like that a potato sack could be a memorable uniform.

It’s a salute to that era that the Argos took a step back to go forward. The new Argo uniforms are as close to the two tone blue of that era as possible.

It was wise for the organization to go back to the classic era-type uniform.

Tradition: 8
Functionality: 10
Continuity: 8
Originality: 8
Balance: 10
Score: 8.8

T-7. 1978-1989 BC Lions

The Lions made shift in colours for the 1978 season, changing from black to chocolate brown, a colour used in their original 1954 uniforms.

The logo took a cue from the logo used from 1966-77, with a more streamlined BC and lion, which has become one of the most recognizable in Canadian sport, right behind the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens.

The striping on the pants, sleeve and helmet is consistent, and the numbers are legible from anywhere in Empire Stadium or BC Place.

Many folks ask, ‘why orange?’ for the Lions. The provincial colours are blue and gold and the civic colours of Vancouver are blue, green and yellow.

When the Lions were just an idea in the early 1950’s, the driving forces behind it were members of the Mereloma Athletic Club. Their colours were orange and black.

One of the great things about this uniform is that one else in football had a uniform like the Lions of this era.

Orange can be a bossy colour to work with for any uniform but it’s put in its place here.

Tradition: 8
Functionality: 10
Continuity: 8
Originality: 10
Balance: 8
Score: 8.8

T-7 1968-1975 Calgary Stampeders

The Stamps had tried a number of elements leading up to this design. In the early 60s they had gold pants. On their helmets they tried stars, horseshoes and numbers.

The horse and helmet debuted in the summer of 1968. It must have been a good design with Southern Methodist University duplicating the same helmet just a few months later.

Straight red and white wasn’t fussy. It said, “We represent the Stampede City”. It accurately reflected the tradition of the community and the team.

The jersey design itself doesn’t get big points for originality. In fact, they were identical to a New York Giants white jersey. That same jersey was resurrected a few years ago in Gotham.

The gray pants are a nice touch. They balance with the facemask and make the red and white elements “pop”.

In 1976 the Stampeders started to play around with the pattern, dropping black into the stripes on some of the sleeves. Many linemen had numbers applied below the stripes. By the late seventies, they changed the uniform by adding sliver and changing the stripes.

Tradition: 9
Functionality: 10
Continuity: 8
Originality: 7
Balance: 10
Score: 8.8

T-7 1970-1994 Winnipeg Blue Bombers

They were shades of colours which were totally unique to Winnipeg: Royal Blue and old gold.

This is another uniform which stands out because it spanned a generation or two of football fans. It was tweaked a few times, but never needed fixing.

Prior to 1970 the jersey was the same pattern but the sleeve stripes – variations were used in the 1950’s and early 60’s – were a single colour. With a switch of the centre stripe colour to the muted old gold, a made-in-Manitoba standard was born.

There were little changes along the way. Metallics were added to the gold in the late 70’s. In the early 80s the team logo was dropped on to the stripe. In 1990, gold trim was added to the numbers. With the royal blue base it was essentially the same uniform.

This uniform is the best of all eras for the Bombers, and it was fantastic to see the retro uniforms duel in recent Banjo Bowls. Little wonders that the Bombers unveiled a new helmet, which was actually the traditional one last week.

The big W is back!

Tradition: 9
Functionality: 9
Continuity: 8
Originality: 8
Balance: 10
Score: 8.8

T-7. 1974-1980 Montreal Alouettes

Red and white, red, white and green and green and red. It took until 1973 for the Alouettes to truly unite with the rest of Montreal when they rolled out these uniforms which placed all of the city’s major teams on the same page.

There was some innovation in the layout of the uniform in the first year with a logo on the front of the helmet and an ‘old school’ style number on the side in lieu of a number on the sleeve.

The logo would be moved to the side of the helmet for the 1975 season. Numbers would be added to the shoulder in 1976 along with a logo on the sleeve. Any combo was definitively Montreal.

The brand – like the 1970-73 one – was from the abstract logo school. The base is an “M” flying like a bird with a blue “A” in the background. The two elements also form a bird’s eye.

When watching the Alouettes in their Reebok retros, it seemed that all was right in the football universe again. Even if, as former running back and CFL Larry Smith once noted people thought the Als looked like they were playing for the Delta Airlines.  

Tradition: 9
Functionality: 7
Continuity: 8
Originality: 10
Balance: 10
Score: 8.8

6. 1960-1963 Montreal Alouettes

There were three versions of uniform for the Alouettes through the 1960’s, which were all neatly tied together with the winged helmet. Perhaps the best of the three by a whisker was the Alouettes uniform of the 1950’s capped by a design of the 1960’s.

The idea of wings on the helmet weren’t original. The Philadelphia Eagles started their tradition in 1955.

However, the winged look seemed to pull the Als into the modern era, while maintaining their simple red and white uniform with three stripes on the sleeves, three on the socks, and giant shoulder numbers that did the trick.

This was another uniform which was brilliantly done as a CFL retro.

Tradition: 10
Functionality: 8
Continuity: 10
Originality: 7
Balance: 10
Score: 9.0

T-3. 1963-1966 BC Lions

Orange is a tricky colour to work with when designing a uniform. Sometimes it should be punctuation rather than the whole story. The BC Lions uniform which was worn in their first Grey Cup appearance in 1963 and first cup win in 1964 does just that.

There’s enough orange to keep the uniform bold and enough black to make it look formidable.

The jersey is a pattern that was common with other teams during that stretch. Winnipeg, Hamilton, Saskatchewan with their road uniform and Montreal all sported a swath of colour from the shoulder down to the halfway point of the sleeve. Other teams stateside have used the paw on a helmet before but if you look closely, this particular logo is unique to the Lions.

The Reebok retro of 2010 is something we’d like to see executed in black sometime in the near future.

Tradition: 8
Functionality: 10
Continuity: 9
Originality: 9
Balance: 10
Score: 9.1

T-3. 1966-1991 Ottawa Rough Riders

Perhaps the driving force behind those who want the Rough Riders name to return to Ottawa – providing more fodder for South Park writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone – are the classic uniforms for the Rough Riders.

There were several adjustments made through the years, but the basic template remained the same.

Black tops, white numbers, black helmet with a red stripe and a solid, upper case “R” which could be seen from space.

There were versions with black pants, red pants and road tops with red numbers. The all-white on the road with black numerals and the black with white pants are the standards.

The owners of the new Ottawa CFL team have hinted to roll out an alternate uniform like the old school one for special occasions. If that’s the case, we hope that every game at new Frank Clair Stadium is a special occasion starting in 2014.

Tradition: 10
Functionality: 9
Continuity: 9
Originality: 8
Balance: 10
Score 9.1

T-3. 1976-1988 Toronto Argonauts

While 1971’s uniforms represented the boldness of the team, and 1991’s represented the revival of that spirit, there is no Argo uniform that ties all of the eras of the team together than the Cedric Minter-to-Gil Fenerty “Boat Uniform”.

There were broad swaths of double blue topped with the disco-era football boat.

The original operators of the team were the Argonaut Rowing Club. As a result, the first logo was a double blue boat. The team had tried and failed to put various renditions of the “pull together” logo on the side of the helmet throughout the 60’s.

The boat was eventually emblazoned on the sleeve and shoulder in various years.

The stripes on the sleeves and pant tied together seamlessly.

It was fitting that this fine finery was worn when the team broke their four decade Grey Cup drought in 1993.

Tradition: 10
Functionality: 9
Continuity: 9
Originality: 8
Balance: 10
Score 9.1

2. 1967-1978 Saskatchewan Roughriders

This is the prairie icon of football uniforms.

The design was in mothballs since 1985, until then-GM Eric Tillman made a bold move to recognize the proud past of the rectangular province’s football team in 2007. The redesign was an instant hit Rider Nation and has helped spur on an avalanche of souvenir sales.

I always find it remarkable that 20-year olds who weren’t on this earth during the playing careers of Ron Lancaster or George Reed immortalize their legend by wearing their jersey.

So the old logo looks like a cross between the Canada Safeway and Sheraton Hotels logo. Who cares? A true football fan knows what the wreath of wheat and “S” stands for.

The only element that keeps this out of top spot is imitation. Rightly or wrongly, some will insist that the jersey is simply a green version of the Indianapolis Colts. Who cares? The pattern looks better in green from this side of the border.

When the alternate hits the field for Labour Day or the playoffs, the continuity of the Rider history bonds generations of Saskatchewan residents together.

What could be more perfect than that?

Tradition: 10
Functionality: 9
Continuity: 10
Originality: 8
Balance: 10
Score 9.6

1. 1967-74 Hamilton Tiger-Cats

No one will doubt that you represent what and who built the Hammer if you are dressed in this black and gold statement of purpose.

The colours are the origin of the industrial genesis of the town itself; molten gold and steel black.

The 13 stripes looping down the arm of a lineman on each sleeve harkens back to when the Hamilton Tigers and Hamilton Wildcats wore fully striped rugby style pullovers during the origin of the game.

There were three helmets during this stretch. The black, white and gold leaping Bengal tiger on the helmet is clear enough to distinguish from the top row of Ivor Wynne, but displays a realistic ferocity when viewed up close.

For Canada’s Centennial in 1967, the centennial maple leaf was dropped behind the flying cat. And for other years, a bold black number was on the side. All variations worked but the tiger is my personal favourite.

Can you see Angelo Mosca dressed in anything but this uniform at the end of his career?  

It would make one weep for the disappearance of the sleeve in the modern uniform, if it were not for the new uniforms rolled out by the Tabbies last week.

Tradition: 10
Functionality: 8
Continuity: 10
Originality: 10
Balance: 10
Score 9.8