NEW YORK: Now that the National Hockey League (NHL) and its players association have just about guaranteed a 2005-2006 season after a lockout-thwarted 2004-2005 campaign, the communications battle begins.
The league and players were scheduled to ratify the collective bargaining agreement this today. The league locked out the players last year because of an inability to agree upon terms of a new agreement.
Bernadette Mansur, group VP of communications for the NHL, said that the new season will provide an opportunity for the league to strengthen its relationship with fans.
"We believe hockey fans are truly the most passionate and loyal, and they've also proven to be very patient," Mansur said. "We need to reward those fans for sticking with us and supporting us."
The league is pursuing a multi-tiered communications strategy that includes advertising, media relations, community outreach, a creative relaunch of its brand, and the involvement of players in more initiatives.
The NHL hired an independent agency to poll fans online in the US and Canada, and found that fans supported changing some of the rules to create a more action-packed experience.
"Many writers and fans felt that the game was broken, so [those proposed changes] are a great step forward," said Adam Proteau, a writer at Toronto-based The Hockey News.
He added that teams and players needed more interaction with the media and fans.
"Hockey players are among the most genuine guys in sports, but in the past several years the [collective bargaining] dialogue swirling around may have caused players to retreat a bit," Mansur said. "Players in the past several months have said, 'I'm ready [to be more active in communications].'"
Proteau also was angry that the league plans to hold its entry draft lottery, where teams learn in which order they pick new players, in private rather than televise it.
"The biggest thing on fans' radar is the draft and Sidney Crosby," Proteau said, referring to the 18-year-old Canadian as a once-in-a-decade hockey prospect that is expected to be the first pick.
Mansur said that the draft lottery is a private endeavor, but added that the league was exploring ways to promote the announcement.
One of the uncertain points in the league's marcomms strategy is US television coverage. The NHL has a contract with NBC for select games, but is also looking for a cable partner. Its contract with ESPN ended when the network declined to exercise an option to pick up coverage this year.