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Toronto Maple Leafs fans (L-R) Mo Juma, Todd Nicholl and Ryan Snow react to the New Jersey Devils game tying goal in the final second of regulation play at Gretzky's restaurant in Toronto, April 8, 2007. (J.P. MOCZULSKI for The Globe and Mail)
Toronto Maple Leafs fans (L-R) Mo Juma, Todd Nicholl and Ryan Snow react to the New Jersey Devils game tying goal in the final second of regulation play at Gretzky's restaurant in Toronto, April 8, 2007. (J.P. MOCZULSKI for The Globe and Mail)

USUAL SUSPECTS

Trying to sell hockey to Canadians Add to ...

For John Collins, the epiphany on his road from NFL executive to chief operating officer of the NHL occurred in a bar this time last year. Wayne Gretzky’s bar in downtown Toronto, to be precise. Collins was meeting with Dave Perkins, the CEO of Molson’s, to discuss opportunities with Coors, the company with which the NHL signed a 2011 marketing deal worth $375-million (all currency U.S.) over seven years. As Collins looked around the memorabilia-laden bar, something was missing.

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“There wasn’t one piece of [Stanley Cup]point-of-sale material anywhere,” Collins says in his office overlooking Avenue of the Americas. Not Labatt’s, the NHL sponsor at the time, nor Molson’s, sponsor of individual teams.

“You’re sitting in Wayne Gretzky’s and it’s unbelievable,” Collins adds. “In the NFL, you’d expect your sponsor to be blowing it out in every single bar across the country, and your non-partner would be activating buying media time because they feel like they have to be part of this. You wouldn’t go into a bar across the country in [NFL]playoffs where there wouldn’t be point-of-sale material, tent cards. You expected it to happen in Canada, and it didn’t.”

Collins then brandishes his pièce de résistance: draft-beer pull handles with Molson’s and NHL writ large for this year’s playoffs. It’s a start. But in Collins’s marketing soul, he’s saying that hockey, the holy grail of Canadian culture, is being undersold. We see saturation; he sees low-hanging fruit.

To prove his point, Collins pulls out a poll showing that 64 per cent of Canadians surveyed said they won’t be watching the playoffs that closely or at all. In Quebec, where the Montreal Canadiens missed the playoffs, interest has plummeted to just 20 per cent this spring. “I know they’re looking forward to the changes the Canadiens are going to make for next season, [but]they’re turning the lights off on hockey. For a business guy, that’s a challenge. I understand it, but I don’t accept it.”

The 51-year-old wants nothing less than to turn Canada’s parochial hockey culture, rooted in the seven Canadian teams, into a broad-based embrace of the NHL shield. “I know I’m a New York [expletive]telling Canadians how they feel about hockey,” Collins says with a laugh. “As big as the game is in Canada, I look at the numbers and I still say there’s possibilities to grow.”

Previous NHL executives have foundered on this rock of Canadian obtuseness. If Toronto misses the postseason, as it has for seven years, people who identify as fervent hockey fans simply find other things to do. But Collins is not to be trifled with. After 15 years at NFL Films, the Cleveland Browns and the NFL’s head office as senior vice-president of marketing and sales, Collins has overseen a sea change in NHL promotion since arriving as COO in 2008.

From dorky marketing afterthought that unerringly imploded, Collins and his team have transformed the NHL with the Winter/Heritage Classics, HBO’s 24/7, the NHL awards show in Las Vegas, Face Off in Toronto and a host of online initiatives. The league was into YouTube and Twitter well before other leagues. After signing a 10-year, $2-billion deal with NBC Universal, the NHL’s U.S. TV ratings are soaring the past two years. Advertisers actually like these guys in spite of the fighting and violence. There’s a sense of momentum not seen in the NHL since the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994.

Now Collins has turned his marketing eye to the brooding, chauvinistic beast of Canadian hockey, where Hockey Night in Canada is the No. 1 brand and the NHL logo is fifth or sixth on the list. “We feel like the NHL was undervalued in Canada, there’s more here,” he says. “We have to respect what HNIC means, the way Monday Night Football means in America. But now there’s Football Night in America on Sundays, and it’s the best-rated program on national TV. Beats American Idol, The Voice, everything.”

If Canadian networks hoping to keep the NHL TV contract are listening, Collins is saying that things change.

“I see a lot of parallels between Americans and football and Canadians with hockey,” he says. “CBC wants as many Leafs games on Saturday night, because people watch them. Just the way ABC would have taken Dallas-Washington every week on Monday Night Football.” But this concentration has a downside come playoff time. “If the Leafs aren’t there for CBC, the Canadiens aren’t there for RDS, we can’t have Canadian fans turning off the lights, going to the cottage.

“How we change that is tell more stories, give more balanced coverage of the other teams around the league so people who are interested in that can have it. It’s not a criticism of our current partners. TSN does hockey as well or better than anybody. But you’re watching trade deadline day and they say, ‘Let’s talk about how the seven Canadian clubs are in the Rick Nash sweepstakes.’ I understand it, but as somebody responsible for the shield, it should be a unifying force in Canada, not a bureaucracy in a New York office.”

To illustrate his point about the value of telling stories, Collins cites HBO’s successful 24/7 documentaries, which go behind the scenes with teams. “Here in New York, we have only one radio show that regularly talks hockey. But with the Rangers in the playoffs, everyone’s talking hockey. So the guy this week was talking about Brian Boyle [of the Rangers]and how he was one of seven or eight kids. And he’d seen that on 24/7. That’s just one example. I have a lot of experience with NFL Films where that played out.”

The good news is that the seemingly intractable U.S.-Canada gulf in the NHL is changing after the record U.S. TV ratings for last year’s Vancouver-Boston final. “The historical view had been you need two big U.S. markets in any of these games to pop a number,” Collins says. “In this case, the best hockey won out. It was so compelling people forgot about their own teams and joined in. It opens up an opportunity to do more with NBC to make them less reliant on U.S. matchups. It also allows us to go back to our Canadian partners and go, ‘See. It can work.’ It led directly to scheduling Toronto and Detroit for the Winter Classic in 2013.”

Now if John Collins can just get that on a tent card.

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