While the specifics were hazy in his memory, Alex Kerfoot was almost certain he was 15 years old the first time he was required to wear a suit to the rink. Until that point, he had never worn one for a game, and it felt like a novel status symbol: “It was like, you’re playing on a team that wears suits to games.”
Now 28, he was unwinding in the dressing room after practice with his current team, the Maple Leafs, as he reflected on the wardrobe rules. Kerfoot enjoyed wearing a suit as a teenager, and he stressed he does not have a strong opinion on what minor hockey players should be wearing today, but he did say that, “Looking back on it, it seems a little unnecessary.”
“Obviously, the old-school coaches probably preach that whole professionalism look — they want you to be prepared to have that whole mindset,” he said. “And I think maybe there is something to getting ready for a game by putting your suit on and going to work.
“But I think that is a little bit old-school. And for kids at that young of an age, it seems a little bit unnecessary.”
Under terms laid out in Exhibit 14 of the collective bargaining agreement, NHL players are required to wear “jackets, ties and dress pants” to all games unless the coach or general manager grants permission to dress otherwise. The CBA does not extend to minor hockey, but yet there the practice persists.
Minor hockey associations across Canada have dress codes laid out in handbooks provided to players and families, which means that as the season of holiday tournaments approaches, players still too young to drive will be walking into arenas wearing suits and ties. As discussion builds around the culture within hockey, the topic of children wearing suits can quickly become polarizing.
Proponents point to tradition, to the childhood heroes celebrated on “Hockey Night in Canada” for their sartorial selection as they amble into the rink before a game. They argue that wearing a suit helps foster an early understanding of professionalism in children, and that it makes a game day feel special.
Opponents say the suit is a symbol of a game drifting further into elitist airspace, adding another cost for families already burdened with an expensive sport. They suggest the suit is another way to reinforce troubling notions of conformity in hockey culture. And more to the point, they say children should be allowed to play a children’s game without the spectre of projected professionalism.
“It’s a good discussion,” said Tyler Longo, president of the Quinte Red Devils, a triple-A hockey club in Belleville, Ont., a two-hour drive east of Toronto. “But I think sometimes people forget that the price that we’re paying isn’t because of the suits — or the non-suits — that kids are wearing. It’s probably these sticks that are costing $300.”
In Quinte, Longo said the club will “certainly encourage” its teams in older age groups to wear suits to games. He said teams in the younger age groups, from U13 and down, have the option of voting to use team tracksuits.
If the team votes to wear a suit, he said, all players have to wear a suit. He said many of the younger teams vote to wear suits.
“These kids are seeing their idols dressed up and looking really fashionable,” said Longo. “We get to see them more and more on TV. And the young players not only want to look like their idols on the ice, a lot of them want to look like them off the ice, as well.”
Besides, he said, casual clothes can also be expensive.
“If you do see kids in tracksuits, take a look at their shoes,” said Longo. “Some of these kids’ shoes now probably cost more than a suit.”
John Winstanley is general manager of the Toronto Junior Canadiens, an established powerhouse at the triple-A level in the Greater Toronto Hockey League. As in Quinte, he said the decision about what to wear is usually left up to the players.
And in the older age groups, the decision usually comes back in favour of suits.
Winstanley does not personally embrace the idea of wearing a suit.
“No, I hate it,” he said with a laugh. “I’m a golf pants and golf shirt kind of person. And put a sport jacket over top if I absolutely have to. But a tie doesn’t like touching my body.
“So I’d be really hypocritical if I told my players they had to wear suits.”
One Toronto-area father said his daughter was forced to wear a suit during a recent season spent with a triple-A boys team. The father — speaking on the condition of anonymity due to concern of reprisal for his daughter — said no exception was made for his child, who had to dress “same as the boys.”
He said his daughter, a teenager, has since moved to an all-girls team: The game day attire for that team is business casual.
Sami Jo Small is a former Canadian Olympic goaltender — she won gold at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City — and is now president of the Toronto Six, one of two Canadian teams playing as part of the Premier Hockey Federation. In a written message relayed through a team spokesperson, Small said “the rules are very vague for game day attire.”
The team is expected to dress in “business-y” attire for games, but she noted that leaves plenty open to interpretation.
“We don’t want them to be confined by gender rules but want them to ‘dress-up’ for the occasion,” Small wrote to The Athletic. “It has become all about the ‘fit’ that they wear to the rink as this is the only time they are seen outside of their uniform/helmets.”
Brock McGillis, a former goaltender, had a question about wardrobe requirements.
“The guy ruining Twitter? Does he wear a suit?” he asked. “Some of the wealthiest people we’ve ever seen never wear suits.”
McGillis became the first openly gay male professional hockey player in 2016, and he has emerged as a leading voice for changing the game’s culture. Telling players — youth or professional — what to wear only serves to restrict individualism, he said: “It restricts a person being themselves.”
“The other big three sports, they’re not showing up in suits,” he said. “We’re the only sport that does it. Are we the only sport that works hard? Are we the only sport that plays for one another and competes together? Or are we the sport that arguably conforms the most?”
McGillis grew up in Northern Ontario, and he said the teams of his youth began wearing suits as young as 10 years old. He had a rotation of suits to wear when he moved into the Ontario Hockey League.
“I get the ‘look good, feel good, play good,’” he said. “But, like, I had bad games. I had great games, but I probably would have had great games in a tracksuit.”
Kurtis Gabriel made 51 regular-season appearances in the NHL. In a written statement to The Athletic, he said “mandating anything other than team principles of hard work, perseverance, dedication” and “inclusive hockey values” is “pointless.”
Hockey has issues, he suggested, and clothing should not be one of them.
“If a kid values wearing a suit, let them,” he wrote. “If a kid values wearing casual clothes, or a dress, or a costume for all I care, let them.”
Anthony Stewart is a firm believer in wearing suits. The retired NHL forward, who is a regular part of Sportsnet’s NHL coverage, is also a minor hockey coach in Toronto.
“Last year, we had two kids who were doing interviews with a reporter,” he said. “I took them out and bought them two brand new suits, because we knew they were going to be judged by the first appearance.
“And the first comment the reporter made was: ‘Wow, you guys are really dressed sharp.’”
Suits are ingrained in the system, he said, and players are still judged by what they wear.
“We want to change it, but I think that’s where a lot of people get confused, that it’s going to happen next week, or next year,” said Stewart. “This is generational work. When we signed up for this, we understand it’s going to take time.
“We’re going to advocate for you young kids. We’re going to fight for you, and we’re going to fight for your rights and do all that. But we’re going to prepare you: You are going to be judged.”
For years, Don Cherry passed those judgments on NHL players as cameras caught them arriving at the rink for work. (He has continued that practice in the digital space, questioning the Leafs on his podcast after the team briefly moved to a more casual game-day wardrobe at the start of last season.)
“I guess we are the trend-setters,” said Leafs forward Michael Bunting. “There are some teams that are going more casual. I like that, too. But I also like the suit.”
“Wearing a suit to a game just makes me feel like it’s game time,” said forward Nick Robertson.
The 21-year-old began his minor hockey career at home in Southern California, where he said his team always wore tracksuits. That did not change until he moved north, to play in the GTHL: “I don’t think I ever even owned a suit until I went to Toronto.”
It was a work day at Ford Performance Centre, the Leafs’ west-end practice facility. There were not any suits in sight, aside from a small selection of reporters who had to eventually appear on television. (Full disclosure: This reporter was not in a suit, and has made public their views on suits in minor hockey.)
“I think that, 10 years from now, there’s not going to be mandates on suits in hockey,” said Kerfoot. “I think people will still choose to wear suits. Some people like it and will wear the suits to every game. Some guys will wear it to some games.
“I think that’s something that has transitioned to other sports, and it just hasn’t really caught up to hockey yet.”
(Photo of the Maple Leafs’ Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)