As most of you know, I recently raffled off an original illustration from Maple Leaf Productions, the company that has been selling uni-historical posters, clocks, fridge magnets, and other products for the past 15 years or so.
That raffle came about after I received a communiqué from Maple Leaf founder Scott Sillcox, who explained to me that he was selling the company and selling off all the original artwork. I’d been aware of Maple Leaf’s product line but for some reason I had never thought to interview Scott or get the full Maple Leaf story. A few weeks ago we finally addressed that oversight.
Scott turned out to be a real gentleman and a great storyteller. Here’s how our chat went down.
Uni Watch: First, tell me about yourself. What’s your background, and what were you doing before you started Maple Leaf Productions?
Scott Sillcox: When I finished university in the early ’80s, I wanted to start the great Canadian magazine — sort of half Rolling Stone, half Time. But instead, through a series of connections, I ended up organizing trade shows, and I fell in love with it. Boat shows, petroleum shows, you name it. It turned out that I really love organizing things, and that’s what the trade show business is all about. By 1992, I’d started my own trade show company.
UW: And how did Maple Leaf get started?
SS: Well, you know how it is once you’re an entrepreneur. I always loved the history of sports, so I kind of morphed my trade show business into two businesses: one for trade shows and one for sports histories. In the late ’90s I decided I loved the sports history more, so I handed over the trade show business to some friends and concentrated on the licensed sports history.
UW: So you were interested in sports history, but were you always interested in uniforms?
SS: Yes. Let me tell you two stories about that. First, I was known in university as the guy who always wore hockey jerseys. I had maybe 20 jerseys from when I was a kid, and then friends would give me theirs.
UW: And this was 30 years ago, when it wasn’t so common for people to be walking around in jerseys, because merchandising hadn’t taken off like it has now.
SS: Yes, it was a bit unusual at the time. But I loved them. And the second thing is that one of my grandfathers had a series of called The Trail of the Stanley Cup. It was a limited-edition series that the NHL published in 1966-67 to celebrate the league’s 50th season. They only printed 1000 copies of the first two volumes, and then a third volume was published about three years later, and they did 1500 copies of that one. My grandfather was lucky enough to get a set, and he gave it to me late in his life, around 1980. Anyway, the books tell the history of the teams that competed for the Cup, from 1893 up to 1967, and they included some beautiful hand-rendered uniform illustrations:
Those illustrations were the inspiration for what I eventually did with Maple Leaf Productions.
UW: Oh, so your basic style of showing a jersey on a headless mannequin, that was based on the illustration templates from the book?
SS: Yes, exactly. And when the NHL first did throwback jerseys in the early ’90s, I’ve been told that they used those same renderings for the logos.
UW: Wow — I’d never seen those renderings before. In fact, I’d never heard of this book series.
SS: They’re very rare, and I’m so lucky to have a set. I often say that if the house was burning down, that’s what I’d save.
UW: So when did Maple Leaf actually get off the ground?
SS: The licensed sports part was in 1996. I had applied to the NHL licensing department for a few years prior to that. I wanted to produce a family of products, mainly posters, showing the history of uniforms, and I got turned down a couple of times. And they were probably right to turn me down — I had no experience in retail.
UW: And was the way you were envisioning and describing the project at that time very similar to how it’s turned out? In other words, lots of products showing images of old uniforms?
SS: Yes, that was very much what I had in mind. I maybe didn’t fully envision how many products the images could be put on, the basic concept of uniform history and evolution was there from the start.
UW: So what happened after they turned you down?
SS: I thought if I published a poster that didn’t need licensing, and if it was successful, that would show that I knew what I was doing. So I did a poster called “The Original Six,” showing artists’ sketches of the Original Six hockey arenas. I’d consulted with lawyers to confirm that I didn’t need a license to do that. We probably sold about 100,000 of that. So then when I went back to the NHL in ’97, they said, “Okay, you’ve got a track record, you can be a licensee.”
UW: So that was the first Maple Leaf Productions product.
UW: Did your company name lead to any problems with the Toronto Maple Leafs, or does every company in Canada just call itself Maple Leaf This or Maple Leaf That..?
SS: Once in a while I’ve heard from the Maple Leafs organization, saying, “How did you get that name?” or “We really should have that name.” But nothing ever came of that.
UW: When you started doing this, people weren’t writing and talking about uniforms as much as they are today, and the interest in throwbacks and uniform history wasn’t as great as it is today. What made you think people would be interested in images of uniforms?
SS: I just thought it could look so attractive that even if someone wasn’t already interested in uniforms, seeing a team’s uniform evolution would make them interested. I just thought a fan of a team would be interested in seeing that, even if he’d never thought much about uniforms before.
UW: So once you got the NHL license, did you immediately put out posters of all the teams, or did you start with the Original Six, or what?
SS: Yes, I started with the Original Six teams, because I thought there would be the greatest demand for those, and then I expanded to the other teams. And then the NFL and Major League Baseball came next, in 2000.
UW: Did you approach them, or did they approach you?
SS: I approached them, and they were both wonderful to work with. At the time, the NFL had about 400 licensees. Now they have only about 80. They’re much more selective now — they keep whittling it down, and fortunately I’ve always made the cut.
UW: And over the years you’ve also worked with the CFL and the NCAA, right?
SS: Yes, that’s it.
UW: How many individual teams or schools have you documented over the years?
SS: I think it’s 115.
UW: And how many individual illustrations have you published in the course of documenting those 115 teams?
SS: Roughly 1700.
UW: You’ve never worked with the NBA. Why not?
SS: The NBA used to call me every year, but it never worked out, for two reasons: First, I’m not an expert in basketball history. I just don’t know that much about it. And secondly, it seemed to me that basketball are a little bit more about the here and now — what’s hot, what’s new — than they are about history and the past.
UW: Part of that, I think, is because basketball is by far the worst-documented major sport in terms of its history. It’s hard for fans to connect with that heritage if the resources aren’t there for them.
SS: One time the Washington Wizards asked us to do a fan giveaway, so we did do that. But aside from that, we didn’t think there was a market for the heritage side of basketball.
UW: Let’s talk about the process of creating the artwork on your products. First, they’re watercolors, right?
SS: Yes, they’re all watercolor paintings.
UW: I know you’ve had several different artists. Did you originally have just one and then you had to expand, or did you have a rotating stable of artists right from the start?
SS: Started with one — a wonderful man named Tino Paolini, who was an art teacher in Toronto.
UW: How did you find him, or know of him?
SS: I run an adult soccer league. A recreational league. And Tino was one of the players. That’s how I got to know him.
UW: So you explained what you had in mind for Maple Leaf Productions?
SS: Yes, and he got it right away.
UW: Is he a hockey fan? I mean, here you were asking him to paint hockey uniforms.
SS: His first love is soccer. But he likes hockey and other sports very much. He’s a wonderful artist, but he took about 24 man-hours to produce a painting, which meant he couldn’t keep up with the volume of illustrations we needed. I was always encouraging him, “Tino, can you work a little bit quicker?” And he’d say, “Scott, I’ll do my best,” and then the next one would be 23 and three-quarters hours. That was just his pace. But he had a great attention to detail, so in retrospect I’m glad he didn’t succomb to the pressure I was putting on him.
UW: So because he worked at a deliberate pace, that’s why you had to bring other artists on board?
SS: Yes. Nola McConnan, who became our most prolific artist, was a family friend. She had a lot of experience painting horses — an equine artist — but she tried a few paintings for us and sort of fell in love with the male torso.
UW: Was she a sports fan?
SS: Yes. After she did about 1000 paintings, she needed a year off, which was completely understandable.
UW: Do the different artists have their own stylistic quirks? Like, does one artist tend to show more texture than another, or maybe one of them has a particular flair for jersey typography, or whatever?
SS: As much as I would love them to be indistinguishable, they have their own identifiable traits. Tino specializes in rich, detailed color — many layers of color, so that the watercolor almost looks like an oil painting. He’s extremely detailed, right down to the stitching. Nola is a little more about light and angles and wrinkles — there’s a little more life in her images, as if the jersey were on a living person instead of a mannequin. And then our third artist, Bill Band, he’s a wonderful artist with a good attention to detail, but I would have to give him very explicit instructions. His style is sort of in between Tino’s and Nola’s.
UW: How large is each original painting?
SS: Most of them are 9 by 12 inches. Some of Tino’s original NHL pieces were larger — 11 by 17.
UW: Is each painting a still-life? In other words, is the artist looking at a real uniform that was placed on a real mannequin?
SS: No. I would give each artist a research file for the team in question. And inside the file would be 10 or 20 pieces of source material, sometimes with notes, along with a page of instructions to the artist — “Please note the double belt loops,” or whatever. [Here’s another page of instructions. — PL]
UW: What would the source material be — photos?
SS: I spent an ungodly amount of money on used books. Every football book I could buy, every baseball book I could buy, and then every team-specific book I could buy. And then I became the kind of razor-blading books. And then I would augment that with many, many trips to the various halls of fame. And then there are media guides, baseball cards. Anything I could get my hands on. So I now have thousands of folders — every team, every year.
And of course you learn along the way that just because a book lists a certain date, that doesn’t mean it’s accurate. I learned to discount almost any caption and to do my own confirming research.
UW: Did you approach any of the teams themselves?
SS: Unfortunately, I quickly learned that there are very few teams with a good sense of their own histories. I don’t mean to say they don’t care about their past, but they don’t tend to have a team historian or someone who’s particularly well versed in that kind of thing. About the only exception was the Chicago Bears — they were wonderful, and were willing to do anything they could to help me.
UW: Most of your old images must have been black-and-white. How could you be sure about colors?
SS: Well, I wasn’t trying to show every single year of a uniform’s evolution — just certain specific years. So if we weren’t sure about the colors a team wore in, say, 1923, we’d just show what they wore in 1924 or ’25, assuming we had good color information for one of those years.
UW: What other factors did you consider when deciding which steps in a team’s uniform evolution to include and which ones to leave out? Some teams have pretty complicated histories that you could never show in their entirety, even if you had perfect research materials documenting each step of the timeline.
SS: I wanted to capture the flavor of a team’s history. The most basic guideline is that I wanted a uniform from every decade. Beyond that, I wanted to include home and away designs and I wanted to honor championship seasons, because that resonates with fans. So we tried to mix in all of those factors.
UW: Would you often commission more illustrations that you ended up using?
SS: No. So much research went into each image, along with the artists’ work, that I almost felt duty-bound to use each one. Having said that, there are maybe 50 that have never seen the light of day, but that’s not very many out of 1700.
UW: Any good stories to share regarding research, like maybe a uniform that you had a hard time tracking down, or any other unusual anecdote?
SS: For years I’ve told my friends about the Steelers’ 1930 uniform. We couldn’t find one, or a photo of one. So we spent an ungodly amount of time in the Pittsburgh city archives, down at City Hall, trying to see what the city’s official crest was back around that time, because that’s what the Steelers’ 1930 jersey crest modeled on. Honestly, I think we spent about 20 man-days on that, and my wife would shake her head and say, “Scott, you have to be mad.”
UW: Obviously you want to get all the details right. Did you ever issue a product that turned out to have an inaccuracy?
SS: Yes. I took great solace in the fact that the second edition of Marc Okkonen’s book included a large number of changes and corrections from the first edition. It’s inevitable — you’re going to make mistakes. And of course we always fix them in the next printing.
UW: One thing I’ve only recently become aware of: When depicting a uniform from a given year, you had to avoid using a uniform number that could be tied to a particular player from that team in that season. I assume that’s due to player royalty issues, right?
SS: Yes. When I first got the NHL license, I sat down with the NHL people and said, “Now guys, can I show real uniform numbers?” And the NHL said, “Yes you can. We control the uniform numbers.” And I said, “Great.”
So we published our first two posters — Canadiens and Maple Leafs — and basically the day they came out I got a phone call from a guy the NHL Players Association, and he said, “So how much are you paying George Armstrong for the use of his jersey?” And I said, “The NHL tells me I don’t have to.” And he said, “Well, we disagree.” And he basically suggested that I pull the posters off the market and re-do them without real numbers — or else pay the players a royalty.
So I went back to the NHL, and they said, “Tell the P.A. to jump in the lake.” So I went back to the P.A., and they said, “That’s fine — we’ll see you in court.” So then I went back to the NHL and they said, “Scott, change your posters.”
UW: So the league gave you this advice — which I’m sure was given in good faith, just as you took it in good faith — but then, if you’ll allow me to mix my sports metaphors, they moved to goalposts on you. Did you they offer you any compensation for the hassle and the reprinting and all the rest?
SS: No. They said, “We could go to court on this — we think we’d win, and the P.A. probably thinks we’d win too. We want to have this fight with them, but you’re not the test case we want.” Basically, I was too small-potatoes. So yes, they did hang me out to dry, and I was very upset. But fortunately it’s not in my nature to stay angry about things. And at that point I had only done a handful of teams. So for those we just changed the numbers electronically — you can actually see the changes noted on the original artwork.
UW: So the version with the original number, which you ended up changing, is sort of like a phantom.
SS: Exactly. And from then on, we only showed uniform numbers that were either not worn by the team that season, or else were worn by more than one player that season, so it’s impossible to tie the number to a specific person. And we stuck to that system when I went to the other leagues. But for the NCAA, we do use real player numbers.
UW: That’s because college players, as amateurs, aren’t eligible for royalties, right?
UW: As a Mets fan, I noticed that the image for the 1973 Mets uniform used number 14, which was actually retired for Gil Hodges during that season, and the 2008 Mets image shows number 42, which was an odd choice, since that number’s been retired by Major League Baseball.
SS: Paul, you’re probably the only person on the planet who would notice that.
UW: Actually, I’m fairly certain most of my readers would notice this type of thing. Don’t you think it’s a little weird to be using retired numbers? I mean, as a Mets fan, frankly, it really jumps off the page to see Gil Hodges’s number being used to represent a year after his death. That number is very iconic to Mets fans.
SS: Hmmm, I see, that’s interesting. I guess from my perspective, I’m trying to honor the team and the jersey — it’s about the team, not the individual. I might be missing that gene where I see a number and automatically think, boom, “That’s Gil Hodges.” But your point is well made. That’s a legitimate criticism.
UW: How many different products have you put those illustrations on over the years? I’ve seen prints, plaques, coffee mugs, playing cards, clocks, T-shirts, fridge magnets — what else?
SS: You got most of them. It’s about a dozen different products.
UW: Do you get feedback or requests from your customers?
SS: Not as much as I might have thought — maybe two or three a week.
UW: And now I understand you’re selling the company. What’s that all about?
SS: In 2009 the NFL did their latest round of licensing consolidation, and it was shaping up like I wasn’t going to make the cut this time, because they were raising the annual guarantee of revenue that they wanted, and it was past what I would be able provide. And that’s fine — I’ve spent a good part of my life pursuing this and it’s been great. But I have other passions that I want to pursue, so I decided this would be a good time to find a buyer and move on. I can’t discuss who the buyer will be, but the plans are falling into place.
UW: And you’re also selling the original artwork.
SS: Yes. The new buyer will acquire the electronic art, which is really all they’ll need in order to use the images. But they can’t pay me enough for the originals. We’re selling about 1500 of the 1700. Most of them are priced at $350, but some are more than that, depending on the team or the year.
UW: The proceeds are going to the artists, which means you’re basically acting as a gallerist here, right?
SS: Exactly. They get a share, I get a share.
UW: As I’ve clicked through the Heritage Sports site, I’ve noticed that some of the paintings have handwritten notes on them. Who typically wrote those — you or the artists?
SS: Some of each. Say the jersey included a patch, and the patch had a very detailed design. It would be too tricky for the artist to render that as a tiny patch on the jersey image, so they’d render it larger, as a separate image, to show all the detail, and then give instructions on how the patch would be positioned on the jersey electronically. “Reduce patch 50%” or whatever. Again, I think that adds to the fun and flavor of the images.
UW: I’ve also noticed that you have artwork for teams that are fairly new. For example, you have two Minnesota Wild illustrations. Now, obviously, two images isn’t enough to group together in a poster or a plaque. Why did you even bother to create those images?
SS: Because at one point we did an NHL deck of cards, so we needed images from every team. I think those images may have ended up on fridge magnets as well.
UW: Similarly, I mentioned earlier that you have an image of the 2008 Mets. But you had no doubt done a Mets poster long before 2008. So you were always updating your image chronologies?
SS: Yes, you’re exactly right. Say we published our first Mets poster in 2000. We might have done another one in 2003, and then again in 2006 and 2008. We like to refresh the posters to show more recent iterations, so everything looks up to date.
UW: Do you think the new owners will keep updating things with new images, either with your artists or with their own artists?
SS: Good question. I’m not sure how that’s going to work out.
UW: If they don’t keep updating things, would that make you sad, to think that the progression will end and the project will essentially be over?
SS: Maybe it’s just the way that I’m built, but when I hand it over, I won’t look back. That’s just my nature.
UW: Sounds like the healthiest approach.
I want to thank Scott so much for this excellent interview, and for sharing some of his research files with me. Speaking of which, one of the Nebraska files he loaned me had a page with a super-cool logo I’d never seen before. A nice capper to a great interview.
What a beautiful day for an elimination game: A few notes from last night’s Yanks/Rangers game:
• David Robertson was still wearing the wrong uni number font.
• After Bengie Molina (aka my New Favorite Mammal) hit that game-changing homer in the top of the 6th, he changed his catching gear in the bottom of the frame. Apparently it was because his shin guard broke. Fascinating to see that he changed everything — even his mask — just for the sake of visual uniformity. Bengie Molina Gets It™. (My thanks to Nolan Brett for the screen shots.)
• Reader Mark Prusinski notes that Robbie Cano has his initials on his cleats, or maybe he just scored an endorsement deal from RC Cola.
• After the Jeffrey Maier incident in ’96 (a game I attended in person, by the way), the Yankees made a big show of installing some sort of railing or barrier, so fans in right field would no longer be able to reach into the field of play. I guess that feature from the old stadium didn’t make it to the new one.
Uni Watch News Ticker: Joe Skiba’s latest video is a really good one, all about uniform customization. … The Ducks’ third jersey has been leaked. I love the crest and hate just about everything else about it. … Latest batch of AHL throwback beauties: Hershey vs. Rochester (big thanks to Michael Lingenfelter). … New hoops uni — or at least a peek at it — for Miami. … The NBA has banned a high-tech sneaker design because it offered an unfair advantage (with thanks to Michael Niekamp). … Latest team looking to put advertising on their practice jerseys: the Canucks (with thanks to John Muir). … Yesterday I mentioned that my Wisconsin friends/heroes Julie and Johnie had photographed me for their Real Postcard Photography Survey project. They also photographed our own Robert Marshall. … The final Space Shuttle mission will carry an NHL jersey into space (with thanks to Alan Kreit). … Here’s a really interesting article about new advances in curling brooms (thanks, Teebz). … Now that logo creep is allowed on college hoops jerseys, UNC is the first school to wear the Jumpman logo. According to a Tar Heels newsletter, the team was also supposed to be adding the ACC logo at the rear neckline, just above the NOBs, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. … Hauntingly sad photos of abandoned bowling alleys here (major thanks to Rob Walker). … Love this old Nebraska sweater (with thanks to Jamie Tallman. … See that dot — okay, it looks more like a light smudge — on Pat Burrell’s bat, slightly above his hands? “According to this video, the dot is a mark to alert an inspector that bat grain is safe for use,” explains Jeff La Haie. … Here’s a fascinating slideshow of renovations taking place at Fenway (big thanks to David Fitzgerald). … Check out all the bunting at Forbes Field in 1912 (with thanks to Jacob Pomrenke). … Here’s another logo-infringement case, this time between Illinois State University and an Illinois high school (with thanks to Nick Yelverton). … John Tavares of the Islanders loves CCM skates (as forwarded by Jonathan Guay).