Thirty years ago we had the Miracle on Ice, and the sports world waited as Jim Craig, the triumphant U.S. goaltender, prepped for his NHL debut with the Atlanta Flames a week later. Coke made Craig the branding darling of the Olympics, and thousands of kids rushed out to buy hockey sticks across the country to try and relive the win of the Russians. However at that time the NHL was suffering from a lack of aggressive leadership and branding at the top…coverage was not great outside of home markets, there was no social or online experience to expand the moment, and only a percentage of the great young Americans went on to have productive NHL careers, many of whom didn’t gel for a few years and were not ready for the bright lights of the top level of professional hockey at that point. It was a great moment which has lived on, but a moment in the history of the star-crossed sport of hockey in the U.S.
So we fast forward to now…a time when the NHL has looked at and been successful at, virtually every digital initiative possible to grow its audience. It has built the Winter Classic as the greatest of regular season sporting events, and has a host of young international stars who can help the sport finally reach a new audience. Sunday night's terrif rating for US-Canada, and the storybook ending to the game, exposed millions of casual fans to the game, many of whom did not know Sidney Crosby from Sidney Greenstreet or Ryan Miller from Miller Beer before the games began. Even with the success, the spectre of not shutting down the NHL for two weeks for Sochi 2014 still is out there, so not just the NHL, but hockey as a sport, is again at a crossroads for growth. Where will it g.? Will it go anywhere or will hockey just get the halo effect of success that Lindsay Vonn or Claudia Mancuso will get, before we move on to something else to capture our spirit and imaginatio.
Well hockey has perhaps the biggest advantage and is posied for a larger, extended glow than any other winter star can ever have here in North America. It has a real season that is going on…with fans and television and radio and hours of media coverage already going on. Theyhave brands that are tied to teams that can help boost the Olympic reminder with local audiences, and smart marketing and sales teams which can package that moment of Olympic success…not just for the Canadians but really for all who participated in the tournament…and re-sell it not just to their die-hards but to an audience which loves the rings and what they have stood for for the last few weeks. Yes the focus for the NHL clunbs has to now be on the playoffs and the Stanle. Cup, but those selling the game, from the Federations to the minors to the grassroots to the NHL teams, need to take every advantage to extend that brand window and make sure that every possible person in the market get a chance to somehow…in person, digitally, virtually…take part in the after-effect of Vancouver. The NHL has made a business like no other sport of parading their Stanley Cup to far outposts with their athletes during the offseason, and they should do the same with every piece of the Olympic experience with those who participated. Perhaps there is a feeling that if they glean off the Olympic experience too much they will have to push back on whatever plans are in place for not shutting down for Sochi. However for a sport that needs a build right now, the short term assistance and ability to expand brand and participation has to be taken advantage of. Sochi is four years away, teams and the sport need the boost now, or some may never get to 2014. Thirty years ago a very unique window was opened for hockey. Some got through before it closed, but it did indeed close and those at the top have struggled to slowly, steadily reopen it and set the sport up for a higher level of exposure and success. The window, for better or worse is again open. Hopefully this time it will not close for the great game.