Will hockey fans return?

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

In Montreal, they sent legendary players from the glory years to visit children's hospitals. In Pittsburgh, they've hyped a fresh-faced 18-year-old who has yet to play a professional game or, until a couple of weeks ago, even visit the city.

Around the continent, ticket prices have been frozen. Advertising campaigns have been launched. The rules of the game have even been rewritten. The fact is, when it comes to winning back National Hockey League fans after last season was lost to a labor dispute, the game's marketing gurus will try just about anything.

"We recognize that the year off makes our job even more challenging," says Ed Horn, the NHL's vice president of corporate marketing. "We've done our research on our fans [during the lockout]. The message we got from the fans was, 'If you fix it and you fix it right, we'll be there for you.' " Even before the lockout, the NHL had popularity problems. It's been on a slow, downhill slide since Sports Illustrated ranked the it "hot" and the NBA "not" in the mid-1990s. Now it's firmly entrenched in fourth place - behind football, baseball, and basketball. It's even been lapped by NASCAR and lumped in with arena football. Meanwhile, the league announced that it had sold its cable rights to Comcast's Outdoor Life Network, a far cry from its glory days on ESPN and ABC.

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So this summer the NHL undertook the most involved redesign of a professional league in sports history. Its 600-page collective agreement placed caps on team payrolls and player salaries in an effort to guarantee a semblance of competitive balance between wealthy and less-wealthy franchises. The league also undertook a radical reworking of the on-ice rules to open a game that had become duller and lower-scoring over the past decade.

But getting the word out is key, and no one is more aware of that than the marketing crew with the Montreal Canadiens. One survey conducted this spring by Solutions Research Group found 55 percent of Canadian sports fans age 12 and older identify hockey as one of their favorite sports, down from 68 percent prior to the labor dispute.

Fans in Montreal are notoriously tough on their teams - they never again embraced the Expos after the 1994 baseball strike. And though Montreal is regarded as hockey's Mecca, executives know that the fans can be hard on their most beloved franchise - as one executive once noted, the service he received in restaurants fell off when the Canadiens were on a losing streak.

"Our objective was to keep the Canadiens' name out there during the labor dispute," says Donald Beauchamp, the team's vice president in charge of community relations.

So they called on their "ambassadors," five famous names from Stanley Cup-winning teams of bygone days - including Yvan Cournoyer and Guy Lafleur - to attend hospital visits, charity luncheons, and old-timer games. "We had them at 150 outings," Mr. Beauchamp says.

Things were even less rosy in Pittsburgh. In the season prior to the lockout, the Penguins not only finished last in their division but sold fewer tickets than any team in the league. As recently as a couple of months ago, the franchise was on the block and perhaps poised to be moved out West.

But with training camp less than two weeks away, the picture in Pittsburgh is so rosy that hockey fans can scarcely recognize it. The team's president, Ken Sawyer, is predicting that the entire season will be sold out before the opening night in October.

It's all because of the buzz surrounding the league's top draft pick, Sidney Crosby of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. NHL execs are hoping Crosby does for the hockey labor dispute what the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home-run race did for baseball's in 1994: make people forget about it.

Crosby's arrival to the NHL has been anticipated for more than two years - since Wayne Gretzky, the game's all-time leading scorer, tapped him as the one player who might break his records.

According to David Dunne, a marketing professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, Crosby's youth and inexperience were advantages for the Penguins' marketing department. "They have a player who wasn't tainted by the lockout, a player who was outside the dispute," Mr. Dunne says.

For all the NHL's efforts, no one will know for at least a season how well the league has been "fixed." Previous attempts to open up offense in the game have failed. And marketing experts warn that the Pittsburgh Penguins' rise could be followed by a drastic fall if Crosby is less than the player he's billed to be.

New rules, designed to boost scoring

• Size of each offensive zone increased by moving blue line and goal lines.

• No more play stoppage for two-line passes.

• If offensive players who precede the puck into the zone return to the blue line and "tag" it, they will not be considered offsides.

• The dimensions of goalie equipment will be reduced by approximately 11 percent.

• Goaltenders may play the puck behind the goal line only in a defined area or be penalized for delay of game.

• Zero tolerance on Interference, hooking, and holding/obstruction.

• No more ties. Following a scoreless five-minute overtime, a shootout will take place until one team has more goals than the other.

• A player who instigates a fight in the final five minutes of a game will receive a game misconduct and an automatic one-game suspension. The length of suspension would double for each additional incident.

Source: NHL

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