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Red mittens and Mukmuk: The unlikely success behind the 2010 Winter Olympics’ bestsellers

2010 Memories: Red mittens become surprise hit of Vancouver Winter Olympics
WATCH: There were many things that captured the Canadian feel of the 2010 games in Vancouver but few more than the maple leaf emblazoned woollen hand coverings put out by the Hudson's Bay Company. Squire Barnes looks back at what made them such a hit.

The most popular souvenir at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games were Hudson’s Bay red mittens. More than three million pairs were sold, making it the must-have item of the Vancouver 2010 Games.

Now considered an iconic part of the Games, Hudson’s Bay initially needed to be convinced to make the mittens part of their line of Olympic apparel.

“HBC didn’t actually like the idea,” former VANOC torch relay director Jim Richards said.

“They didn’t see the ability to sell red mittens. There’d been no market proof that mittens would sell.”

READ MORE: Vancouver should bid for 2030 Winter Olympics: former VANOC CEO

The idea for the red mittens, which featured a white maple leaf sewn onto the palm and the Olympic rings on the back, came from an entry in the contest to make a logo for the 2010 Games.

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“Among the concepts, there was this theme of winter sport, winter play, and we saw red mittens and we were like, ‘This doesn’t feel quite right for the logo, but let’s tuck that in the back of our brains,'” Ali Gardiner, VANOC’s former brand director, said.

Look back 2010: Creating the 2010 Olympic brand
Look back 2010: Creating the 2010 Olympic brand

After making their debut during the Olympic torch relay, the mittens quickly became bestsellers and received a publicity boost from Oprah Winfrey, who handed out pairs of mittens to ecstatic members of her studio audience.

“That became one of the huge retail successes and a big part of the sales of those mittens went to the Own the Podium program,” former VANOC deputy CEO Dave Cobb said.

“We raised $15 million for sport,” Richards added, “$15 million that never would have existed otherwise.”

READ MORE: How 2010’s Olympic torch relay started in Greece, ended with Wayne Gretzky in the back of a truck

There was another surprise success for VANOC: a Vancouver Island marmot named Mukmuk.

Vicki Wong and Michael Murphy, local artists who created the Octonauts children’s books and animated series, were initially hired to create three mascots for the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, but the pair suggested adding a fourth character as a sidekick.

Mukmuk quickly became as popular, if not more popular, than the Games’ mascots, Quatchi, Miga, and Sumi.

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“We had never asked for a sidekick,” Gardiner said. “And Mukmuk ends up being like a cult favourite.

“Everyone loved Mukmuk. It became apparent that we needed to actually produce a stuffy of Mukmuk, which we had not planned on doing.

READ MORE: John Furlong never wanted the VANOC CEO job. He was thrust into it anyway

“As soon as it was available at The Bay, it was just unbelievable how many were sold.”

That cartoon marmot, not to mention the red mittens, proved to be a cash cow for VANOC.

Cobb notes that $600 million of merchandise was sold, making it an “important part of funding the Games.”

— With files from Squire Barnes