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May 17, 2012
New insight into the Maple Leafs' 1977-78 name-on-back protest
As the old saying goes, rules are made to be broken.
In the 1977 offseason, the league's board of governors voted 13-5 to require that names appear on the backs of all jerseys, home and away. Up until the 1976-77 season, the rule had been that the home team can put the names on the jerseys at their discretion, and the visiting team can do so if they get permission from the home team.
One of the five dissenting votes came from the Toronto Maple Leafs, with owner Harold Ballard claiming that having the jerseys with names on the back would significantly eat into scorecard sales.
Clearly unhappy with the vote, the Leafs defied the new mandate and took to the ice without names on the backs of the jerseys at the start of the 1977-78 season.
As Ballard remained defiant, new NHL President John Ziegler threatened the team with a $5000 fine if it didn't add names to the backs of their jerseys like every other team did.
On February 26, 1978, Ballard finally relented -- well, sort of. His Maple Leafs took to the ice at Chicago Stadium for their game against the Black Hawks (as the team's name was spelled back then) with blue jerseys that had the players' names on the back in blue letters! "I've complied with the NHL bylaw," Ballard told the Associated Press. "The names are stitched on, three inches high. It's a pity you can't see them." (You can read the full story on it from the Regina Post Leader here.) The Leafs won that game, by the way, 5-3.
What happened in the Leafs' next road game against the New York Islanders is up for debate. In this article from the Associated Press that appeared in The Montreal Gazette, it states that the Leafs once again wore the blue-on-blue nameplate treatment. However, in the image that you see to the right from that game (a 4-3 Islanders victory), you can actually see a strip of fabric without anything that resembled individually sewn-on letters. (You can see the entire clip here.) My friends at the Maple Leafs tell me the letters are there; but after watching the video footage, I'm not so sure. If anyone of you out there has any definitive photos, please send them my way.
Finally, on March 5, 1978, the Leafs took to the ice at Madison Square Garden for their game against the New York Rangers with names in full contrast on the backs of their jerseys, and they would stay there for the rest of the season. Their home jerseys would follow suit at the start of the 1978-79 season.
The Leafs' act of defiance may have had a far-reaching effect. That very same treatment of the name color matching the jersey body color has also been used by the University of Oregon's football and basketball teams, as well as USA Basketball in the 2008 Summer Olympics.