Team branding is an inexact science.
Too often, constantly changing design trends and the fickleness of fans can either prompt unneeded alteration in a sporting organisation’s aesthetic, or else completely paralyse it.
The National Hockey League and its franchises are some of the worst offenders of all, with good designs often usurped too early, and bad ones sticking around for what seems like eternity.
For better or worse – but mostly for the better, the Washington Capitals have not fallen into these traps.
So, their visual identity has remained stable and incrementally progressive, then?
Oh. No. Completely the opposite.
The Washington Capitals have tried literally everything.
And, credit where credit’s due, it’s largely worked out.
The Capitals Wordmark
The Capitals entered the league in 1974-75 with a wordmark logo, colour-corrected depending upon which jersey it adorned.
The logo itself features two iterations of a reverse-italicised typeface, one spelling out “Washington” in capital letters, and the larger, primary mark below it reading “Capitals,” all lowercase. The “t” in “capitals” is elongated to be a hockey stick, with a puck lying next to the blade. Directly above the wordmark is a layer of stars, composed of two banks of three.
Generally, I feel wordmark logos are cop-outs and more than a little lazy. I have to say though, I really don’t mind Washington’s initial attempt. The use of two, contrasting colours makes the creation bold and bright, while the aforementioned additional elements make it just interesting enough to pass muster.
The layer of stars crams even more America into the uniforms, especially when considered alongside the striping and additional stars of the jersey. I like when teams double down on their city’s identity, and the Capitals are the NHL’s poster child for doing it right.
The hockey stick is an equally obvious, yet equally effective, design decision, providing not only colour contrast, but also enhancing the height and overall depth of the emblem. The crossing stroke of the “t” works wonderfully, as well, lining up with the dot on the “i” to create the illusion of speed and movement.
Capitals’ Wordmark the Exception to the Rule
Yes, the Caps would have been wise to go with something more impactful than a wordmark for their first primary crest. Expansion teams don’t often do well (the first-year Capitals were no exception, finishing with a record of 8-67-5, bad enough to still hold the NHL record for worst-ever single-season points percentage, at 13.1 percent), so they sure as hell better look good.
Even worse, the reverse italicisation of the wordmark makes the crest look passive, almost like it’s recoiling.
But there’s a reason this logo lasted 21 seasons, and was brought back largely intact only 10 years after it was retired: There was enough right about the original design to etch itself into the minds of hockey fans the world over. And isn’t that what branding is all about?
Every rule has an exception. The Capitals’ wordmark logo is that exception.
Washington’s Wavering Wordmark
The Capitals’ original wordmark logo technically didn’t stay original for long, changing slightly several times over the course of its two-decade run. The 1985-86 edition would be retained until the crest’s replacement following the 1994-95 campaign.
As you can see, the “WASHINGTON” component of the wordmark is considerably smaller than in the initial iteration, a change implemented for 1980-81.
Also in 1980-81, the star layer was enlarged slightly, while the gap between the two star banks was shrunk considerably for 1985-86.
The tail of the hockey-stick “t” was lengthened considerably ahead of 1983-84, with “WASHINGTON” getting a little more separation from “capitals” that very same season.
Whatever the guise, this classic crest served Washington admirably, from their historically awful inaugural season through their painful climb towards respectability, and stuck around long enough to see the Capitals ascend to competitor – even contender – status.
The Screaming Eagle
For the 1995-96 campaign, however, the Capitals took their logo in a wildly different direction.
To go along with complete rebrands of their sweater template and colour palette, Washington introduced a new primary crest, a star-spangled screaming eagle.
And, good gracious, is this one ever a dandy.
Honestly, what better image to emblazon upon a team based in Washington, D.C.? A bald eagle, adorned in stars, seemingly dive-bombing towards a kill, beak open and talons extended? Simply magnificent.
Of course, the red, white and blue colour scheme of the Caps’ original kits was replaced in the redesign, so this crest is perhaps not quite as patriotic as it could be. However, I feel the change actually works in the logo’s favour, as the colours of the American flag might have made things just a bit too gaudy.
Instead, the black and bronze accents of the jersey design are replicated on the logo, lending further anger and aggression to an already explosive image. Very fine work.
The Washington Capitol Building
Sadly, the Screaming Eagle logo was eventually undone by a Washington staple, political interference.
Completely in opposition to the spectacular Screaming Eagle, the secondary logo of the Caps’ new ensemble featured an image of the United States Capitol.
Now, this is a team called the Capitals that plays in Washington, D.C., so there’s no question America is going to factor into the team’s branding – and rightly so.
However, not all national symbols are created equal.
Notwithstanding the fact many people indulge in sports fandom to escape things like politics, even if political bodies were highly thought of, it’s not as though the building that houses political representatives is a particularly fruitful well from which to draw emotive imagery.
Compounding the ill-thought-out centrepiece of this Capitals’ secondary patch is all the fluff surrounding it. The Capitol Building is backed by a pair of crossing hockey sticks, flanked by stars and fronted by a puck, with “WASHINGTON CAPITALS” stamped across the front, for good measure.
It’s almost as though the team ran out of good ideas, and simply threw everything else they had at the wall. Unfortunately, all of it stuck – and all of it stunk.
In 1997-98, the Capitals introduced a black alternate uniform that relegated the Screaming Eagle to secondary status upon the shoulders and placed the Capitol Building front and centre. This jersey would attain full-time status in 2000-01, usurping the Caps’ wonderful blue sweater and its Screaming Eagle primary crest.
The Capitol Building logo was a poor idea that was then poorly designed and poorly executed.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence the Capitals’ descent into organisational darkness was to follow.
Washington Capitals Current Primary Logo
Mercifully, the Capitals came to their senses after the 2006-07 campaign and, once again, rebooted their on-ice aesthetic. The results were mixed, to say the least, but the logo was a pleasant surprise.
The Capitals Wordmark: Version 2.0
One of the few teams for whom the Reebok Edge uniform system actually proved beneficial, the Caps took advantage of the NHL’s uniform template overhaul to go back to the future, rolling out an updated version of their original crest.
It’s still a combination wordmark, featuring an uppercase “WASHINGTON” and a lowercase “capitals” but, this time, it’s italicised normally, making it look significantly more active and aggressive than the original emblem.
The typeface has changed, too, with a more daring, futuristic look than the original. One particular stylistic element I like is that the cross of the “t” not only draws from the dot of the “i,” but also now merges smoothly into the upper stroke of the “a,” creating a less-truncated look which helps the overall flow of the logo.
Next, rather than the layer of six stars above the wordmark itself, there is a smaller block of three positioned between “WASHINGTON” below and the elongated “t” to the right. This feature fits very nicely into the visual field, creating one unified logo, rather than the several disparate elements of the original.
Furthermore, as a reader pointed out in the comments of my Capitals jersey history piece, the use of three stars references the flag of Washington, D.C. – which itself references the family crest of founding father George Washington. Superb attention to detail, that.
Obviously, the new colour scheme is darker and more muted than the Caps’ original palette, but what’s less obvious is the removal of certain points of contrast from the crest. For instance, the hockey-stick “t” is no longer in a contrasting tone. Instead, it’s the same colour as the rest of “capitals.”
More significantly, “capitals” is blue and the puck is red on both the home and away iterations. However, the bank of stars and the “WASHINGTON’ portion of the wordmark do differ between sweaters, coloured white on the Caps’ red jerseys, and red on their whites. The logo on the red kit is also trimmed in white, while the white kit’s crest has no visible trim.
Interestingly, the Capitals’ original logo also had a red “WASHINGTON” when adorning the white jersey, but utilised blue on the red threads (providing some nice contrast with the then-white “capitals”).
Minutia aside, this is a great update to a classic logo.
Subjectively, I prefer the original crest. However, objectively, there’s no denying this iteration of the Capitals’ wordmark crest is superior in almost every way.
Washington Capitals Current Secondary Logo
Accompanying the redesigned primary crest was an absolutely kick-ass secondary logo.
As much as the wordmark emblem took the past and improved on it, the Capitals’ new secondary crest broke new ground for the franchise’s aesthetic – in a good way, I should specify.
The logo consists of a stylised bald eagle with wings spread, a simple design (nicknamed the “Weagle,”) embedded with some very nice, subtle details.
The body of the eagle is not altogether filled out, replaced instead by the contrasting silhouette of the Capitol Building. Again, I’m not a fan of the use of governmental buildings in sporting logo design. However, here, it’s at least subtle enough to blend into the background.
More noticeably, the eagle’s wings and body are positioned such that they form a “W” – as in, “Washington.” The eagle is also coloured such that there’s a second, more pronounced “W” in the space occupied by navy blue.
On the topic of colouration, the eagle’s sharp, almost lightning-esque red wingtips intersect with the blue of the inner wings to create some quite striking contrast. Not only does this design choice look spectacular, it also gives the definite illusion of movement and excitement, much like the primary crest.
Another positive is the fact that, for all its design complexity, the Weagle is simple enough to be doodled (though the actual Caps’ players themselves don’t make it look very easy). I feel this is an essential characteristic of any good logo, that the most hardcore of fans and the most hardcore of casuals alike are imprinted with the ability to draw it.
The Weagle means business. So much so that many Caps fans have been clamouring for its inclusion on an alternate sweater ever since its release.
Personally, I think the Weagle lacks a little of the punch needed for a good primary crest. Even though it would likely immediately find itself ranked in the top half of NHL primary logos, I feel it’s a little too futuristic and a little too polished for the task.
But hey, that’s not the Weagle’s role. Its role is to serve as the shoulder patch framing the Capitals’ wordmark crest, a role which it plays to resounding acclaim.
As a secondary logo, the Weagle is just about perfect.
Washington Capitals Current Alternate Logo
As one might expect from a team that’s fiddled with their branding as much as the Capitals, another uniform change – this time, the addition of an alternate kit – wasn’t too far behind their Reebok Edge transformation.
The Capitals Wordmark: Version 1.5
The Capitals have reintroduced their original logo a number of times within their current branding scheme, first in 2011-12 following its use in the 2011 Winter Classic.
Interestingly, while the crest used on the Caps’ vintage white jerseys is a straight replica of the original, that used on the red throwbacks, currently the Caps’ alternate sweater, uses a white “capitals” and a white “WASHINGTON,” rather than the latter being blue.
Washington Capitalizing or Constrained?
Make no mistake, the Caps have always had one of the most recognizable logo sets in the NHL.
However, in recent years, the Capitals seem to have been caught between the pulls of various design forces.
There seems to be constant friction between the futuristic and the traditional. There’s the patriotism angle, with the eagles and the stars. There’s the weird obsession with the American government, whose Capitol Building keeps creeping its way in. And then there’s the slavish devotion to the past, whether that be the logos of the Caps’ current home and away uniforms, that of their alternate jerseys of recent seasons, or even their Winter Classic ensemble from 2015.
So far, the Capitals are holding it all together with a very reasonable balance of all these competing themes.
However, part of me wishes they’d just pick something and own it, instead of trying to be all things to all people.