It’s hard not to notice the University of Oregon’s teams with their often brightly colored, eclectic uniforms that could inspire jealousy in the likes of Elton John. Just as loud and proud on their gear is the ‘Swoosh’ logo, a sign of Nike CEO Phil Knight's deep connection to the school.
Nike, however, doesn’t provide jerseys to all of Oregon's teams. The school’s hockey program, for instance, turns to Doug Greene.
The owner of Rebirth Sports specializes in colorful, innovative uniforms for America Collegiate Hockey Association teams at schools that don’t support NCAA-sanctioned programs. Oregon is just one of the many notable customers that have turned to the Saginaw, Mich., outfitter for custom jerseys. Greene's clients include non-traditional hockey hotbeds such as Florida, Indiana, Florida State and Maryland.
“There’s a lot of big schools name-wise that are out there that just don’t have a hockey program unfortunately,” he says. “People see the picture of the jersey and say, ‘That’s great. Why aren’t they a Division I program playing against so-and-so?’”
Greene started his shop after he saw that club hockey teams had a need for well-designed, affordable jerseys. A former club player at Saginaw Valley State, he's the mastermind behind several sweaters that have made appearances on SportsCenter, thanks to hockey-mad anchor John Buccigross. The design process starts with teams approaching Rebirth during their search for a new look. Sometimes Greene seeks out the teams himself. They exchange ideas and make tweaks to possible designs until one is approved.
It can get tricky, however, as some club programs are not allowed to use their schools’ NCAA-sanctioned or trademarked logos. At Florida, the club hockey team was allowed to use the cursive "Gators" but not a certain version of the Gator image. Instead, the team wears a New York Rangers-style wordmark. Oregon's club can’t use the school's dynamic ‘O’ or the newest iteration of the Ducks logo, which forces the team to go with an older rendering of the mascot.
“What we wanted to do was sort of mimic the football team with our green jerseys,” says Jake Yale, a junior forward at Oregon. “That was one of our main goals, to kind of get it to be flashy but also a really cool jersey that people would want, and to hopefully increase the popularity of the program.”
The Rebirth jerseys are doing more than just making the teams look good. They're also attracting attention.
“We were very happy with how they looked,” says Florida goalie Mark Finkelstein, who helped oversee the purchase of the new jerseys. “These are the only real hockey jerseys that are out there for these schools. You can’t find a really cool if-Florida-had-a-hockey-team-they-would-wear-this jersey.”
In Indiana and at IU, basketball is gospel. But according to Cody Reiff, a senior in Indiana’s club program, the Hoosier hockey team’s candy cane striped jerseys have helped raise awareness of the sport on campus. He’s noticed that more people want to know where the players are getting the jerseys and that fans at other sporting events around campus are starting to wear them.
“Back a few years ago, we would have a handful of people in the bleachers,” Reiff says. “It was just a couple of friends and roommates. Now, we had Purdue come to town and we had a near sellout there.”
“[The jersey] gives them a reason to come to our website and check out a little bit more about us.”
Another big area the jerseys help is recruiting.
“It’s kind of crazy how that jersey design can spark a completely new image for the program,” says Indiana junior Shane Arhela. “It goes from being a next-level men’s league, all the way to college hockey that a lot of guys are actually looking into. We’ve never had so many people reaching out to us, trying to come to our team.”
In addition to the extra interest, there’s also a morale boost. Several players say they've noticed an uptick in the mood in their teams' locker rooms thanks to the new threads.
“It means a lot,” Finkelstein says. “When you are on the ice, everyone is like, ‘Wow, we look really good.’ We look official. We are definitely proud to represent the University of Florida. It doesn’t feel like a club hockey game, it feels like a Florida-Georgia game.”
Along with 60 NCAA teams, there are now about 400 ACHA clubs, ranging from Florida Gulf Coast (another Rebirth Sports client) to well-known Division I schools like Tennessee, Georgia, USC, LSU and more. Exposure for those programs has been key to the growth of the game. In recent seasons, Penn State and Arizona State transitioned from club level to D-I, thanks to the success and visibility of their teams.
While major benefactors have helped those universities legitimize their programs, money is a major issue for many club teams, one that gets passed on to the players. Fees can cost more than $1,000 for ice time, jerseys, matching equipment, tournaments, buses, hotels and everything else in between.
“We have to pay for everything and it sucks,” says Austin Spahr, an Indiana senior. “These kids just want to play hockey and not give up the dream but still get an education.”
So if Greene can help strapped college students save a little bit of cash, he’s happy to provide low-cost uniform options. But he doesn’t stop there: Teams can offset costs through jersey and apparel sales through Rebirth.
“It’s just a real big passion for us because we all came from the sport, from that level, so we really understand there is good hockey there,” Green says. “There is good support there. We try our best to just grow the sport.”