What "Hockeytown" Is According To The Law

Here in Detroit, our fervor for the return of hockey season radiates brighter than ever, courtesy of the nauseating hangover the Tigers have left us with and the infinite number of ways the Lions manage to lose. Detroit is more than just any hockey town - it is "Hockeytown"! Those of us twenty-somethings who grew up in Michigan during the era where Detroit emerged and began its reign as "Hockeytown" were wonderfully privileged children. I think it is appropriate to learn about how we earned the right to call our city Hockeytown. So, I will dish out what "Hockeytown" is in the legal world of sports.

 This image is one word mark registered with the USPTO, described as consisting "primarily of the word 'HOCKEYTOWN' superimposed over a winged wheel design."

This image is one word mark registered with the USPTO, described as consisting "primarily of the word 'HOCKEYTOWN' superimposed over a winged wheel design."

"Hockeytown" is:

  1. ... a series of registered trademarks and service marks owned by Detroit Red Wings, Inc. (see registered marks 2167939 and 2169920) The corporation filed applications for "Hockeytown" (ONE WORD, NOT TWO!) back in October, 1995, and claimed "first use" in the marketplace by October the following year as it marched onward to its first Stanley Cup in 42 years. Click here to watch the Hockeytown DVD, an example of one market use in which the Detroit Red Wings sought federal protection. Fittingly enough, at approximately the same time the team won its second of two back-to-back Stanley Cups in June, 1998, the USPTO approved the corporation's "Hockeytown" trademarks so the franchise could plaster the mark onto various things as a source identifier, including:
    1. Books, magazines, pamphlets and brochures featuring sports entertainment
    2. Housewares
    3. Bed blankets, towels and bed linens, cloth pennants and banners
    4. Clothing
    5. Novelty pins and buttons
    6. Plush toy animals and toys
    7. Entertainment services in the nature of providing facilities for and conducting hockey games
    8. Motion picture films, pre-recorded video and audio featuring sports entertainment and music [eventually cancelled and not included in the live (i.e. current) trademark protection].
  2. ... referred to in the copyright-protected song "Hey, Hey, Hockeytown®" and the timeless hype video accompanying it. I mean, come on, the song is so sick and cheesy rock-esque that it even has its own Facebook page! It was written by Topolewski and Van Osdel, arranged by Fritz Doddy, and sung by legendary metal rock vocalist Joe Lynn Turner. Hockeytown does not merely adopt an anthem as its iconic goal horn song. It has an original production. You can click here to listen to and compare each team's goal song for yourself.
  3. ... not to be confused with "Hockeytown USA". Yes, there is a difference. Warroad, Minnesota bills itself as "Hockeytown USA" and has some right to do so. The rural town has sent seven hockey players to the Olympics, and no US Hockey team has won gold without an athlete from Warroad on its roster. Although the Detroit Red Wings trademarked one word of the town's nickname, Warroad received its own trademark more recently. Also, the "USA" attached at the end is enough to distinguish Warroad from the NHL franchise as the source. How? Warroad's trademark is claimed specifically for "[p]romoting the region in the state of Minnesota around and including Warroad, Minnesota as a tourist attraction and promoting economic development in the region."

The purpose of trademark law can be viewed differently depending on what side of the bargain you are on. Trademark law exists to (a) act as a source identifier for a consumer to differentiate products, and (b) protect the owner's investment in his or her or its reputation. Here, Detroit Red Wings, Inc. began to use "Hockeytown" in various markets to tell consumers that products bearing the term come from its company in connection with the winged wheel franchise team. After using it throughout the markets in which the corporation sought protection and seeing how the NHL world came to refer to Detroit as "Hockeytown," the USPTO clearly approved the mark.

Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.

I came across a Detroit Free Press article from 2014 on "[h]ow Buffalo could be stealing 'Hockeytown' from Detroit" because it has a storied history of producing some of the best high-end hockey players, its geocentrically location, the community is passionate, and the Buffalo Sabres owner built HarborCenter, a 19-floor ice hockey mega-facility devoted entirely to amateur hockey. I understand the point the author was trying to make, but this is a fine example of trademark misunderstanding.

Note: Compare the HarborCenter, a 100% privately funded investment (a $200 million project that has two ice rinks, a fully-loaded hockey academy, a training center, a Marriott, retail outlets, a two-story sports bar, and a parking garage) to Olympia's Entertainment District arena, a shared private and public investment (approximately a 40-60 split to fund an approximately $450 million project). Hmm. Another story for another time.

This story caught my attention because the author kept using the one-word version (i.e. Detroit's nickname and the federally registered trademark) improperly. I call it improper because a trademark should not be used in a manner that strips itself of the source-identifying feature. It is possible that the author, like many people, did not realize that the little ® after "Hockeytown" means that this comes from Detroit Red Wings, Inc. on whatever protected ways the corporation uses the mark. While the name could be romanticized to have a city's metaphysical, intense passion associated with it, "Hockeytown" is not just some title to be passed around like the Stanley Cup year after year. Other cities can call themselves "a hockey town" or even a more pompous "THE hockey town" (shade intended in good fun, Ohio State), but "Hockeytown" is off limits in ways that most hockey franchises would want to utilize it.

Referring back to trademark law's purposes, "Hockeytown" tells consumers that this is not referring to the Buffalo Sabres or the Chicago Blackhawks. This refers to the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Red Wings only. By keeping it exclusive to Detroit, "Hockeytown" developed a reputation of high-level hockey filled with Wings Nut fanatics. The caveat, though, is that Detroit needs to maintain that reputation and police to check that it does not become a generic term to describe a city where a hockey team could be the heart. To simplify a long story, generally speaking, another city or another team cannot legally take the name "Hockeytown" so long as Detroit Red Wings, Inc. keeps its mark's status current and uses it in the market to serve and satisfy the source-identifying significance.

Reviving Strength in "Hockeytown"

Despite the ups and downs the team has seen the past decade or so, it is clear that the team and its fans are itching to live up to its source-identifying mark once again. The Original Six team's corporation has the rights so long as it keeps using it in commerce and so long as we still think "Detroit Red Wings" when we see "Hockeytown," but if we are not the top dog hockey town that we were when we first received federal protection in the late 1990s, then what is the point in holding onto a reputation that some could argue is no longer there? I beg to differ. Detroit is worthy of the romanticized mythical title and the legally valid reputation. On that note...

 Me and my beloved family getting to touch the second of the Detroit Red Wings' back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1998.

Me and my beloved family getting to touch the second of the Detroit Red Wings' back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1998.

 Some post-game fun celebrating a Detroit Red Wings win at The Detroiter in 2014.

Some post-game fun celebrating a Detroit Red Wings win at The Detroiter in 2014.

#LGRW