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Cullen: The Maple Leafs’ dress code does not matter




The Toronto Maple Leafs made some news early in the season when they relaxed the team dress code. Around October 18, the Maple Leafs decided that players could come to the rink for games without wearing a suit.

“I think it’s a little bit relaxed, a happy medium between casual and whatever a suit and tie would be, so it’s nice to mix it up a little bit and have fun with it,” star centre Auston Matthews said at the time.

The Maple Leafs promptly went into an early season slump and that ignited howls of criticism online by those who saw not just correlation between pre-game dress and results but causation. The Maple Leafs were losing because they were not wearing suits!

In a since-deleted tweet, Jack Han suggested that the dress code had been re-instated because a player had shown up for a game in a t-shirt. It was widely speculated to be Mitch Marner in a Mickey Mouse t-shirt but that was old video from August 2020. Jack used to work for the Leafs and, in my interactions with him, has been a sharp and thoughtful guy. He wrote about the dress code issue here.

Dressing Up For The Game

I wore a shirt and tie to hockey games for 15 years. It felt important. But not too important. Half the time my ties had cartoon characters on them.

There are a few issues at play when it comes to dress codes for hockey. First, in minor hockey, there is a sense of importance being placed on the games when you put on a shirt and tie as a kid to play for a competitive team. At the same time, for families that might not have the resources, that could be stretching financially just to have their kid play for a competitive team, adding in dress clothes as an expense can present unnecessary barriers to the sport. It is a legitimate issue that is different at the minor hockey level than the professional level.

When it comes to a professional setting, a dress code that requires players to wear suits to games should not be a big deal, just as it should not be a big deal if a team decides to relax its dress code. These guys are rich and can comfortably afford nice suits. They can also comfortably afford nice clothes that aren’t suits, too.

TV Images

But we have spent most of the past 30 years fetishizing the appearance of players as they walk into the rink, as though that five second video clip had any bearing on the results of the game to come. It started out as drama building for big games – something important like a Game Seven – and then it turned into routine coverage for every Saturday night, not only before the game but there would be segments on Coach’s Corner and, honestly, it was way overdone. That thing that was used as a dramatic device initially for special occasions became routine through over exposure.

That context matters because a lot of people who weighed in on the Maple Leafs’ decision to relax their dress code have spent a good portion of their hockey-watching lives being fed this material. There were plenty of comments complaining about the style choices of the Maple Leafs players once they went casual. He has a purse!” 

Other Sports

Can it look good to see a team of athletes coming off the bus, dressed in suits? Sure. Does it make a difference in how the team plays? I can’t imagine that it does. If it did, sports that have much bigger revenues than the NHL would surely care more about dress codes. But that is not how it goes in the NBA. NFL and MLB. Players are given a lot more freedom in those leagues and it’s not like LeBron James’ on-court results are different on the days that he wears a suit compared to when he shows up more casually.

If hockey players want to express more individuality through fashion on their way to and from work, the league should embrace it. The vast majority of players are still going to stick to conservative threads because old habits die hard. If someone wants to rock an outfit like Cam Newton or Russell Westbrook, though, let them. A dash of creativity might get someone talking about the player. Exposure is a good thing for a professional sport.

Back to the Leafs

So what to make of the Maple Leafs? They relaxed the dress code and promptly went through a four-game winless slump. Was that the reason that they lost? If so, how would it explain the team emerging from the slump before any alleged changes in the dress code? It wouldn’t because it truly does not matter.

Finally, the Maple Leafs have now won eight of their past nine games. When they get those results, no one cares what the players wear to the rink.

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