As Calin Rovinescu watched the Boston Bruins' Zdeno Chara send Montreal Canadien Max Pacioretty to the ice with a sickening head shot on Tuesday night, he was seized with the realization that he had the power to change things.
The next morning, Air Canada's AC.B-T chief executive officer ordered up a letter that demanded the National Hockey League end its passive stance toward player safety, backed by a threat that the airline would pull its sponsorship unless the NHL took measures to protect its players.
He was not alone in his disgust at the incident. The hit that reached the halls of Parliament this week is now ricocheting around Canada's advertising community after the airline's missive, sent out on the letterhead of Denis Vandal, the company's director of marketing and communications, called on the NHL to "protect both the players and integrity of the game," before its inaction causes "a fatality."
But the league lashed out at the airline on Thursday for meddling in its internal matters, and suggested it could take its business elsewhere. Air Canada is now refusing further comment on the issue.
In an era when brands are falling over themselves to be seen as good, ethically-minded citizens, the incident offers a case study of how quickly things can go wrong for a company that isn't prepared to back up its feelings with bold action.
Air Canada considered the letter to be private correspondence, and doesn't want to discuss it publicly, even though the story has blossomed into a major national discussion on hockey violence.
The airline flies all six Canadian NHL teams and five U.S. clubs.
The carrier's management is defending Mr. Vandal internally, and didn't intend for the letter to be leaked after it was sent to the NHL and six Canadian team governors.
But now that it's out, marketing experts said the airline needs to disengage from its public relations autopilot and chart a new course. "If you're going to start a debate, you have to be ready to join the debate," said Alfred Dupuy, the executive director of the brand consulting firm Interbrand Canada. By refusing to fill the role it created, the airline, "loses the opportunity to really clarify the brand."
To be fair, Air Canada is not alone in shunning the spotlight. Perhaps with an eye to the NHL's notoriously strong control over its image - the league fines marketing partners who speak publicly without prior authorization - other sponsors quietly refused comment on the matter.
Labatt and Visa Canada both said they do not involve themselves in the administration of their sports partners, while PepsiCo said simply it had no plans to alter its sponsorship of the league or the players' association. The law firm Ogilvy Renault LLP, which markets itself by purchasing naming rights and banners at the Air Canada Centre, declined to comment on the controversy. The law firm also acts for the NHL.
Molson, which will replace Labatt as a sponsor at the end of the current season, was cautiously more vocal. "We would obviously have any concern if hockey was tarnished, but Molson Canadian is firmly on the side of hockey," said Peter Nowlan, the brewer's chief marketing officer.
The issue has cropped up at an awkward moment for the league as it continues a push to reposition itself as a family-friendly sport. In late January, it unveiled a campaign with the Huggies diaper brand to help raise funds for underprivileged families, while last month some of its current and former stars were used in a campaign by the personal hygiene brand Dove Men + Care outlining the athletes' "journey to comfort."
The current season kicked off with an advertising campaign featuring some of hockey's greatest athletes - Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, Mike Cammalleri, Ryan Miller, and Jonathan Toews - out of uniform, playing up their authenticity and humanity.
But that image has suffered as the players themselves have fallen prey to concussions and other injuries.
"Right now, the brand image and brand identity of the NHL is pretty much nurtured by violence," said André Richelieu, a professor of sports marketing at Laval University, who said the league was undervaluing its greatest assets. "When you have Sidney Crosby, Ovechkin, Malkin and others, you have the potential to build around these superstars - the thrill they bring to the game, the excitement. This is what you should value."
Norm O'Reilly, a professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in sports marketing, said companies must evaluate whether their core customers would be more likely to value their association with the sport, or be more upset about issues such as head injuries.
"From a marketing perspective, it's all about images that each potential consumer has in their mind," he said. "You love the sport, you love everything that's happening, but one issue, one incident, does have the ability to take away support of the league and by association, the [positive image of the]sponsor. So it is a concern," he said.
One of Canada's leading ad buyers echoed the point. "I think clients are getting very, very concerned, because the fans are concerned and the players are getting hurt," said the buyer, who preferred to remain anonymous because sponsorship is ultimately a client matter. "I think in the last 24 hours, the whole marketing industry is certainly aware and involved, and anybody associated with hockey can feel the weight of the story."
The buyer added that, while Air Canada was remaining mum in the wake of the letter's revelation, the airline still has a chance to lead a conversation that Canadians have declared to be important.
"I think it's going to be interesting for Air Canada. There would be a lot of people who would think that was a great statement - bold and brash. Maybe it'll make a difference."
Other sponsors tread lightly
While Air Canada sparred with the NHL over the controversial hit on Montréal Canadiens player Max Pacioretty, other sponsors are treading much more lightly.
Tim Hortons Inc. features Sidney Crosby prominently in its ads. The NHL star's recent head injuries have helped bring the issue of violence in the game to the fore in the sport. The company did not threaten its sponsorship, but did express concerns about the problem.
"Tim Hortons encourages the NHL, the teams and general managers and the NHL Players' Association to continue to work towards addressing concerns with head injuries," the company said in a statement Thursday.
BCE Inc., which is a marketing partner of the NHL, and holds a minority stake in the Montréal Canadiens as well as sponsoring their home arena the Bell Centre, expressed concerns but supported the league.
"Bell is fully behind the Canadiens' plan to engage all NHL owners and the league in addressing safety concerns as quickly as possible," the company said. "Bell agrees that player safety is paramount, and we are confident in the NHL's willingness and ability to effectively manage the issue."
Bank of Nova Scotia, which holds naming rights on the home arenas for both the Ottawa Senators and the Calgary Flames, also expressed concerns but did not suggest it would sever ties with the league.
"Scotiabank will continue to work with the NHL, and the NHLPA to educate future generations of hockey players on respect, safety and team work, and we do this through skills clinics at a minor hockey level … Our approach is to be very active in the educational area on concussion and drive moral passion on this issue," the company said.
Visa and Katz Group (which owns the Rexall drug store chain that has naming rights to the Edmonton Oilers' arena and also owns the team) declined to comment on the issue.
The law firm Ogilvy Renault LLP, which markets itself by purchasing naming rights and banners at the Air Canada Centre, declined to comment. The law firm also acts for the NHL.
Canadian Tire said in a statement that it is committed to "safe play" through skills camps it runs for kids in association with the NHL. The company would not comment on whether it had contacted the league or their reaction to the controversy.
"As fans of the game, we support all efforts associated with keeping players safe," Rogers Communications Inc. said in a statement. The company has its name on the Vancouver Canucks' arena.
Esso parent company Imperial Oil, which sponsors all of the Canadian NHL teams, as well as Hockey Canada and minor league hockey, said it is "watching the situation closely." Spokesman Jon Harding said he is "not aware" of any communication between Imperial and the NHL with regard to headshot rules.