The NHL's marketing gurus are at it again, priming the pump for the emotions of hockey fans to spill out (shamelessly) as we anticipate the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Last year's acclaimed "History will be made" series is getting re-vamped and the 30-second spot titled "Wish" (above), starring the unmistakeable face of an 8-year-old Jonathan Toews via his family's video archives, debuted across the hockeywebs yesterday. From the responses I've seen, we have a winner.
Toews is, at 22 years of age, one of the brightest young Canadian hockey superstars; his career already has achieved the shared dreams of many generations of kids like him, born in Winnipeg, Manitoba over the last century. The spot's ability to capture Toews as an excited and proud little boy and convey the potential contained in a child's wish made on his birthday candles is masterful because it's so simple, and so universal.
If you follow me on twitter or have read some of my stuff over at Canes Country you know I'm a bona fide hockeymom with 2 boys (ages 10 and 14) who play in the local youth hockey league around Raleigh. You also know I'm in the thick of the end of season tournaments now. Without even rising above the "house" level, this season, like the 4 previous, I have spent hours at rinks, often 5 days a week October through March, tying skates, filling water bottles, coordinating carpools, working the penalty box door, entering scores and stats, leading cheers, and wiping tears.
Every season I see hundreds of North Carolina youngsters who bravely decide to try this sport of hockey because it's just so cool and enticing - there's simply nothing else like it. For many families, it's a completely exotic adventure, and the passion these kids have is often at the complete befuddlement of their parents. Because of the simplicity of the sport (puck -> net) combined with (and despite) the complex skills required, the progress these kids make across the six month season is inspiring, and reinforces all the life lessons you could want your child to learn from playing any sport. The most basic: Fall. Get up. Fall. Get up. Fall. Get up.
In these hours at the rink, I chat with new-found Canadian ex-pat friends who have great family hockey stories to tell. When I'm among those newbie hockey parents I'll remind them it's called a penalty, not a foul, and serve as their general resource on how offsides works, just for starters. They are willing learners and grateful to have someone to make sense of it all. On occasion over the seasons, I've been in the stands at my boys games near a hockey parent who is a two-time Selke Trophy winner, or helped his team win in overtime of Game 7 in Boston the night before, or was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2007. They like watching their kids play hockey too. And, just like in Canada, these NHL people become part of the fabric of our families' lives and a shared experience. We hockey families in North Carolina actually begin to feel like the sport is a defining element of our local culture. Who saw that coming 15 years ago?
There is a lot of debate, much of it as passionate as the sport of hockey itself, about the feasibility of maintaining NHL teams in newer non-traditional markets. Unfortunately, it falls back too often on "climate" and "history" as the reasons NHL teams succeed or fail. The Carolina market, established in 1997, is one of these new areas that seems to have finally beaten the stigma of being a non-traditional (often conflated with "undeserving") hockey community. But that is only very recently. It's not about climate and remember, as they say, "history will be made". To me the two ingredients for success are obvious and can be replicated anywhere. 1) A steady reliable management group and 2) winning games and giving the fans a reason to be proud and invest in the experience.
Recently a group of Carolina youth hockey players, ages 11 and 12, won the Championship Trophy in the B division at the International Peewee hockey tournament in Quebec. As the story goes, ten years ago when the Junior Hurricanes first entered the tourney, they didn't score a single goal. (But did they give up? No! Of course not!) This year's team was not comprised of remote and elite group of imported talent, but kids who are part of our everyday activities around the local rinks. My son played with one of the teams' leading defenseman as squirts 3 years ago. I recall that the bruises on his lower leg from blocking this boy's wrister were a rite of passage that season. Will any of these kids be future first round draft picks? I doubt it, but that's not my point. Will they and the people around them be lifetime hockey fans? I can guaranty you they will. Is that good for hockey's financial stability looking to the future? Fershurr.
In all these dozens of games playing out across the 5 rinks in the Raleigh area just this past weekend, are hundreds of kids and parents, just like Winnipeg's 8-year-old Jonathan Toews and his family, who are full of unseen potential, trying to figure out what they want to be when they grow up. The parents, just like those in Canada, want their kids to learn the values that hockey teaches: hard work and perseverance, respect, creativity, responsibility (at both ends of the ice!). With this comes an appreciation of the rich tradition of the sport.
It can take a ridiculously long time to make an NHL hockey team a perennial success in a new market; success can be measured with different criteria, but financial viability will always be the most critical. With a variety of excellent business decisions, some good luck and those inspired heroic efforts (bonus points if they happen in a Game 7), it has worked here in Raleigh. Kids and their parents need (really really need) heroes and accessible credible role models. Those are becoming harder to find these days - and ideally that's the product the NHL is providing. As a mom, that's all I can wish for.