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Mike Cammalleri #13 of the Montreal Canadiens handles the puck against the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Wachovia Center on May 24, 2010 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Jim McIsaac/2010 Getty Images

Here's what you'll see in the NHL's $10-million (U.S.) ad campaign promoting its new season, which starts Thursday: A grim Sidney Crosby chucking around a 14-kilogram medicine ball while teetering atop a balance board, Alexander Ovechkin whipping a pair of thick tabata training ropes into a thunderous wave, and three other stars sweating and grunting as they heft weights and run skill drills to sharpen their co-ordination.

Here's what you won't see in the NHL's new ad effort: Hockey.

The campaign, which kicked off a six-week run across television, radio and the Internet over the weekend, consists of five intense spots in which the players seem to be trying to dispel the skeptical sports-radio chatter swirling around the new season.

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In one ad, Montreal Canadiens left winger Mike Cammalleri pushes a 160-kg. tractor tire end over end across a pockmarked outdoor basketball court as an AM-radio host invokes the team's improbable run to the conference final last spring. "I think it comes down to this: Did the Canadiens just get hot at the right time, or are they really that good?"

In another, Crosby seems to hear a host say, "This team clearly has the drive of a winner, but do they have the drive of a champion?" A third features Buffalo goaltender and Olympic silver medalist Ryan Miller throwing a pair of tennis balls sharply against an outdoor wall and catching them, as someone says: "I'll agree the Sabres are a solid, resilient team, but do you think they're a Stanley Cup contender?"

Each of the spots concludes with the text: "Questions will become answers."

The campaign also includes the Chicago Blackhawks' Jonathan Toews.

The gritty spots, which echo numerous apparel and sports-drink ads featuring professional basketball players returning to the inner-city courts of their youth, are an attempt to make the hockey players and the league more approachable.

"It's not about being in a shiny gym with the newest equipment," said Brian Jennings, the NHL's executive vice-president of marketing. "Our guys are hardcore, and they train where they can. These guys are real."

He added that the league is always looking to "get a player's helmet off and capture him in a different light."

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The emphasis on players' authenticity and humanity is an extension of the league's decision in recent years to take a page from other professional sports - notably the NBA and Olympics - and market their stars.

"Stars are what we call emotional anchors," said André Richelieu, a professor of sports marketing at Laval University. "They really crystallize the allegiance of fans to a team." They are also indispensable for merchandising.

In the past, the marketing of individuals has been complicated by hockey players' tendency to be more team oriented.

"The players are now more comfortable being in the spotlight with the media," Jennings said. "Now you have that dynamic where people are, like, I'm okay, I can be in a commercial and I won't be ridiculed in the locker room. They understand it's an important element to us growing the game, and those player personalities are going to help us do that unlike any other weapon you have in your marketing arsenal."

For those looking for signs of where the league's heart lies, the campaign will provide plenty of fodder, with its focus on players in five markets where there is a tradition of hockey: Montreal, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Washington and Buffalo.

"I believe it reflects the division the NHL has now, which means hockey is best played in regional strong markets and not necessarily under palm trees or in the desert," Richelieu said. "These are the stars and teams that sell hockey," rather than the U.S. Sunbelt, where the league's expansion has been focused for much of the last two decades.

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Still, the NHL did produce 30 individual spots for the campaign using stock footage and specially recorded audio tracks, one tailored for each market. The Toronto spot captures the bittersweet existence of Maple Leafs fans. "It's beginning to look more and more like the good times are right around the corner," the first radio host says. "You can see they're getting better and better in Toronto. They're building momentum." The second host replies: "So how far can that momentum take them?"

The league is on a bit of a marketing roll after its advertising campaign last season advised fans not to miss any Stanley Cup playoff games because, "History will be made." Its TV and online spots, which were created from game footage, sometimes only minutes after a play, prompted plenty of chatter on social media sites and inspired numerous parodies and tributes.

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