Youth players model the new Canadian Olympic team hockey jerseys as they are unveiled in Toronto, Tuesday, Oct.8, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
TORONTO - It took until he stepped onto the ice at Copps Coliseum in Hamilton at the 1986 world junior championship for Joe Nieuwendyk to appreciate what it meant to wear a Team Canada jersey.
"I didn't really understand the magnitude of what it meant until that moment: skating out there in front of 19-20,000 people, flags flying everywhere," Nieuwendyk said. "It was a special feeling."
On Tuesday morning, he got to pass that feeling on to about a dozen teenage players chosen to model Hockey Canada's 2014 Olympic jerseys at the official unveiling at the Mattamy Athletic Centre. Hockey Canada told them they'd be doing some promotional things, but the players didn't learn exactly why they were at the arena until just before the event.
"Their mouths dropped, a little awestruck," Nieuwendyk said. "They didn't realize what they were here for. When they saw the jersey for the first time, it hit them like it hits any NHL guy that's going to don that jersey."
For many hockey fans it wasn't the first glimpse of the red, white and alternate black jerseys that the men's, women's and sledge hockey teams will wear at the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Sochi. Pictures of the uniforms have leaked out over the last month.
But that didn't damper the enthusiasm for the teenagers who stepped onto the ice amid club music and laser lights and skated around to show off the uniforms.
"First to ever try on the Team Canada Olympic Jersey and unveil it to everyone. Speechless," Paul Coffey's son, Blake, wrote on Twitter afterward. "Honoured to get the opportunity to unveil the 2014 Team Canada Olympic Jersey Launch."
Hockey Canada's reveal was another opportunity for fans to give their opinions about the jerseys. Some said it looked like Petro-Canada's logo, while others wanted to go back to the jerseys used when Canada won gold in Vancouver in 2010.
"People talking about how they feel about a jersey that's close to their heart and represents their country is a great thing," Nike creative director Ken Black said.
The red and white jerseys feature a Maple Leaf logo with a stripe across the chest, while the black jersey has "CANADA" written across it in white letters on a gold stripe. All three include 12 gold maple leaves inside the collar to commemorate the eight men's, three women's and one sledge hockey gold medal the country has won at the Olympics.
Black said the jerseys were inspired by the 1920 team that won gold at the Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, with touches from the 1972 national team uniform.
"The best resource that we have in our country are our players and our people," Hockey Canada president and CEO Bob Nicholson said. "This really respects where it all started back in 1920."
Back then there were fewer avenues for fans to express their feelings about jerseys. This time around criticism began in early September when a photo of Jonathan Toews wearing Canada's red jersey surfaced online.
"That's the great thing about the game of hockey: Everyone's passionate," Nicholson said. "The key is the players will be proud to put it on, and know when the players are on the ice, whether it's our women's team, our men's team or our sledge team, Canadian fans will support the jersey and the team."
Montreal's Caroline Ouellette, a forward on the women's team and a three-time Olympian, offered a very positive review.
"I think they're lighter and they seem very comfortable," she said. "I think every time change happens, there's some people that resist it. I know we've heard some negative comments on it so far, but for me the jersey becomes the memories we make with that jersey."
International Olympic Committee regulations prohibit sports federations from putting their logo on uniforms.
Canada is the only team that will have a third jersey in Sochi. Nicholson said he wasn't sure how many times it would be worn at the Olympics but mentioned it was added because fans and players like black.
Of course, Nicholson said, Canada's "real colours" are red and white. That's why those jerseys got praise from Nieuwendyk for their simplicity.
"The most important thing is the Maple Leaf," he said. "You follow a little bit of Canadian hockey history, this follows some of the history and captures that. It's just such a clean look: red, white and a Maple Leaf."
The process of getting to the final products was far from simple. Phil Pritchard from the Hockey Hall of Fame took some historic Team Canada jerseys to Nike, where designers got to see and feel what former players wore.
The jerseys are 15 per cent lighter than anything previously worn by Team Canada. The uniform fabric contains material from recycled water bottles.
"Even this design is much lighter than what we wore in Nagano or Salt Lake," Nieuwendyk said. "It's getting lighter. They look faster. But the athletes are getting bigger and faster too."
Tuesday's event at the Mattamy Athletic Complex, located on the former site of Maple Leaf Gardens, didn't have much to do with the construction of the Olympic teams. But Nicholson said that "seeing the jersey is a key stepping point for all three teams."
"We are launching a symbol that truly serves to unify our great nation," Canadian Olympic Committee president Marcel Aubut said. "In Canada the concept of (a) jersey is an integral part of our DNA."
The next step is for the teams to be named.
"There's a lot of work going on behind the scenes," Nicholson said. "(General manager) Steve Yzerman and his whole crew are out now every night watching NHL games to select the men's side."
The provisional men's roster of 22 skaters and three goalies must be submitted to the International Ice Hockey Federation no later than Dec. 31. The women's team has until later in January to submit a roster to the Canadian Olympic Committee.
The Games will be held Feb. 7-23, and the Paralympic Games are set for March 7-16.
With files from Donna Spencer in Calgary. Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter @SWhyno.