Rye Simonett flops onto the couch excitedly, wearing pajamas, fuzzy slippers and a Maple Leafs jersey. The nine-year-old boy thumbs on his iPod Touch, checking an app for the latest National Hockey League standings and stats, as his six-year-old brother Wilson tumbles onto the sofa beside him, doing the same.
The Simonett boys are deeply passionate about the Toronto Maple Leafs. They have waited and waited, and now for the first time in their lives, these hockey-loving kids are about to experience their hometown team in the playoffs.
In 2004, the last time the Leafs made the NHL post-season, Ed Belfour, Mats Sundin and Gary Roberts were the stars – and Rye was just a newborn. Now, hockey-crazed youngsters across the GTA have the ability to engage with the team in ways that were unimaginable nine years ago. Many of them weren't born or were too young to remember the last time, but the Leafs have become skilled at making their brand ever-available at the fingertips of young fans.
Coaching troubles, player turnover, blunders by management and underachieving on the ice made the Leafs the only team in the NHL to not make the playoffs between the lockouts of 2004-05 and 2012-13.
In 2011, ESPN named Toronto the worst sports city in North American due to its underperforming franchises. While a drought like that would devastate many franchises, the Maple Leafs kept selling out games while the TV audience continued to grow and diversify.
In 2004, the Leafs had been making consistent playoff appearances, so there was little in the way of a playoff marketing push. But after nine years without a playoff spot, they've had to change their game.
For one thing, they have acted on market research about the diversity of their audience. Reaching the children of immigrants has been key, making them into lifelong fans with the message that hockey is part of Canadian values. (The rise of young centre Nazem Kadri, a practicing Muslim whose parents immigrated from Lebanon, has helped.) This message resonates at community events, such as public skating events with the players.
"The demographic of the city has changed, and while the Leafs' in-game audience hasn't changed much, the team's ability to connect more has changed," said sports marketing expert Brian Cooper, President and CEO of S & E Sponsorship Group. "When you haven't made the playoffs in this many years, you do everything affordable to you to communicate with fans and keep that connection."
Mr. Cooper says MLSE is the most savvy of Canada's pro sports organizations, "from the fan research they do to the technology they employ." He cites the extensive programming on Leafs TV, an effective social-media and web strategy, and the way the team uses the LED screens within the ACC. (The messages keep coming, even in the bathrooms.)
The most obvious difference in watching hockey from 2004 to today is the technology. The last time the Leafs danced in the postseason, few were watching video on a smartphone – the iPhone's launch was three years away. The iPad's 2010 debut was far off. There was no Twitter, and few had heard of The Facebook, as it was known when it launched that year at Harvard University. Hockey broadcasts in high definition were just starting out – believe it or not, the Leafs are about to play their first-ever playoff game in HD.
"Facebook was three months old the last time we were in the playoffs," said MLSE Vice President of Sales and Marketing Dave Hopkinson. "Price has always been a barrier to getting kids into the arena, and games are often late and past their bedtime. But now kids are in the thick of it because they can engage in their own spaces. They are creating their own fan pages, Tweeting with their own hashtags, having their say and consuming the aspects of the game they like best on their iPads and iPhones."
The new Maple Leaf Square outside the ACC, with retail and restaurants like the always-packed Real Sports bar, has become a hub for fans, which will make this playoff experience new outside the rink. The Leafs plan to put bleachers out so fans can gather and watch on the jumbo screen.
While selling tickets remains the Leafs' top priority, they are also dedicated to growing the larger audience by getting players out into the community and bringing on sponsors that go beyond the obvious guy-driven brands. Scotiabank is a major sponsor, and recently promoted a girls' hockey festival; the Leafs have also partnered up with the Toronto Furies of the Canadian Women's Hockey League.
Since bedtime for the Simonett kids arrives before the second period most nights, they scamper downstairs to their iPods in the mornings to check results and watch video highlights.
Their love for hockey comes from parents Tracy D'Cruz and Geoff Simonett, longtime fans and hockey players. Four-year-old sister Ally, decked out in her own Leafs jersey, says she's taking up hockey soon too. The boys play select hockey, which can mean up to 10 trips to the rink per week for the family. They still find time for things like piano, soccer and playing their favourite NHL'ers on the Wii, which was two years away from its launch when the Leafs last made the playoffs.
"I think the technology has made their experience with the team very personal," their mother, Ms. D'Cruz, says. "They're not really browsing online yet, but they love using apps, and they feel like they are right there with the team even though we don't go to Leafs games because it's so expensive, and we're not sure they would have the attention span for it just yet."
Longtime hockey fans Tanya and Joe Latham have three sons also experiencing hometown playoff fever for the first time. Their sons Jacob, 13 and Josh, 12, were too young to remember 2004, while eight-year-old Jordan wasn't born yet. All select hockey players who spend countless hours at the rink – the oldest even coached by Leafs great Wendel Clark – they turn to their iPhones and iPads constantly.
"We're in hockey pools, so we always want to be online checking to see who scored," said Josh, taking in a game on TV in their Toronto home.
They appear amazed when told neither the iPad nor the iPhone was around during Toronto's last trip to the playoffs. They look blankly as their mom mentions some of the 2004 players. They're psyched to watch their Leaf favourites like Mr. Kadri play meaningful hockey this time of year.
"Before, my mom would sometimes say 'Here we go again, we're gonna be disappointed, we've seen them lose so many times,' but this time the Leafs are in," said Jacob. "It's pretty shocking, actually, and I'm pretty happy."