A Chat with John Viola, Part of the Florida Panthers Rebrand Team

Florida Panthers 2017

On Thursday, June 2, 2016, the Florida Panthers made their first radical branding change in their 23-year history.

Gone is the original 1993 primary “leaping cat” logo and the athletic gold trim colour. Gone is the sun, stick, and palm tree alternate logo. In aesthetics the team now bears little resemblance to the 1996 “Year of the Rat” team that Florida fans so adore, but then again today’s NHL also bears little resemblance to what it looked like during that era.

Vincent Viola, West Point graduate and founder of Virtu Financial, purchased the Panthers from a group headed by Cliff Viner in 2013. From the beginning Viola wanted to instill U.S. Army values into the Panthers including having players spend time at West Point prior to the season, and it paid dividends quickly as the ‘Cats’ won the Atlantic Division this past season.

To better represent that nuance in the visual identity of the team, Viola enlisted the help of his son John Viola, President and COO of the National Italian American Foundation (and self-proclaimed “uniform nerd”) to help design the Panthers new look. John worked directly with Reebok throughout the entire development process to create a logo heavily inspired by military imagery such as the badge of the 101st Airborne and special sleeve tabs which must be earned by players.

Following the uniform unveiling, John Viola sat down with Chris Creamer and Ryan Mackman for an interview that turned into a great conversation about the new look, his inspirations, and even touched on some of his favourite logos throughout sports history…

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Chris Creamer interviewing John Viola in Sunrise, FL - June 2, 2016
Chris Creamer interviewing John Viola in Sunrise, FL – June 2, 2016

Chris Creamer: Thanks for having us at this event.

John Viola: No problem! Actually, I’m a big fan of SportsLogos.Net. I’m on it almost every day! I always think about sending stuff in, but I just get lazy, and I never do it. I’m just a uniform nerd who decided to help out with the Panthers.

Ryan Mackman: In 2012 the Marlins completely rebranded, the Dolphins did the same thing in 2013. Both adopted much flashier looks. Did you research the reaction of the South Florida market to those changes before beginning the Panthers rebrand process?

JV: No, but we probably should have in retrospect, but no we didn’t because we didn’t treat it like, “Okay, there’s an opportunity here” (to just put our own stamp on it). We really treated it like a responsibility to move the franchise in a new direction, and signify a new energy, while still being respectful of the past. My dad had a very clear vision for this, and it meant a lot of swings and misses, but also a lot of progress. I think we finally got there. It was less about what was going to prove out from the outside environment and more about what the vision was.

Caps featuring the new logo on sale at the Panthers team shop
Caps featuring the new logo on sale at the Panthers team shop

CC: How long ago did this re-design process start?

JV: Honestly, I forget because there are so many restrictions about when you have to apply. We knew, early on, that we wanted the opportunity to evolve this brand, and take our values, and then match it up. So, it was very soon into our ownership that we started to look into this, and it’s been a very very long time. We’ve been waiting on baited breath for this day, and there’s been many days where I’ve wanted to send a picture out, Tweet, or talk about it, but I’ve done a good job of not doing that. It’s been a long process.

CC: Yeah, you could have sent a sample to us!

JV: (Laughs) Sure! Yeah! If I sent it to you or Paul (from Uni Watch) the world would’ve seen it. Anybody else I sent it to probably would have been like, “What is this?” So, sorry, but you’re the two I would NOT have sent it to! [Editors note: Seriously though, if John had sent it over and asked us to keep it to ourselves, we most certainly would have respected his wishes. I’m positive Paul would do the same. — CC]

Panthers players Aaron Ekblad and Vincent Trocheck model the new uniforms
Panthers players Aaron Ekblad and Vincent Trocheck model the new uniforms

RM: Had the Panthers made a deeper playoff run and/or won the Stanley Cup this year, would you still have made these changes?

JV: You’re talking about the NHL. This is a major international brand. Once you put that marble in the mousetrap, you aren’t getting it back. Stuff is just moving. We were very confident that Reebok and the NHL were going to work with us to try to hit our vision, but that was a decision we had to make, ‘yay or nay’. We said ‘yay’, we’re going to change this, and there’s no going back from that.

CC: What role, exactly, did you play in the design process?

JV: Well, like I said earlier, I’m a big uniform nerd. I follow stuff constantly, and my dad is too. (Vice Chairman) Doug (Cifu) is, too. I mean we have boxes and boxes old jerseys. We have all kinds of stuff. I have letterhead from old minor league teams, we are obsessed with this stuff in our house. I think I have some stuff that may not even be out there. I was into the Seattle Pilots for a long time, I mean I have toilet paper from Sick’s Stadium. I have everything.

CC: So… Can I come over?

JV: (Laughs) Yeah, you would love the attic! I was involved in trying to translate what I understood about brands and uniforms from his vision, and then I sort of wanted to lend my nerdy obsessiveness to it so that we knew it was a complete package that was telling an honest story. So, I was on every call from the very beginning, and I was very adamant. I was picky, I mean we could look through all the old designs. We changed things like the shadow behind the eyes. That changed five times. The ‘leaping panther’, there were many many more. The font, I mean everything. These guys have great. I knew we had a vision, and I knew we would get there, and we did.

New Florida Panthers logos

CC: Was there anything radically different during the process? Did you ever consider changing the Panthers colour scheme, or consider taking it in a completely opposite direction from what we see here?

JV: So in the earliest conversations that we had, we said throw everything onto the table. I proposed some other things that I thought here are five or six different directions we could take this, but pretty quickly we said … the Army, South Florida, and the pride in this very distinct animal that lives outside our arena. That was what we decided to brand with. There were a lot of options, but there wasn’t anything terribly radical that actually made it to the design phase.

RM: You brought in a very traditional hockey look, but then you added a modern twist via the shoulder numbers, the fonts, and the logo itself. Considering there are some NHL teams out there that have tried to go ultra modern, was traditional your goal from the beginning?

JV: Tradition and simplicity, there’s a fine line between the two. You can’t manufacture tradition, but you can emphasize simplicity. We are simply who we are. This is a team that has very clear values. They’re not complex. They’re not foreign to most people. Truth, transparency, hard work. So, because it is simple, it works because it always works. That’s why it has longevity. We wanted to be clear, but we wanted to be simple and be bold. A lot of people have asked me about the stripe, did it come from the style of the Montreal Canadiens? No, it came from the state flag of Florida. That’s really where it came from. In fact, my brother and I even talked about maybe doing it in an “X” so it has always been about that. This great flag that we think is super iconic. You don’t know a lot of state flags, but with Florida you know it, and that was a great opportunity for us.

florida state flag

CC: Did you ever actually try the “X” (from the flag) right on the front jersey?

JV: Yeah, in my bad Photoshop versions, my brother Michael and I did. Michael is also a uniform nerd, and we did all kinds of stuff. I’ve got all kinds of stuff on my computer that would be fan-submission worthy … barely. But, yeah, we did, but we never did anything with it.

RM: Do you have any plans already for the modernized leaping cat logo and the special fan patch logo (given out to fans who pre-ordered a jersey)?

JV: Well the patch ends tonight. It’s for the first 1,000 fans who buy a jersey. I love this because I worked really hard on this with the design team. The reason we’re doing this is because a lot of people love our logo with the crossed stick and palm tree, so for us, this is still part of the secondary logo on the sleeve. This (fan) patch is really an ode to the ROTC. If you look at the ROTC Army symbol, it looks a lot like it, but there’s a sword and a helmet. We said look, we’re going to ask these fans to support us, and buy this jersey that they can’t even get until September. So, let’s make them feel special and make them part of this ROTC army of fans. This is going to be available only tonight, and maybe a different version of it may come around in the future, but this patch with “Loyalty” and the numbers really is one of a thousand.

Patch handed out to first 1000 fans who pre-ordered a jersey
Patch handed out to first 1000 fans who pre-ordered a jersey

CC: So just a fan-only patch, never going on the game jerseys?

JV: Nope. Never going on the game jerseys.

RM: You took the original alternate logo and just broke the elements apart.

JV: It’s cool! I think, maybe in the future, a version of this will be available, but it’s … you’re our fan army. I mean these fans live or die with us. They really do, and we know that. So, this was important.

RM: And the leaping cat?

JV: The leaping cat is going to be on the helmets this year, where it has always been. If you see our helmets now, they have that, and it’s still going to be there. In the future, we’re going to evolve its uses so that it fits in with the whole set. In designing the new version of the leaping cat logo, we wanted a new cat in the same sort of mould. Take a look at them side-by side because it’s not just new colours. It’s a whole new cat, and we had about 26 different versions just to get it where it looked like our regular cat had grown up … like the franchise.

Comparing the old and new leaping panther
Comparing the old and new leaping panther

CC: We haven’t seen this yet, what will the helmet colours be?

JV: Blue helmets on the home uniform and white helmets on the road. That hasn’t changed, the pant colours haven’t changed. It’s all about stability, really.

CC: Now you say you’re a little bit of a uniform nerd?

JV: Big time!

CC: So, let’s talk about some of your favourite logos and uniforms.

JV: In what league, the NHL?

CC: Sure, let’s start with the NHL. We’ll keep it hockey themed.

JV: I really, I mean I love ours. I think we’ve got a great brand. Tops. And I liked what we had. I think it speaks volumes about the team. I love the Minnesota Wild. I really do. I think they did a great job. I mean, generally I like the older stuff. The North Stars, the Whalers, I like simple, bold, iconic. I love that stuff. I love some of the Oakland Seals stuff. My dad always loved the Oakland Seals. So, we have like five Oakland Seals jerseys in the middle of Brooklyn, New York. I like the traditional stuff from the Original Six teams, but I don’t know. It’s hard to pick a favourite in the NHL, to be honest with you, because they’re all so different. I love the Islanders look. I’m very proud of them, as a New Yorker. I love their colours, I think that’s great.

CC: Islanders? You’re going to take a lot of heat for that!

JV: Yeah! (Laughs) Maybe we should scratch that?

John Viola's favourite logos include the Wild, North Stars, Seals, and Islanders
John Viola’s favourite logos include the Wild, North Stars, Seals, and Islanders

RM: Did you like them when they had the “fisherman” logo?

JV: I was the only guy on the planet who liked the fisherman. I was a kid, and I really liked the fisherman. Maybe because it reminded me of fish sticks? I don’t know, but I liked it. I really did! I always liked real literal representations of who you were as a team, you know?

RM: Outside of hockey, what’s your favourite logo?

JV: Oh man alive, that’s so hard. Outside of hockey, my favourite logo, from an emotional perspective, it’s the Yankees. I think the simplicity of it, the class of it, and I mean the real logo – the top hat logo, not the NY cap logo. I love the top hat. In terms of design. Man, that’s tough. That’s hard for me to pin that one down. I would need a lot of time to discuss that.

CC: Thanks for speaking with us.

JV: Yeah, no problem!

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You can read more from our coverage of the Florida Panthers logo unveiling here.