Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews at a press conference in Toronto on Feb. 5, 2019. (Photo: AP)
Connor McDavid is eager to shrug off personal stats, awards and achievements and put the focus on his team in Edmonton.
Yet there he is on the cover of a video game or in a commercial for a bank.
Auston Matthews is the face of the franchise in Toronto. But he also got razzed by his Maple Leafs teammates for doing a stylish fashion photo shoot for GQ magazine.
“It was a lot of fun,” Matthews said. “Kind of something that definitely got you out of your comfort zone.”
The rink for long decades has been the comfort zone for so many hockey players who put their full energy into the sport and are indoctrinated from a young age that the logo on the front of the jersey matters more than the name on the back.
That team-oriented part of hockey culture remains entrenched, but the NHL is finally beginning to market its stars as the NFL and NBA have done with great success.
As dynamic players like McDavid, Matthews and Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau settled in Canadian markets and star power spread to smaller cities without much hockey tradition, marketing players and not just teams is essential to growing the NHL’s fan base. For a sport that generally sees its TV ratings drawn from fans of the two teams playing — and where the Stanley Cup Final doesn’t pull in nearly as much as the Super Bowl or NBA Finals — it’s a concerted effort to build up personalities and players’ brands to become more popular.
“It is a changing landscape,” said Judd Moldaver, Matthews’ agent and senior vice president of Wasserman Orr Hockey. “Hockey players are such fantastic athletes and fantastic people that I believe the hybrid of playing for the logo on the front but also being able to optimize your individual situation. I think the two can coexist.”
Matthews, McDavid, Nashville’s P.K. Subban and other stars are sharing more personality than players of previous eras like Mario Lemieux and even Wayne Gretzky. No longer is it seen as selfish for Subban to host a late-night talk show or for Matthews to shoot a cellphone commercial.
“Why not try? Just because the person next to me doesn’t think that they can host their own show doesn’t mean that I can’t,” Subban said. “What people have to understand is we’re at the rink three hours a day. We have a lot of time. We have days off, we have travel days and obviously there’s certain points in the schedule where you can’t do anything but hockey because of the way the schedule’s set up and the travel. But outside of hockey, a lot of times I don’t go home. I have meetings, I have different things that I’m doing. I have all these other interests.”
Showcasing those interests is part of the NHL’s shift. The league this season debuted a “Skates Off” series of vignettes with a player from all 31 teams to show what they are like off the ice, including Jack Eichel being a guest DJ at a Buffalo classic rock radio station, Victor Hedman sharing his love of flying planes and Seth Jones showing his cooking talent.
“It’s nice to see those personalities come out,” said Nick Foligno, a teammate of Jones’ in Columbus. “That’s how you grow the game. You look in other sports and the personalities come out, and that’s what fans are drawn to.”
NHL chief content officer and executive vice president Steve Mayer knows this. Since joining the league in late 2015 after 20 years at talent and sports giant IMG, he has helped lead the charge to put more focus on star players whose abilities and personalities could play a role in attracting younger fans who are attached to social media in the digital age.
“Other leagues do this, and we really don’t do it as well — we want to get better at it,” Mayer said. “Other leagues it doesn’t really matter sometimes: You just tune in to watch the guy play. And we need to do that even more. ... I want to be able to have fans even in (another) town (who) cannot wait to see Connor McDavid come to town because we have marketed him as one of our greatest players. I don’t know whether that happens enough.”
The NHL, Mayer said, has no interest in abandoning the team culture of hockey. But after a 2016 Magna Global study showed the average age of NHL fans rose 16 years over a span of 16 years — essentially stagnant — experts praised the league for trying to create more buzz among millennials and Generation Z.
“They recognize this, and they’re in a cultural shift, a cultural transformation within hockey,” said Stephanie Tryce, assistant professor of sports marketing at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “Generation Z is about a lifestyle. They’re interested in things like social responsibility and they celebrate more of their identities than in the past, so that’s going to force hockey to continue to make inroads into other markets like the Hispanic/Latino market. It’s a market that you can’t ignore, but it’s also a market that historically hasn’t been in hockey. So you have to grow that.”
Matthews is at the center of that. His father is from California, his mother is from Mexico and he grew up in a nontraditional American hockey market in Arizona. Moldaver works closely with Matthews’ parents to chart a course for off-ice endeavors, from commercials and endorsement deals to philanthropic efforts, all of which continue to grow for the 21-year-old.
McDavid’s star began at an even earlier age, and the 2017 NHL MVP who has arguably surpassed Sidney Crosby as the greatest player in the world is finding his voice off the ice, too. When NFL Canada asked Rams and Patriots players at the Super Bowl who McDavid was, several thought maybe the prime minister or an actor. Work is ongoing to make him more recognizable outside hockey.
Hockey is such a team sport that individualism has for decades been frowned upon. Adidas senior director Dan Near said it’s a delicate balance to try to sell personalities but not stray too far from the team.
“I think there’s a fine line between doing it to promote yourself a little bit and being cocky, and I think we’ve got a lot of guys that do a great job of treading that line,” Ottawa’s Bobby Ryan said. “You’re starting to see guys be promoted a little more, and it’s nice because then you get to see some individual personalities come out, and in a sport where you’re so often wearing helmets and gear, people don’t get to relate to you face-to-face.”
Teams have been reluctant to some of the league’s efforts sometimes until they see the final product. Mayer recalls showing owners and general managers clips of potential ideas and seeing the hesitancy for propping one player up before they understand the wide-ranging plan to give the NHL more exposure.
Initiatives like “Stanley Cup Confidential” where a player from each of the league’s 16 playoff teams shoots a daily cellphone video is another baby step.
“We are not here to break the culture. We’re just here to show that certain players are dynamic and have personality,” Mayer said. “Players are starting gradually to see, you know what, it’s OK. I’m not disrupting the locker room and it’s OK to show personality and have some fun and smile.”