PRWeek.com exclusive: Hockey professionals push communications, despite NHL lockout

The month of October serves as a nexus of sports seasons beginning and ending, creating a glut of entertainment for enthusiasts. The professional baseball season reaches its conclusion, the National Football League playoff picture heats up, and the National Basketball Association gets set to begin its 81-game season.

The month of October serves as a nexus of sports seasons beginning and ending, creating a glut of entertainment for enthusiasts. The professional baseball season reaches its conclusion, the National Football League playoff picture heats up, and the National Basketball Association gets set to begin its 81-game season.

Absent, but not glaringly so in America, was the National Hockey League, having shuttered its season due to the league's lockout of its players. As hockey writer Scott Burnside wrote on ESPN.com, "A league that was barely on the American radar screen in the first place has all but completely fallen off only a week into the lockout." The NHL lockout, initiated by the team owners, came as the league's decade-long collective bargaining agreement (CBA) ran out. The crux of the impasse is that the clubs want to initiate a salary cap for players, while the NHL Players Association (NHLPA) has offered other concessions, but won't accept a cap. Both sides agree that the league is in financial trouble. According to Bernadette Mansur, group VP of communications for the NHL, the league needs to solve its economic model and be able to ensure teams can remain competitive and have the potential of winning at an affordable price. Work stoppages and disagreements among constituents have plagued sports organizations in the past, including the NHL. As with any industry hit by a work stoppage, its communications operations are affected. The league's communications office had some staff cuts, but Mansur expects to restaff if the season resumes. But although the games have stopped, the communication message has not. The NHL offices in New York and Toronto have shifted their focus from game promotion to issues surrounding the CBA and communicating directly with its fans, according to Mansur. "While it's not the best of times for any of us, including our fans, it's truly a time to implement new ideas," Mansur says. "You have more time and opportunity to speak directly to the fan base and work with your media on a very complex topic. The league has set up a website, NHLCBA.com, where reporters and fans can get information, such as news releases, transcripts, and statistics. Additionally, the site has interactive features like chats with commissioner Gary Bettman or Bill Daly, the NHL's VP and chief legal office. The NHLPA has its own website, NHPLA.com, which it also updates with CBA-related information. The NHLPA has seen an increase in the media demand during the lockout, according to Tyler Currie, NHLPA media relations coordinator. Currie says he rarely proactively pitches stories during the regular season or the lockout, but all manner of reporters have been contacting the association. "Hockey articles are popping up in the business section," Currie says. The individual teams are focusing a lot of their communications efforts on keeping the fans and community interested. "It's very important for our fans and our season-ticket holders that the clubs keep them engaged," Mansur says. Some of the PR professionals from clubs PRWeek.com contacted declined to talk due to the sensitivity of the lockout, or would not return calls. Mansur cites the Chicago Blackhawks, which has had fans in the arena for a free skate, and the Vancouver Canucks and Ottawa Senators, which have held media training camps, as prime examples of the opportunities available now. Chuck Menke, director of communications for the St. Louis Blues, wrote in a statement to PRWeek.com, "During the work stoppage NHL team communications directors are concentrating their efforts on areas outside of game-night operations and player-related media opportunities, which would normally comprise their focus. "We are also constantly sending the message to our fans and ticket holders that their needs are not forgotten despite the lack of a season to date, and attempting to keep the Blues top of mind for them as well." Menke says the activities have included organizing charity alumni games in the area, and developing a communications and marketing plan designed to welcome fans back once the players hit the ice again. The Anaheim Mighty Ducks have two PR departments: media and game relations, and corporate communications. Charles Harris, director of publicity and community development, says the corporate side is as busy as it would be during a hockey season. "We're very active in engaging with our customers, corporate clients, and the community in general," Harris says. The team is having a luncheon for the Mighty Ducks Care, a fund of the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation, on November 18. The Ducks' home arena, the Pond, will host its minor league hockey team, the Cincinnati Ducks, for games in December, Harris says. In October, the Ducks held an event called "The MD SoCal Hockey Movie Night" where 1,000 season ticket holders came to watch the movie Miracle on a 15-foot screen on the beach. Anaheim head coach Mike Babcock and his staff have been appearing at clinics for youth hockey and the team has monthly programs for season seat holders. The team's mascot and its cheerleaders, called Power Players, have made appearances. "We've pitched stories to the effect of 'because of a lockout, here's what the coach has time to do,'" says Alex Gilchrist, who as director of communications and team services leads the media relations side. "Here's a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy situation." "We remain committed talking to our fans now and as we move forward," Harris says. "When you have people who care about your product, you want to continually talk to them." Hockey writers have lamented the stoppage, using the dearth of coverage to write humorous "survival guides" and questioned if anyone else cares about the lockout, while some have taken the NHL to task for how it promotes and markets itself. The NHL is "not a league that's progressive in how it markets itself," according to The Hockey News (THN) writer Adam Proteau. He says the league is stuck in the '50s, with a sense of entitlement that fans would always be there and they're not interested in pitching stories. "If you believe that people will always be there and come back, it will sooner or later be proved faulty," Proteau says. "While [the fans] don't like the situation, they understand the league's economic model needs to be fixed," Mansur counters. "They don't just want a Band-Aid; they want whatever it takes to [make sure the situation] is fixed and their teams are going to stay [put]." Proteau says that THN has received negative letters from entrenched fans that might not be able to weather the lockout. He adds that the hockey media is interested in helping end the lockout, and THN was one of many media outlets that offered a solution. The publication's CBA proposal, authored by senior writer Mark Brender, solicited opinions "off-the-record" from various GMs about the proposal. But the THN got a hold of an internal memo email sent from Frank Brown, the NHL VP of media relations, to the league's teams, that said, "It has come to our attention that The Hockey News is in the process of becoming the latest media outlet to create a 'CBA solution' and is approaching, among others, Club officials to react 'entirely off the record' to the merits of their offering. This reminder is offered accordingly: The provisions of By-Law 17.17 expressly prohibit unauthorized commentary on CBA matters." Mansur explains that "the memo was an internal document that Brown sent out to assist and remind the PR directors of a certain bylaw... that had been in existence for many years... and to try to prevent any offenses." The NHL's situation, where many of its diehard fans are in Canada, but a majority of the teams are in the United States, is impacted by what Proteau calls the league's and teams' conservative media relations strategies. THN proposed a cover where an anonymous player on a team would be surrounded by his more-well-known teammates, with a "Hi, My Name Is" sticker on his uniform, but he says the team shot it down. "Players don't want to say anything [partially] because Canadians frown upon self-promotion and the image of the braggart is anti-Canadian," Proteau says. "Brett Hull [of the Detroit Red Wings player] and Jeremy Roenick [of the Philadelphia Flyers] are the only ones who say thing of any consequence, and they're pilloried for it." Regarding Proteau's comments, Mansur says she "very much valued The Hockey News and its editor, Jason Kay," calling them "experts in their field." Sports writers are reporting that the season nears cancellation with each passing day and the league has already cancelled its mid-season All-Star game. Even if a deal was stuck today, games could not start until 45 days from now, as the teams have freed up the arenas for alternative events. With fans either deprived of their sport's professional league for a year or given the chance to return to a nearly forgotten season, PR professionals will have to work hard to make sure their message does not fall on deaf ears.

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