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Marketing master must figure out how to regain NHL’s mojo

Now that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners have pulled back from complete destruction of the season, it is up to John Collins to pick up the pieces.

The league's chief operating officer and marketing guru has the toughest job in hockey now, along with every executive on most of the league's 30 teams who is in charge of selling tickets. Collins became the fair-haired boy among the NHL governors due to his success in repairing the damage of the previous lockout when he was hired away from the NFL in 2006.

Thanks to Collins's work building the Winter Classic to the same status in fans' eyes as the Stanley Cup final, attracting new sponsors and re-signing existing ones to better deals, plus growth on the digital side, the NHL enjoyed record revenue right up to the moment the owners locked out the players last Sept. 15. Now, he has to do it all over again with none of the advantages he had seven years ago.

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Collins does not get the bounce of a new version of the game thanks to new rules and philosophies following the 2004-05 lockout. His signature event, the Winter Classic, which was supposed to be the biggest and best ever with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings playing in front of 115,000 fans at the University of Michigan's Big House, was cancelled a month ago. So was the NHL all-star game, along with 510 regular-season games.

Even worse, Collins and his counterparts with each NHL team are facing a seething group of fans, sponsors and business partners.

"There's been damage done and we've got some work to do to heal some of those wounds," said Jim Rutherford, the Carolina Hurricanes' president and general manager. He counts himself lucky the Hurricanes lost only 7 per cent of their season-ticket holders.

With a 48-game season expected to begin Jan. 19 once the players finish their ratification vote on the new collective agreement on Saturday and training camps open the next day, the best thing the NHL and its teams can do is keep quiet and play. Individual apologies to the fans from the players are fine, since none of the three lockouts under Bettman was their idea, but the league had better not entertain any ideas like the cheesy "Thank you fans" that was painted on the ice in NHL rinks when it resumed business after the 2004-05 lockout. Just shut up and play.

Well, ticket discounts might be a good idea. And NHL GameCenter, its online broadcasting service, should be offered free.

No one will blame Collins if he went back to work with a sour taste in his mouth. Or if he decides to chuck it and take one of those jobs with another team or in another sport the hockey gossips say he is always being offered.

Shortly before the lockout last summer, Collins made a presentation to a group of owners and players about his plans to give last season's record revenue of $3.3-billion (all currency U.S.) a nice bump over the next couple of years. ESPN.com reported Collins thought the league could add $300-million in new revenue in the next three years with things like more outdoor games, a refurbished World Cup of Hockey, growth in digital media and in Europe. Surveys that showed NHL fans were more engaged and loyal than ever were cited, great news for a league that struggles to attract the casual fan in the United States.

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On the local level, teams like the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues had new ownership and were hopeful their improvement on the ice would revive sales in what used to be great hockey markets. The Colorado Avalanche were also looking for a bounce with a promising young team. The Florida Panthers were counting on their first playoff appearance in 10 years to finally spark some interest.

And the Los Angeles Kings, after decades of sporadic success in gaining prominence in the second-most important U.S. market in the league, won a Stanley Cup. Then came the lockout a few weeks later.

Sound familiar? In 1994, the New York Rangers won their first Cup since 1940 and ignited the biggest media market in North America. Hockey was declared the coolest game on earth. Then came Bettman's first lockout.

"I'm sure fans are upset and I don't blame them a bit," Stars president Jim Lites said. "We have to win back their trust."

That win will be a long time coming.

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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