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Game's over, but for shirtmakers, work has just begun

By MARK ALBRIGHT
Published June 8, 2004

[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]

TAMPA - The embroidery machines were set to stitch polo shirts all night. An extra shift was poised to run the silk-screen assembly line. Trucks lined up outside waiting to make fresh deliveries to stores within 75 miles by 5 a.m.

So when the puck stopped after the Tampa Bay Lightning's Stanley Cup victory Monday night, the two VF Imagewear Inc. plants in Tampa plant sprang to life for another big league all-nighter.

"Run those presses! Let's go to work," yelled Dick Conover, VF Imagewear special events manager, seconds after the game ended.

Surrounded by a dozen workers giving high-fives, Calvin Rhodes, a shirt designer, typed the final score onto a computer screen at the plant on Linbaugh Avenue. It was the final touch for a shirt that will be available today with each playoff game's score.

"It's not going to be as big as the Super Bowl for us," Rhodes said, "but it's still good because this is Tampa Bay."

A division of one of the nation's biggest apparel markers, the Tampa unit of VF Imagewear Inc. is one of the pioneers in cranking out commemorative hats, T-shirts and other fan gear the moment NFL, World Series and NHL championships are decided.

This year the company created seven types of the official locker room T-shirt for each of seven levels of NHL playoff activities and seven styles of Stanley Cup commemorative apparel. The winning team was handed factory-fresh New Era hats at center ice and LeeSport T-shirts made by VF.

While most NHL team merchandise was marked down for clearance months ago, sales of Lightning and Calgary Flames merchandise have been soaring thanks to the playoffs.

Lightning paraphernalia wasn't heavily circulated locally before the playoff run, but merchants think reaching the Stanley Cup finals will bump up the Lightning from 22nd place to 10th or 11th place among all NHL teams in North America for the fiscal year that ends June 30. The Flames were ranked 16th in NHL merchandise sales through April 30, far behind the longtime leaders Detroit and Toronto.

Indeed, sales of Lightning items doubled at many stores as the team ascended through each round of playoffs. Even the Lightning's double overtime win Saturday set the phones off at sporting goods stores on Sunday.

"We had a rush of people calling to see what Lightning stuff we had," said Casey McEntegart, assistant manager of the Sports Fan-Attic in Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg. "There's been a lot of last-minute bandwagoners jumping for Lightning shirts, hats and jerseys. We've sold out of individual player's jerseys a couple of times just in the last few weeks."

The day after the team won the Eastern Conference championship last month, overall sales at his store increased five-fold because of Lightning hats and shirts. VF officials figured commemoratives from a Stanley Cup win would double that to 10-fold today. There promises to be plenty of new and leftover stuff now that the season is over, from $150 authentic-looking jerseys to real game jerseys that have been selling at full-price up to $250.

The flood of championship hats and shirts, however, won't all be commemoratives.

Smack Apparel Co., a Tampa silk-screen print shop that specializes in "attitude" T-shirts that have no team logos, is unveiling a "Tampa Bay: Hockey Capital of the USA T-shirt." It's an in-your-face "spoof" on Detroit (which has trademarked Hockeytown USA).

The company sold several thousand "Lord Stanley Needs a Suntan" T-shirts in the past few weeks. "They sold very well," said Smack Apparel owner Wayne Curtiss of his first foray with hockey fans. "But if it was the Bucs we could have sold 10 times as many."

- Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or 727 893-8252.

[Last modified June 8, 2004, 01:01:17]

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