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Artist behind Oilers logo celebrating Black culture hopes fans feel 'seen'

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The Edmonton Oilers are paying homage to Black History Month at Wednesday's game against Boston, the third of four games this season celebrating a cultural community that supports the club. 

For each the Indigenous Celebration Game on Nov. 13, Lunar New Year Game on Feb. 13, Celebrating Black History Game on Feb. 21, and the South Asian Celebration game on March 21, the franchise partnered with local artists to create logos featuring elements from those cultures. 

As will be seen on the jerseys Oilers players may wear into the dressing room on Wednesday, as well as on various merchandise at the team store, the logo honouring the Black community borrows inspiration from African textiles. 

"My hope is that people (feel) seen," creator and artist AJA Louden told CTV News Edmonton in a recent interview. "That they (see) the kente cloth … and recognize those patterns and motifs. Or the bogolan cloth or any of the ankara elements you see in the piece and they say, 'Hey, that's ours. That's from us and it's connected with hockey and with this team that we love.'" 

Although he's known for his murals and larger-scale visual art, Louden has recently been exploring textile art and working on a series of tapestries. 

That artistic expansion influenced his version of the Oilers' logo. 

"We see a lot of very clean, graphic vector lines in some of these logos, so I just wanted to do something that had this earthy texture to it," he said of how he came up with the idea to distress the image. 

"That was inspired by these mud and wax print cloths that I had seen where they have this distressing to them a little bit and it looks handmade."

Alberta artist AJA Louden speaks to CTV News Edmonton in February 2024 about the Black culture-inspired logo he created for the Edmonton Oilers. (CTV News Edmonton / Nahreman Issa)

"I think it's tight," complimented Joaquin Gage, who played goalie for the Oilers in the 90s and early 2000s. 

He was one of five Black players on Edmonton's 2000-01 team, which was at the time a historic amount of representation within the National Hockey League

"It stood out but it wasn't – to tell you the truth – it was never even talked about. It's funny. I posed that question to Craig MacTavish, who was our coach at the time, and he didn't even realize it until later on," Gage recalled to CTV News Edmonton. 

"I knew it was something special when we were actually playing the St. Louis Blues. I remember being in the airport grabbing an USA Today. Normally in that newspaper, hockey's on the back page of the sports at that time. And there it was at the front of the sports of the USA Today– a picture of all five of us."

A photo of the 2000-01 Edmonton Oilers team, which featured five Black players on its roster.

Perhaps one of the reasons it wasn't made into a bigger deal, he thinks, is that everyone was focused on something else. 

"We were just all together trying to accomplish one goal. That was the most magical part of being on that team – and the music was a lot better in the dressing room, let's face it."

The logo also represents a full-circle moment for Louden, who says Black Canadians who grow up in the prairies, like him, have a very specific experience.

"There's maybe sometimes that feeling of isolation, but also I grew up skating around. My dad poured a pond in the back; we just had a little rink back there. And so [hockey] is a big part of my personal heritage, too, and my cultural history," Louden said. 

"It was a lot of white people playing hockey when I grew up. To see somebody like Grant Fuhr become a star and a huge fan favourite was so empowering and important for me, especially growing up in a small town in Alberta where I didn't sense representation in many other fields around me."

Seeing other people who looked like him among artists would later show him he could become one, too. 

Gage also pointed to Fuhr to explain the significance of diversity in sports. 

Former Edmonton Oilers goalie Joaquin Gage speaks to CTV News Edmonton in February 2024 via Zoom. (CTV News Edmonton)

"Most guys, it didn't matter what colour you wanted to be Grant Fuhr. But the fact that I looked more like Grant than most other young goalies was special to me," he said. 

Gage, Sean Brown and Georges Laraque are all scheduled to be at Wednesday's game. 

Each of the cultural celebration games at Rogers Place will feature traditional programming, such as music and dancing. 

Additionally, when play is stopped, the club will introduce members of the local community who are doing impactful work. 

"What we can do best is share the platform and not try to take over that voice," said Dan Cote-Rosen, vice president of marketing for the Oilers Entertainment Group. 

Currently, the Oilers have two Black players: Darnell Nurse and Evander Kane. 

Their Wednesday opponent, the Boston Bruins, was the first team in the NHL to put a Black player, Willie O'Ree from New Brunswick, on its roster in the late 1950s and 1960s. 

A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the items with cultural logos will be donated to organizations chosen by the artists. One full team set of autographed jerseys with each logo will be sold through an auction. 

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Nahreman Issa 

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