Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The run to the Stanley Cup: nothing compares to it

A year ago yesterday, the Chicago Blackhawks had just opened the Stanley Cup Final round against the Philadelphia Flyers. They beat the Flyers 6-5 on home ice before a home crowd of 22,312 in a wild game where both teams' first lines went -16 (with zero points among the 31 total), and the 11 goals were scored by 10 different players. Worth noting - it was the first time 11 goals had been scored in a Final game since 1992; the feat would be repeated eight days later in Game 5.

The discussion last year was all about how the goalies weren't going to be the difference in this Final series. Michael Leighton, who had once played for the Blackhawks but now was manning the goal for Philadelphia, was in the net opposite Antti Niemi, the rookie who had usurped the Chicago starting goalie job from Cristobal Huet. In the end, of course, it was about the goaltending, as Niemi stoned the Flyers in Game 6 OT, and Patrick Kane netted the winning goal through a seemingly impossible angle on Leighton's five-hole.

This year, it's all about the goaltenders, as Vezina finalists Tim Thomas (Bruins) and Roberto Luongo (Canucks) face off starting Wednesday in Vancouver. The teams have gone a collective 79 years without a Cup - Boston last won it in 1972, and Vancouver has never won it in their 40 years of team history. This year, one of those massive droughts will end, and a team, a city, a fanbase, (and if it's the Canucks, a country) will celebrate the Stanley Cup victory in the same way that Chicago did last year when 49 years of waiting came to an end.

Luongo and Thomas both enter the Final round with 12 wins and 2 shutouts in 18 games played. They bear matching GAAs of 2.29, although Thomas's sv% is slightly higher, .929 to Luongo's .922. Many have pointed to the Canucks as the more formidable team to beat; but in the single matchup between the two teams during the regular season, Boston beat Vancouver 3-1.

The stats no longer matter.

When the puck drops on Wednesday evening, nothing matters except the seven games ahead, and which team can be the first to achieve four wins.

Winning the Stanley Cup is always a triumph. It is the toughest trophy to win in sports: a marathon waged over two months, after a demanding six-month regular season. Hockey players are not just athletes; they are warriors, battling it out on the ice, and playing through injuries that most other athletes wouldn't even consider playing on. It's the playoffs. It's what you do.

Only a player could describe the euphoria of being the ones to hoist the Cup on the ice at the end of the Final round but the fanbase is there for the ride, too, and share in it.

Winning the Cup never gets old, but absolutely nothing can replicate the joy, the ecstasy, the triumph of breaking a Cup drought that is older than most of the players on the team. For a team to have not won a Cup in 20, 30, 40+ years ... it is an invisible elephant in the room that haunts a team and a fanbase year after year. When it looks like "this will be the year" for a team, and they wash out of the playoffs before the Final round, there is disappointment and tears. There's discussion of "next season" and the years ahead.

This year, one of two huge droughts will end. The other team will dry their tears, go home, and come back again next year to try again; and they will not be alone, as there are other teams who have also gone 40+ seasons without Cups of their own.

As a fan of hockey, whether or not you would choose to root for one of the teams, you could not ask for anything more (unless, of course, your own team of choice was playing for the Cup). Two very strong teams, with different styles, with outstanding goalies, battling in what should be an epic Cup run.

For the sake of hockey fans everywhere, you have to hope that this goes to seven games. Anything less would seem disappointing; you want the suspense and excitement to last as long as it can.

And while Bruins and Canucks fans each are hoping for their team to sweep the other, that likely won't happen. Savor every single game - win or lose. (Although, admittedly, it's harder to enjoy the losses.) Final round appearances don't happen every year (well, unless you're Detroit), so when it's been a generation between going to The Show, it's something to savor.

Boston and Vancouver have hardly any historical rivalry to fall back on, so this year will be the start of one. With two animals represented in the team names/logos, the jokes have already been flying between the two fan bases - killer sharks eating bears; bears destroying orcas. Canucks fans snickered that Zdeno Chara called his team up for a group picture with the Prince of Wales (saying "that's the only Cup you'll win"); yet Vancouver dumped so much confetti on the ice after winning the Campbell, you'd think it was the Stanley Cup they were celebrating. Parodies of Boston's "Bruins Hockey Rules" have have already been popping up around the internet, and Canucks fans seem to be particularly enthralled with parody songs.

Enjoy every moment of the Cup run, Bruins and Canucks fans. The highs, the lows, the in-betweens. It's a ride unrivaled in sports, and this year, we're going to see a parade and a fanbase partying like we saw in Chicago last year.

Best of luck to both teams.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

NHL Marketing success - and failure - in a "Year without a superstar"

Over the past five years, the NHL has spent a lot of time building up the Sidney Crosby-Alex Ovechkin/Pittsburgh Penguins-Washington Capitals rivalry -- so much so to the point that many fans across the league have simply hit a saturation point, and spent a lot of time on Twitter and other social media this season saying "Enough!"

There is no such thing as a "perfect" face of a league. Even the great Wayne Gretzky back in his day had his detractors and his haters; so it should be no surprise that a player like Sidney Crosby can serve to polarize fans - or that his fanbase can extent far beyond the team he plays for. There's also no doubt that Crosby is a fantastic hockey talent; a record-breaker with many great years of play ahead of him.

Ovechkin and Crosby entered the NHL in the same season - 2005-06. Ovechkin was the 1st overall pick in the 2004 Draft; Crosby was 1st overall in 2005. The two players are two years apart in age, took different roads to the NHL, but both took to the ice in the fall of 2005 with the weight of their respective franchises upon their young shoulders. Not surprising at all, then, that the NHL would favor attempting to pair these two up into a rivalry.

It's harder to build a true, honest rivalry, however, when your teams don't share a division, even if they're in the same conference. The Penguins play in the Atlantic division; and the Capitals have played in the Southeast since 1998. Teams who share a division see each other more. But, perhaps through marketing more so than any other means, a rivalry was built. 

During those seasons, the team only faced each other in the playoffs once: the 2008-09 season, when the Penguins knocked the Capitals out of the Conference Semifinals en route to winning the Stanley Cup. The teams see each other four times a season, and animosity has been built, as was highlighted this past season when HBO's 24/7 went behind the scenes to take a look at the two teams en route to their meeting in the 2011 Winter Classic. 

Interestingly enough, it wasn't the Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry that was the focus of the series, although HBO certainly touched upon it. No, HBO did an excellent job of drawing a picture of each team as a whole, spending time looking at a wide variety of players. That was an important decision, because hockey is a team sport. Any truly successful hockey team must get contributions across the team as a whole. In fact, HBO did such a good job at taking a look into the NHL world that they won an Emmy for their efforts - for "Outstanding Edited Sports Special" - and left hockey fans clamoring for more. 

During the Winter Classic, superstar Sidney Crosby suffered a concussion, although it wasn't until days later - and after he'd played another game, and taken a second head shot - that it was diagnosed. He hasn't played since, although he got back on the ice for practice late in the season, and it was hoped that if the Penguins had a deep run, that he would be able to play in later rounds. Currently, Crosby's prognosis remains as murky as the concussion he suffered; he's had another setback, and now the hope is that he will be healthy and ready to play when the 2011-12 season begins.

How good is Crosby? He only played half a season, yet he was easily on pace for a 115+ point season, and led the league with 32 G, 34 A, 66 points for long after his injury took him off the ice.  It was only in March when he finally dropped off the top-5 charts for points and scoring.

Meanwhile, down in Washington, Alex Ovechkin slumped this year. His 85 points for the season were still impressive by any stretch; only six players scored more this year. But for Ovechkin, that was a drop off of an average 25 points from his previous three seasons, and his worst year as an NHL player. While his assists remained high, his goals took a nosedive - just 32 this season with a mere 8.7 s%, compared to an average 57/12.9 sv% vs the last few years.

From a marketing standpoint, you don't want to spread yourself too thin; but as the NHL proved this year, you also don't want to put all your eggs in one basket. What do you do when the two superstars that you've built all your advertising and marketing efforts around are A) sidelined for half the season with an injury; or B) still playing, but having the worst year of their career?

The All-Star Game this year was probably the best in years due to a variety of reasons. Foremost, it allowed the NHL to showcase what was perhaps a surprising success story: the intense dedication of the Carolina fan base; the great atmosphere surrounding the 'Canes; and it allowed the league to show off that yes, hockey could be - and is - successful and popular in the South. The Hurricanes' fans have long been overdue the recognition. More importantly, with players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and other star-quality players sidelined with injuries, it allowed many unheralded, under-appreciated players to step into the spotlight -- like Patrick Sharp (Blackhawks); Corey Perry (Ducks); Rick Nash (Blue Jackets); and Shea Weber (Predators). The ASG highlighted a rookie class overloaded with talent such as Logan Couture, Jeff Skinner, Michael Grabner, and Kevin Shattenkirk. The event was handled well, and it made for one of the most entertaining ASGs in years.

Without the typical names (Crosby, Ovechkin) sitting atop the individual standings, the top of the scoring chart was instead filled through the end of the season with names like Daniel Sedin, Marty St. Louis, Corey Perry, Steven Stamkos, Jarome Iginla, Teemu Selanne, Patrick Sharp, Ryan Kesler, Patrick Marleau, Bobby Ryan, Ryan Getzlaf, Claude Giroux. Where are most of these guys for league-wide marketing materials? How few of them have contracts with major sports equipment brands? 

How many have become household names (in hockey households, anyway) thanks to this season?

The Western Conference has often felt like the redheaded stepchild of the hockey world. More attention is focused on Eastern Conference teams. Six of the eight teams to play in the Winter Classic have been Eastern teams. Half the league is located in one time zone, and it is not surprising that far-Western teams are often overlooked. 

But this year, a lot changed.

The Chicago Blackhawks roared back from their dark ages and won the Stanley Cup last spring, revitalizing one of the largest fanbases in the NHL and drawing in new fans. This year, the Presidents' Trophy was earned by the Vancouver Canucks. Both the individual standings and the nominees for this year's NHL Awards are loaded with Western Conference hockey players. The first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs were thrilling across the league, but it was the Chicago-Vancouver matchup that proved the most exciting of the series. The Eastern Conference cleaned up pretty early in the second round, and again, the best series of that round was between Western teams - the Sharks-Red Wings series; although the Canucks-Predators series helped put Nashville's hockey team - and fanbase - on the map as well.

It seems like most people are predicting whoever survives the Western Conference Finals will take home the Cup this year; but there's still plenty of hockey to be played.

The Western Conference tends to be the stronger, more competitive conference. Whoever places 8th in the West is always several points ahead of at least 2-3 teams in the final top 8 teams in the East. Yet it always feels like the Western Conference just isn't getting as much attention or coverage as the teams in the East get. 

Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane have been, to a lesser extent, "secondary" faces of the NHL. So, too, are players like Steven Stamkos, Ryan Kesler, Ryan Miller - players who have become known thanks to their achievements. This season gave us more players like that - lots of players like that. 

Yet it was only very late in the season when the NHL seemed to acknowledge that ok, Crosby wasn't coming back this season, and oops, Ovechkin isn't playing that hot. Fans on Twitter continued to snark about both players continuing to appear in advertising; but the fact is that once you've committed to an advertising campaign, you're not going to simply throw it out the window. It even took them a while to update the ASG commercials to remove those players who were injured or otherwise not attending.

Here's the really interesting part: despite not having their top "face of the NHL" player for half the season, the NHL was proud to announce on April 13th that they had their "Best-ever business year highlighted by record revenue." 

A few highlights:
- "Dramatic" increases in sponsorship (+33%) and merchandise sales (+15%);
- "landmark" corporate investment in major league events (Winter Classic, etc);
- "impressive" digital growth;
- Expected league revenue to top more than $2.9 billion (14.8% increase);
- highest-ever ASG ratings;
- 17 out of 30 teams saw TV ratings increase.

Likewise, the initial returns on the Playoffs are quite promising too - with both TV ratings and online visitors of NHL sites showing "substantial" increases. 

In short, while it doesn't hurt to have a couple superstar faces to head up your product line, what's really going to keep people coming back for more is having a good product all the way across the board. Yes, having two easily-identifiable faces can help draw in new fans. But where the NHL fails in marketing is by overlooking the Western Conference for much of the season. Granted, to a certain level, teams like the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings are so entrenched in their markets and so well-marketed by their own teams that they're the hockey equivalent of Coke and Pepsi. But as any marketing professional will tell you, even the best-known, oldest-established brands in the market will see sales slumps if you don't continue to remind the market that hey, our brands are out there.

The NHL also does a disservice to those fan bases that simply don't get enough attention. While the NHL might have hoped for another "high-profile" Stanley Cup series (ie. Blackhawks-Flyers), they might end up being pleasantly surprised by a matchup such as Vancouver-Tampa Bay, or San Jose-Boston. Die-hard fans continue to watch; newer fans discover new teams, new markets, new stars. 

When it comes to sports, league superstars are what marketers refer to as "cash cows": reliable products that help draw new consumers in. But every player attracts their own share of fans. Every team is worthy of notice, of being promoted. If the league genuinely wants to keep hockey alive in markets like Miami, Atlanta, and Phoenix, they need to improve the marketing of the league and the sport in those areas. Teams like Carolina, Washington, San Jose, and Los Angeles have proven what is possible.

The second half of the 2010-11 season might be remembered as the year without a superstar. But the NHL wasn't without its share of stars all across the league - many of them underappreciated until they had the opportunity to break out late in this season. Here's hoping the NHL highlights many more of these players next season.

The story of Zach "Bug" Bennett and the Charlotte Checkers

Hockey players, families, and fans have always been proud of the sense of community and teamwork that comes out of the sport. No hockey player can truly become a success without the commitment of those around them. So hockey players tend to be very dedicated about giving back to their communities.

One of the most moving stories you'll ever see about this sense of community is the story of Zach Bennett - a boy nicknamed "Bug".  Zach is 11 years old and suffers from a disease called neurofibromatosis, which causes tumors to grow on nerve tissues. Despite losing both legs in his battle against the disease, and having more than 20 surgeries to combat it, you will not find a person with a more positive spirit in the face of adversity.

The Bennetts used to live in Albany, New York, where they were fans of the Albany River Rats, and had developed a good relationship with the team. When the team was sold and relocated to North Carolina as the new AHL affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes, the family decided to follow the team to Charlotte. The Charlotte Checkers did a fundraiser to help the family complete their move, and recently, the team helped welcome the Bennetts to their new home.

It is a truly inspiring story - not just about the spirit of generosity and community so prevalent in the hockey world, but about a boy whose spirit is as big as the state where he now resides. 

Below is a video from ESPN about the Bennetts, Zach's story, and their relationship with the team. 


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Blackhawks 2010-2011 season in review, in pictures - part 2

The Hawks started the season on the road, then came back to Chicago for a home-heavy schedule. Corey Crawford recorded two back-to-back shut outs for Chicago on January 9th and 12th, including this game against the New York Islanders. 

Patrick Kane was also at one of the high points of his season after returning from injury - here, he snipes in a shot against NYI.

(side note, this was my first-ever NHL game where I got to sit on the glass!)

The second shutout was January 12th vs the Avalanche, who had already beaten Chicago three times during the season.

Jonathan Toews recorded his 100th NHL goal in a 6-3 win against the Nashville Predators on January 16th

The Blackhawks had just one season matchup against the team they'd bested in last year's Stanley Cup Final: the Philadelphia Flyers came to town on January 23rd. Rookie goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky was in net for the Flyers, and PHL posted a 4-1 win against the Hawks.

The Wild came to town for a game on February 16th; and Chicago closed out the season series 3-1 with a 3-1 win.

Road whites made a rare appearance at home in the February 18th game against the Blue Jackets. Columbus won, 4-3; the last loss before an 8-game win streak.

During their road game at St. Louis on February 21, the Blackhawks game out of the first in an 0-2 hole. They then romped their way through a 4-goal second period, including chasing the goalie from the net, and ended up winning 5-3.

Joey the Junior Reporter made appearances at a few games along the way...

The February 27th shoot out win vs the Phoenix Coyotes was one of two SO wins in an 8-game win streak

Pregame light and sound presentations

Patrick Kane also scored his 100th NHL goal - his coming in the March 14th decisive win over the Sharks, the only time the Blackhawks beat San Jose this season.

Good effort from the Blackhawks, but they still lost 2-1 to the Anaheim Ducks on March 26th. Hard to resent a loss to Ray Emery this year, though; but the Hawks badly needed points during the final stretch of the season.

Finding Tommy Hawk at the April 3rd home game vs Tampa Bay was like a copy of "Where's Waldo?". The Lightning shut out Chicago, making it the fourth and final time of the regular season that Chicago did not score.

Chicago closed out their final home season game the way they had opened it: with a disappointing loss to arch-rivals Detroit.

As far as anybody knew, the season was over. As it was Fan Appreciation Day, after the game, the players gave the game-worn jerseys off their backs to lucky chosen fans.

And then the players and their fans all went home to wait ... for the 11th-hour salvation which came in the form of a Minnesota Wild win over the Dallas Stars.

Despite increasingly stronger effort by the Blackhawks, the Canucks took the first three games of the 1st round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, including the first game at the United Center (game 3).

After going down 0-3 to the Canucks, Chicago roared back with a 7-2 win at home to declare they weren't left for dead, not quite yet.

The Blackhawks returned to Vancouver and proceeded to shut out the Canucks 5-0, forcing a game six back at the United Center. It was one of the most thrilling playoff games in recent memory all across the league: a team bidding to be one of the few teams ever to force a game 7 after being down 0-3 in a series.

Waiting for the anthem, game 6

Chicago pulled out the win on a goal by Ben Smith in overtime.

Most thrilling hockey game I've ever seen live. Beats even game 4 of the Sharks sweep last year for me!

To quote NHL commercials, "History has been made."

Corey Crawford put on a goaltending performance that would only be topped by his own work in the next game a couple nights later. And although the Blackhawks would go on to lose game 7 in Vancouver, the season could not have ended on a more thrilling finale at home.

Blackhawks 2010-2011 season in review, in pictures - part 1

Stanley Cup engraved with 2009-10 team names

Pre-season - Blackhawks vs Pittsburgh Penguins, October 1, 2010

Home season opener and banner-raising ceremony
October 9, 2010

Things get a bit heated during the Blackhawks-Sabres game, October 16. The two teams usually only face each other once per season; this year's schedule included two matchups early in the year.

The Canucks came to town for the first of their series games on October 20th. It was Chicago's first shootout victory of the year.

Marty Turco shows off his form in a 3-1 win over the LA Kings, October 27

Marty Turco and Tomas Kopecky share a high-five after a win at Minnesota, October 30

Viktor Stalberg was one of three goal-scorers for the Blackhawks on November 3rd, but the Devils owned this game and walked away with the win.

Blackhawks take the ice before the home game vs the Phoenix Coyotes, November 10

Brent Seabrook and Patric Hornqvist square off in the November 13th game in Nashville. The Predators won it 4-3 in a shootout.

Players go to congratulate Viktor Stalberg on his OT GWG in the November 14th game against the Anaheim Ducks

Famous Vancouver fans 'the Green Men' taunt Bryan Bickell as he sits in the penalty box at Vancouver, November 20. The Blackhawks would have the last laugh as they rolled over the Canucks in a 7-1 win.

Somewhere in the middle of the play, Patrick Kane took a stick to the face. And as Kane lay sprawled on the ice and the rest of the players battled in the corner, interestingly enough, it was only Roberto Luongo who checked to see if Kane was okay. Despite very strong play by the Blackhawks, Luongo was in the groove, and Vancouver would win this December 3rd game 3-0, the only time Chicago would get shut out until March 17th.

Chicago scores over Calgary en route to a 4-2 win over the Flames on December 5th

Jeremy Morin would net his first NHL goal of his career and his first NHL star (2nd star of the night) during the December 8th 5-3 win over the Dallas Stars

The team was already riddled with injuries when Avalanche player Ryan O'Byrne checked Viktor Stalberg into the boards on December 15th. Stalberg would miss the rest of the game, as well as the next three games.

Tomas Kopecky, Corey Crawford, and Brent Seabrook wait to be announced as the three stars of the game after the December 17 win vs the Red Wings

The Blackhawks would close out 2010 and the first half of their 2010-11 season with a 5-3 loss to the San Jose Sharks. The December 30th game would also mark the first time Antti Niemi, the goalie that took Chicago to the Stanley Cup, would play for his new team at the United Center.