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Fans react to a hit in the corner during the first period of the game between the Ottawa Senators and the Buffalo Sabres inside the JL Grightmie Arena in Dundas, On. - Kraft Hockeyville on Sept. 28, 2010.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Kraft Hockeyville may be a ghost town, but while the National Hockey League's labour dispute has put the program and scores of other sponsors in limbo, Kraft Foods Inc. is launching a new program to stay connected with its hockey-loving customers.

On Tuesday, the company announced that it has reallocated its NHL sponsorship money to the Kraft Hockey Goes On contest, which will launch on Jan. 21. It will focus on rewarding five hockey volunteers across Canada, and will spend a total of $1-million on the project.

When the winners are announced in March, each will have $100,000 donated on his or her behalf to the local minor hockey association. There will be 20 additional runners-up who will snag $20,000. The money can be used toward paying for ice time, equipment, or subisidizing families for whom involvement in hockey for their children is a financial burden. The company will also donate $100,000 to Hockey Canada's "learn to skate" program.

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The change in strategy for Kraft reflects the larger struggle among NHL sponsors to keep their brands in front of target customers without the vehicle of the nationally beloved sport. Kraft had been working with agencies to develop an alternative program, knowing that if the lockout continued beyond Nov. 15, it would not have the time necessary to run the contest as it has in previous years.

"It goes back to our consumer research … moms are telling us, 'Invest in our children's programs and communities,'" said Jack Hewitt, vice-president of marketing at Kraft Canada.

Hockeyville was also done in partnership with the CBC in the past – the company is working with a media partner on the new campaign as well, thought Mr. Hewitt could not identify that partner yet. If the season does resume at some point, advertising dollars will be shifted to promote the program alongside hockey games as it has done for Hockeyville in the past.

Kraft is not the only company adopting this approach. Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd. has also been emphasizing its connection with local hockey – the company supports thousands of community teams across the country, which is helpful for its marketing efforts.

And this month it posted a video of an event where minor hockey players were given a chance to play on the ice at the arenas that are usually home to the Toronto Maple Leafs and Calgary Flames. The events were hosted by its subsidiary, FGL Sports, which runs the Sport Chek chain – a team sponsor. Canadian Tire is a national NHL sponsor.

In October, Canadian Tire hosted a media event it called "the hockey house," where it showcased its equipment and products in a house in Toronto to show how its products are part of the family's involvement in the sport. It also showed off tips for hockey families about cleaning hockey gear, building a rink in the backyard, and quick pre-game meal ideas. The parents of Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, a spokesman, were also involved in the event.

"Hockey is a real draw, there's no doubt about it. It's an important conversation across the country and we're missing that for sure," said Landon French, vice-president of sponsorship and community relations and events for Canadian Tire.

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The NHL's season kickoff event, which happened last year in Winnipeg, was particularly helpful for regional exposure, Mr. French said, and the retailer usually does contest promotions and other events centred around the NHL Winter Classic and All Star exhibition games.

"A lot of that has just gone by the wayside," he said.

However, sponsors say they are not reconsidering their ties with the NHL – most are locked into long-term contracts, and even if they were not, Canadians' love of hockey makes the property too good to pass up for most. That being said, some marketers have openly expressed their frustration with the lockout, including Molson Coors Brewing Co., whose chief executive officer has said he will seek "financial compensation" – presumably above and beyond the sponsorship money that the league returns to sponsors for the season disruption – because of lost sales opportunities at venues, and in bars where people gather to watch the game.

For now, Molson Coors also says it is focusing on community events – as well as other sports.

"We're focusing our sponsorship attention on other levels of hockey, like our partnerships with Hockey Canada, major junior and the AHL," spokeswoman Julie Gathercole said in an e-mail. "We are also looking at all of the other great ways to connect with our Canadian beer drinkers. One Canadian pastime coming up that we're particularly excited about is the 100th Grey Cup. Our link to the Canadian Football League is longstanding, and our team is looking forward to helping them celebrate their anniversary milestone in style."

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