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Back in the late 1990s, I went to an art and design school called Columbia College. It was located in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood, the southern part of downtown. Everything was expensive; only the really rich (business men, doctors and lawyers) or the really poor (college students and homeless people) lived downtown. I was always looking for cheap forms of entertainment. One day, that cheap thrill was getting an Islanders “Fish Sticks” jersey on clearance!
About 1.3 miles (2.1 km) north of the Columbia College dormatory was “HawkQuarters,” the official team store of the Chicago Blackhawks. This was a decade before the team would rename it “The Blackhawks Store.” Boring!
Anyway, every year when I started school, I would make the walk to HawkQuarters and see what inexpensive hockey swag I could score. The shop would sell team photos from the current season for $5, but last year’s team photo for $1. Likewise, 8″ x 10″ photos of players who had been traded away were $1, and old media guides were a few dollars each. Minimally, I would go to get a copy of last year’s team photo for a buck.
In September of 1998, I was on my annual sojourn to HawkQuarters when this beautiful creature caught my eye: a navy blue New York Islanders “Fish Sticks” jersey, called such because the logo looked like the fisherman from the package of Gorton’s fish sticks.
The “Fish Sticks” jersey is so bad, it’s awesome. It neatly encapsulates everything that was wrong with hockey jerseys in the 1990s, with its goofy logo and wavy lines and unnecessary use of teal. And I love teal — but only when done tastefully. This jersey debuted in the 1995-96 season. Isles’ fans hated it. Heck, pretty much everyone derided that jersey.
So the next year, the Islanders started to phase out the “Fish Sticks” logo, and by 1997-98, the old fisherman was gone. So getting this jersey in the fall of 1998, almost three years after the team stopped making them — and in Chicago, no less — was quite the find. Plus, it isn’t like these were produced in the same numbers as, say, Blackhawks or Red Wings jerseys.
I grabbed the jersey, and checked its size: extra large — perfect! It was an air-knit, replica-weight jersey, and it was marked down to $30. At the time, a brand-new replica jersey would sell for $60 to $75, so $30 was a steal.
Even better, HawkQuarters also had a teal San Jose Sharks jersey — the best use of teal ever! — marked down to $30. It was also an extra large, so I grabbed that one too, and hurried over to the checkout.
“I don’t have $60,” I told the clerk. “Can you hold these for me for a couple of days?”
“No,” the clerk replied, “but you can put these on layaway for $5.”
And so I did. I was a cash-strapped college student, living off of student loans and my $5-an-hour job working in the school’s computer lab. Every pay period, I would hike back to HawkQuarters and put down $5, $10, whatever I could.
For a little while, I didn’t make a payment, and someone at HawkQuarters called to remind me; I remember the clerk being pissed because I was taking way too long to pay this off. Eventually, I got these awesome hockey sweaters out of hock.
After that, “Fish Sticks” wasn’t just buried in a drawer or in the back of a closet. Oh no. I’d wear that sucker. At an art school, circa 1998, the unofficial dress code was either a band t-shirt (Pearl Jam! Weezer! Marylin Manson!), tie-dye, flannel or anything grubby, grungy or ironic. Or any combination thereof. I probably looked like some confused tourist, trudging off to my cinematography class in my Islanders jersey, army surplus pants and brown work boots.
I also wore “Fish Sticks” to college parties because the last thing a party needed was another guy in a “Take Me Drunk I’m Home” t-shirt. I remember a girl that I was dating at the time telling me that the jersey was “ugly.” I guess she didn’t see the appeal of an orange-faced fisherman wearing a teal rain jacket and wielding a hockey stick. Women!
But my roommate Dave loved the “Fish Sticks” jersey almost as much as I did. My friends and I would sneak into the workout room in the dormitory’s basement at 2 a.m. for some pickup floor hockey. Dave played goalie, and frequently donned the “Fish Sticks” sweater.
Dave would also wear “Fish Sticks” when we went to Chicago Wolves games, as I would unironically wear a Wolves jersey to Wolves games. But Dave wasn’t wearing the Isles jersey just to be ironic; the Wolves were partially affiliated with the Islanders, so it wearing it to the games was technically correct — the best form of correct.
Today, hockey fans still make fun of the “Fish Sticks” jersey, but I bet they all secretly want one. Why else would the jersey sell for over $200 on Ebay. I’m sure if they found old “Fish Sticks” hanging on the rack at a hockey shop for $30, they’d buy it in a heartbeat. They might even wear it, too. ■