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On Jan. 6, the NHL ended its 113-day lockout with the announcement that hockey would return Jan. 19. Canadians reunited around TV with a record-breaking 3,317,000 viewers watching Hockey Night in Canada for the first game of the season. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield even dropped the puck from space for Toronto's home opener on Monday.

For almost four months, talk of hockey and the lockout dominated the news. However, unlike the last lockout in 2004-2005, this time around it wasn't just traditional media coverage.

Fans, players and almost everyone else voiced their opinions online as negotiations dragged on. Social media platforms allowed a greater variety of voices to participate in the conversation. It was used for support, outrage, updates and, finally, the big announcement that had #NHL trending on Twitter.

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What made this lockout different was how social media offered insight into just how much Canadians were missing their sport.

And some brands were paying attention. This year's hockey season demonstrated the importance of knowing a good opportunity when it's in front of you, and the unexpected results it can create.

Throughout the lockout, and as it ended, many brands saw an opportunity to connect with consumers on an emotional level. Here are a few examples:

Own the moment

Equipment supplier Bauer Performance Sports Ltd. launched its Own the Moment brand campaign in October to connect emotionally with consumers by highlighting special moments with which hockey fans relate. The campaign, which is still running, has engaged with consumers by asking them to submit videos of their "moments" for a chance to be featured in an upcoming Bauer global television commercial.

Bauer has leveraged social media for its campaign with an official #OWNTHEMOMENT hashtag on Twitter. As hockey fans took to social media during the lockout, Bauer gave them another opportunity to connect and share their voices.

Hockey is ours:

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Nike Inc.'s latest ad campaign, Hockey is Ours, went viral shortly before the lockout ended. The ad appealed to people's emotions and the notion that hockey is engrained in Canadians. It played on our pride, determination and commitment to the sport, with or without the lockout. Nike saw an opportunity to tie its brand to these values in a way with which Canadians could relate and connect.

It wasn't just the lockout that presented opportunities for brands to engage with consumers. With the return of hockey this week, consumer-focused initiatives aksi caught my eye.

#Hockeyisback

Following the end of the lockout, the NHL was quick to share a video promoting the return of hockey in Canada and its official #hockeyisback hashtag. Similar to Nike's ad, the video content appealed to Canadians' emotional connection to the sport.

Whether you're a hockey fan or not, after you've watched the video, you can't help but share in the excitement that Canada's sport has returned. It's not about hockey, it's about a feeling that is uniting Canadians. The NHL captured it in this video at exactly the right time.

Frozen jerseys

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Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. surprised Toronto Maple Leafs fans in their hometown last Friday morning with Leafs jerseys frozen in ice scattered around the city. Below each jersey read "The passion that unites us all," carved into the frozen blocks.

The Leafs found a clever way to leverage the excitement shared by fans in their hometown on the heels of hockey's return. The creative and timely stunt engaged fans and influenced positive conversations online through social sharing.

Free entry, free food

The Calgary Flames were one of many teams that held open practices last week, offering fans a free and early taste of hockey before the season officially kicked off. It was a small gesture that made a strong impact. It was excellent customer service, especially considering the lockout left a bitter taste in some fans' mouths.

The Ottawa Senators and Molson Coors Brewing Co. offer another example of brands that jumped at the opportunity to create more excitement with hockey's return. The brands partnered to offer one free 14-ounce Molson Canadian draft to each fan at the Senators' first game of the season. Those under legal drinking age were offered a free cola fountain drink instead.

Again, it was simple but smart. Beer is so closely tied to hockey in Canada. The partnership made sense and was timed perfectly.

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Hockey fans have been waiting anxiously for months and these brands saw an opportunity to say 'thank you' to their loyal fans. The last-minute return of hockey gave teams the chance to show their appreciation to fans and strengthen that relationship.

Timing is key for any marketing strategy. Companies are often so busy planning for the right time that they don't notice what's happening right in front of them. Pay attention. Sometimes the best opportunities for a brand are the ones it least expects.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Mia Pearson is the co-founder of North Strategic. She has more than two decades of experience in creating and growing communications agencies, and her experience spans many sectors, including financial, technology, consumer and lifestyle.

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