With the Sochi Olympics, the biggest-ever Winter Classic and a new Stadium Series, the National Hockey League (NHL) launches its most ambitious season since expansion on Tuesday, looking to regain lost momentum and fans.
For NHL players, winning an Olympic gold medal and having their names engraved on the Stanley Cup will be the big prizes this season, but for a league in recovery mode, there is much more is at stake.
After last year’s lockout-shortened campaign, the NHL is back with a full, action-packed 82-game schedule designed to put the league in the sporting spotlight and keep it there with a daring lineup of glossy events.
“One of the most important things to come out of the negotiations was 10 years of labor peace and that is allowing us to begin to execute the plans we have for growing the game and growing revenues,” NHL chief operating officer John Collins said.
“We’ve added a lot of blue chip partners on the broadcast and the sponsorship side, who said they like where the game is and like where it’s going and want to spend money promoting and activating around hockey. They need events like the Winter Classic and Stadium Series to do that,” Collins said.
From the great Olympic stage to an unconventional outdoor game in sunny Los Angeles, the NHL appears determined to leave no marketing stone unturned in an effort to rebuild its brand and repair the damage done by a bitter labor dispute.
A fresh start deserves a new look and the NHL has given itself a makeover for 2013-2014, moving from the old six-division format to four (Atlantic, Metropolitan, Central and Pacific), with the top three in each plus two wild cards in each conference making the playoffs.
The curtain goes up on Tuesday with a classic Original Six matchup in Montreal with the Canadiens facing off against the Toronto Maple Leafs, while the Stanley Cup champions Chicago Blackhawks meet the Washington Capitals and the Winnipeg Jets take on the Edmonton Oilers in another all-Canadian tilt.
However, there will be plenty of other dates circled on the hockey fans’ calendars, the biggest being the outdoor Winter Classic, which is expected to attract an NHL record crowd of 110,000 on New Year’s day at Michigan Stadium.
The NHL, more than any of North America’s four major professional leagues, has successfully traded on the romanticism of the sport’s past and will be counting on that appeal to help the league regain the momentum it lost during the lockout.
The Winter Classic began as a one-off novelty tribute to hockey’s outdoor roots, but has quickly grown into a marketing colossus that has brought the NHL unprecedented exposure.
Capitalizing on that appeal, the NHL has scheduled six outdoor games.
The outdoor extravaganza begins in Detroit on New Year’s Day with the Winter Classic between the Red Wings and Maple Leafs and ends with the Vancouver Canucks and Ottawa Senators squaring off in the Heritage Classic at BC Place, the venue used for the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
In between, the NHL will stage a four-game Stadium Series with contests at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, Soldier Field in Chicago and two games at New York City’s Yankee Stadium.
However, the most important hockey event of the year will take place in Sochi, the exotic Black Sea resort that will host next year’s Winter Games.