Winter Classic first salvo in NHL 'shock-and-awe' campaign

Wed Jan 1, 2014 7:03pm EST
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By Steve Keating

ANN ARBOR, Michigan (Reuters) - The National Hockey kicked of 2014 with the biggest hockey bash ever on Wednesday, firing the opening salvo in a 'shock-and-awe' campaign designed to turn casual fans into avid ones.

An announced record hockey crowd of 105,491 braved brutal conditions to fill massive Michigan Stadium for the NHL's outdoor Winter Classic as the Toronto Maple Leafs clinched a 3-2 shootout win over the Detroit Red Wings.

Over the next three months the NHL will play outdoor games from Los Angeles to New York featuring iconic franchises in historic settings in an unprecedented push to claim more ground in an escalating battle for a larger slice of the North American sporting landscape.

Emboldened by a new 12-year $5.2 billion Canadian television rights deal, labor peace and increasing talk of expansion, a bullish NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has embarked on what one sport marketing expert described as a campaign of "shock-and-awe".

Putting the Winter Classic in 'the Big House' provided the "wow" factor the NHL was looking for to kickoff the New Year but it marked just the start of the league's marketing blitz.

The Winter Classic will be followed by two games at Yankee Stadium later this month and another in Los Angeles before the NHL returns to the world's biggest sporting stage at the Sochi Olympics.

Coming out of Russia the NHL will try to stay in the spotlight with outdoor contests in Vancouver and Chicago that the league hopes will add to the marketing momentum heading into the Stanley Cup playoffs.

"I hate to use military terms but this really is a sort of shock-and-awe campaign," Paul Swangard, managing director, Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon told Reuters. "We are going to have these incredible interesting outdoor experiences with a lot of interesting story lines, we are sending them to Sochi and all those athletes are going to come back and the casual fan gets exposed."   Continued...

A general view in the first period during the 2014 Winter Classic hockey game between the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports