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NHL is hoping to reach out to fans with its marketing strategy

The NHL doesn't want to rely on anyone else to convey a message to its fans.

The league's marketers are constantly trying to directly engage the 53 million people that research shows are supporters of the NHL. Its approach can be seen in the increased digital content available on the NHL's revamped website and in its new national marketing campaign.

"We have to work hard every day to earn their trust," said Brian Jennings, the NHL's executive vice-president of marketing. "Us in the marketing department feel an obligation to be the voice of the fans inside the walls of the National Hockey League."

The newest ad campaign - dubbed "Is This The Year?" - reflects that.

Sidney Crosby, Dion Phaneuf, Patrick Kane and Henrik Lundqvist are all featured in their own TV spots as part of the campaign. In each one, the player emerges from a still image taken last season and talks about what will be driving him this year.

The most compelling is the one featuring Crosby, where he steps out from a photo taken at the Penguins bench right after they lost the final game of the Stanley Cup. In the ad, Crosby says he never wants to be in that photograph again but knows the experience will make his team stronger this season.

It's a feeling fans in Pittsburgh know well.

"What this campaign really represents is the hopes and possibilities and anticipation for the start of the new season," said Jennings.

In addition to the four national spots, the league has created two customized ads for each team - one focusing on a player, the other on a general team-wide storyline.

For example, the Edmonton Oilers player-specific ad shows a montage of Sam Gagner photos and ends with the tagline: "Some say hope comes from within. Others say it comes from London, Ontario."

Part of the thinking behind putting the focus on players is to get fans watching NHL games to see individuals rather than just teams.

"We need to start to create that type of incremental behaviour in our fan base," said Jennings. "That's really what we're targeting towards there."

It's part of a recent trend for a league that seems to be marketing its players more than ever before. Commissioner Gary Bettman chalks the shift up to better relations between the league and the NHL Players' Association.

"I think because we have more co-operation than we've ever had before, our ability to involve the players has increased exponentially," said Bettman.

The NHLPA is fairly pleased with the job the league has done of marketing the players, according to executive director Paul Kelly.

It's a strategy that he believes makes perfect sense, judging by the success other professional sports leagues have had with it.

"When you market the players, you have a much better chance of attracting fans to the game and giving people a reason to come, particularly young fans," said Kelly. "When the NBA focused on Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, that's what drew people into the game.

"Football does a very good job of focusing on Peyton Manning and Tom Brady and these guys. Those personalities becomes icons to youthful fans and they plaster their walls with their pictures and they convince their families to support the sport."

Fans of the NHL can now watch streaming video of up to four games through the league's website. The redesign also places more emphasis on video and picture content along with real-time stats.

Meantime, the league is trying to boost its NHL Centre Ice out-of-market TV subscriptions, again with the focus on fans controlling their experience with the game.

One place that Kelly believes the league needs to improve is its representation in popular culture. He'd liked to see players make more appearances on popular TV programs and in magazines.

"We represent a large number of young, handsome guys who are incredibly polite and well-mannered," said Kelly. "They make excellent role models. For large corporate advertisers, companies that are looking for spokespersons that they can be proud of to represent the company and their products, there's a large number of NHL players that I think would be terrific spokespersons."

He won't get any disagreement from the league there.

"The one thing that we always recognize is that our players are our greatest asset," said Jennings. "They are the storytellers. What they do on the ice every night is really where the storylines are coming out of."



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