Thursday, 1 January 2009

Want In?

The city of Chicago has been waiting for the Blackhawks to return to the form that carried them to the Stanley Cup. While this year's team is very good, there's still a bit of an uphill climb in working to dethrone the current Stanley Cup champions and division rivals in the Detroit Red Wings. Detroit laid a 4-0 shutout on the Blackhawks Tuesday night, so this home-and-somewhat-near-home series just cranked up the intensity a little bit more. For the 701st time in the history of the NHL, these two stories franchises will play a regular season game in one of the most historic venues of all-time: Wrigley Field. However, there are some dark clouds in the background of the bright sunshine that is this year's version of the Winter Classic.

First off, Happy New Year to everyone who is stopping here, and I wish you guys nothing but the best in 2009.

Along with Uni Watch Blog's Phil Hecken, we've strived to provide as much info as we can on this game, and all the hoopla surrounding the event. There are a number of things to consider with an event of this magnitude, and Hockey Blog In Canada is pulling no punches for this event. Everything - uniforms, the stadium, the media, the sponsors - will be touched on today. Why? Because it's all part of the NHL's biggest show to try and attract the American viewer.

I'll start with the negatives that surround this game. With the announcement on December 8 that Reebok and the NHL were coming together to offer fans a chance to win a trip to the Stanley Cup through the "NHL Winter Classic Reebok Lost Logo Challenge", I was pretty excited. There aren't a lot of contests out there that guarantee a chance at going to see a Stanley Cup Final game, so I thought it was a pretty unique opportunity of which not many people would take advantage.

It turns out that I was right when it came to "not many people". The legal technicalities state that "fans must be legal U.S. residents, 18 years or older" in order to participate. Forget that there are a number of Canadians traveling to Chicago for the game or that millions of Canadians will be watching it on television. This was a contest designed specifically to bring in American viewers.

A gentleman by the name of Peter caught wind of my rant on the Uni Watch Blog regarding this obvious omission of a huge hockey-mad population, and he sent an email to Reebok asking why Canadians weren't offered the same opportunity. Reebok's Corporate Communications team sent back this response, word-for-word:

"Dear Peter,

"Thank you for your question. The Reebok Lost Logo Challenge is a watch & win promotion, which was created in conjunction with NBC and the NHL. Through its design, the promotion relies heavily on NBC to prompt viewer participation and provide pertinent contest announcements. Since the NBC broadcast of the NHL Winter Classic is only available to U.S. viewers, it would be disservice to open it up to TV viewers outside of the U.S. who would not hear the pertinent broadcast announcements for this contest.

"Reebok Corporate Communications"

Wow. Apparently, Reebok is controlling television broadcast signals now. They would have to be in control somehow since they clearly state that "the NBC broadcast of the NHL Winter Classic is only available to U.S. viewers". How else would a sports apparel company know that unless they were in communication with NBC?

There's a fatal flaw in that argument. Everyone in Canada who has a cable or a satellite hook-up gets at least one NBC affiliate. Every. Single. Person.

With this knowledge, I decided to pose a little question to Reebok myself on December 11:

"Hello, Reebok Corporate Communications. I would like to pose a question in regards to the response you sent to my colleague, Peter. He had asked why the Reebok "Find The Missing Logo" Contest wasn't being offered to Canadian fans.

"I'm not sure exactly where you received the information from regarding the NBC broadcast only being available to US viewers. Every single cable and satellite carrier in Canada has NBC available on it. It is a basic television channel on the majority of television packages available in Canada. Since all the NBC networks will be broadcasting the same information, I fail to see how it would be a 'disservice' to open this contest to viewers outside the US, specifically when there will be a large number of Canadians watching the broadcast on both the CBC and NBC.

"I've been told that you may not have rights to run the contest in Canada with a Canadian winner, and I can certainly understand that side of the equation. If this is the reason, though, why not explain the true reason?

"As a Canadian and huge hockey fan, I find this offer to Americans to be a great way to get them to tune into the game and market the Reebok name, but you're excluding potentially 30 million people in a hockey-mad market who make up 40% of the NHL's revenue. This, to me, seems to be a poor business decision.

"So, as a hockey fan, I ask why is there no opportunity for Canadians to participate?

"Thanks for taking time to read and answer this email."

Of course, in being a whistle blower, I got no response. And still have not received a response. Not a form letter with a generic answer, not a Corporate Communications with a pre-prepared statement answer, nothing.

Customer service at Reebok? That's a farce.


As for another negative, the "Corporate Classic", as I have termed it, is nothing more than a glorified All-Star Game where companies line up to been wined and dined by Gary Bettman in an attempt to capitalize on a game that everyone tunes into. As an example, NBC stated that viewership was up 250% for the Winter Classic last year as compared to other regular season games shown on the network. Since the Nielsen's ratings are the primary determining factor in associating advertisement rates for networks, NBC has to be rolling in the greenbacks after the number shown by last season's game. Adding the Where's Waldo? factor of the Reebok contest to this season's game will only help to boost viewership yet again, thereby driving up advertising prices on future games shown on the Peacock Television Network.

NBC and the NHL are in a profit-sharing agreement, so this game directly benefits NBC more than the other two companies simply due to the fact that NBC can set advertising prices at whatever rate they like. If a company was guaranteed 250% more viewers per commercial, I'm betting a lot of companies would line up to buy airtime.

It's NBC who will make a killing off the "Spot The Missing Logo" party game - far more than the NHL will, and far more than Reebok will. And since Canadian viewers don't matter in the Nielsen's ratings in the United States, there's no reason for Reebok to offer the contest in Canada.

Here are the nuts and bolts of the this whole "Find the Logo" game: Reebok announces a contest for American fans on an American network to boost US ratings on NBC for the NHL whereby the NHL and NBC benefit by making a larger profit through NBC's sales of advertising time. And since this year's viewership is expected to be higher than last season with this new, snazzy contest, rates for advertising will go up again next year, thus making NBC and the NHL even more US television money. Who is wagging whom here?

And what of the money that Bridgestone threw at the NHL to be the named corporate sponsor of the event? Look, I get that Bridgestone makes winter tires. But for a company who recently announced lower sales figures than expected, being the corporate boondoggle on this game makes good business sense... right, shareholders? Your bottom-line is probably good enough so that you spend that kind of dough on corporate marketing, right? It's not like Bridgestone has encountered any trouble that could affect anyone's return-on-investment. I bet there are probably at least 30,000 people who will think about which company makes a better winter tire when they are frantically searching for a missing Rbk logo on a player on NBC - ahem, excuse my sarcasm. And we haven't even touched on Bridegstone's problem child business entity, Firestone, and the lack of consumer confidence since 2001 due to the number of tires that disintegrated on Ford Explorers.

Other major logos you'll see throughout the game include Bud Light, Verizon Wireless, Honda, and McDonald's. In fact, McDonald’s holds exclusive branding behind the player benches and penalty boxes at the Winter Classic.

Remember, though, that this game is supposed to be "for the fans". Not the corporate suits and ties, but the true fans of the NHL. Sounds a heckuva lot like the rhetoric spewed during the NHL All-Star Game, doesn't it? After all, 41,000 people will be attending the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic. Gary Bettman will be cackling to himself as he counts one, two, three million dollars in revenue from a game overrun by corporate greediness.

BUT... and there is a huge reason to stop here... the game is still important. You're probably sitting there thinking "this guy is nothing but a vineyard of sour grapes". I'm not, to be honest. I really like the idea behind this game, but it seems that it's less about the game and more about who has their logo plastered across the ice and television.

But there are a number of positives. Let's take a look at why this game will be so appealing on so many levels. I turn it over to Phil as he tackles the uniform aesthetics.

The 2009 Winter Classic will feature the Chicago Blackhawks squaring off against the Detroit Red Wings in an outdoor match being held at Wrigley Field in Chicago (here's an artist's rendering). It was originally thought that the Blackhawks might dress in their "barber pole" look like they did in 1992 for the NHL's 75th anniversary and in 1946 as their regular uniform, and the Red Wings would wear their own 1992 sweaters, but the Blackhawks and Red Wings decided on two other eras to wear. The two teams will wear vintage-style uniforms, using the current Reebok Edge equipment and material.

The Detroit Red Wings, who will be the visitors in the Winter Classic, have opted to represent the 1926-27 Detroit Cougars. They did make one adjustment to the jersey in that they will wear the Winged Wheel as a shoulder patch. Both Teebz and myself like the look of the Olde English "D". It gives that retro feeling just from the look of it. Here's a rear view of the sweater.

The Chicago Blackhawks have decided to don the 1936-37 version of their uniform, as seen here on former Blackhawk Bobby Hull. The Blackhawks' retro look is highlighted by the retro logo on the jerseys, which gets a huge thumbs-up from us. What does bother us, though, is that the rear font is a modern font rather than what the '36-37 Blackhawks wore. Why can't they wear the old-school numbers? The Blackhawks are actually wearing a sweater comprised of a mix of their 1936-37 sweaters and their 1937-38 sweaters, with the design of the sweater from the 1936-37 season and the chest crest from the 1937-38 sweaters.

Both teams will feature the Winter Classic patch on their jerseys. We like the look of these jerseys, even with patch, due to them being uncluttered. No word on whether the patch will have the Bridgestone wordmark on it after Bridgestone got in on the sponsorship action.

The choice to hold the second Winter Classic at Wrigley Field was not a given. Wrigley Field beat out the old Yankee Stadium last summer for the right to be the first baseball stadium to host an NHL game. Originally, the thought was to have Soldier Field host the game, but the Bears objected, (perhaps foolishly anticipating a home playoff game the following weekend) and believing the Winter Classic would ruin the field.

Organizers have spent the last couple weeks preparing the ballpark. A portable 200-by-85-foot rink was driven in from Mobile, Alabama, situated between first and third base. According to, the rink will be located 112 feet from home plate and 288 feet from the centerfield wall. There will be a second, smaller rink located in the outfield, which will be used by the Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois during the game. Additionally, the on-deck circles will feature logos for both teams. The Blackhawks and Red Wings will each enter the rink from the dugouts before the game, adding to the baseball atmosphere. The league has recreated the famous green outfield ivy and added temporary video replay boards, too.

And now, back to Teebz.

The major key in selecting Wrigley Field over a football venue was, of all things, time. Ice maker Dan Craig needed time to create the ice and test it, something they didn't have time to do at least year's game in Buffalo. The fact that baseball stadiums aren't being used in the winter make them perfect for Craig and his team of ice magicians because they have all the time in the world to get their sheet of ice ready. This year, it sounds like everything is nearly perfect.

Along with the rink, the NHL has gone out of its way to transform the ballpark into the "Greatest Outdoor Hockey Venue" for the day. There are hockey banners hanging in the concession areas everywhere you look, and pictures of the Blackhawks' players have replaced pictures of Cubs' players throughout the stadium. They added faux brick to the outside of the boards to have them match Wrigley Field's exterior, and there are billboard ads and images of ivy adorning the outfield wall, bringing to life the old ballpark as it looks in the summer.

No matter what the temperature is tomorrow, this game will even look as snowy as it did in Buffalo last year. The NHL has brought in two snow-making machines to cover the outfield grass in a layer of snow. Along with the mobile rink, the NHL has a real ice plant connected to the ice in order to maintain a consistent ice surface, unlike some of the problems they had in Buffalo last year. As mentioned above, the additional time to plan and test the ice for all conditions is also a key factor in putting the best ice on Wrigley Field.

In fact, the NHL has indicated that "the ice at Wrigley Field will be markedly better than the ice the Dallas Stars and Buffalo Sabres contested the 1999 Stanley Cup Final on at the Reunion Arena in Dallas". That's a good sign. With the forecast in Chicago at noon tomorrow calling for -1C (30F) and light snow, the improved ice situation means this game will be played in almost perfect outdoor conditions.

There are media all over this game. Television feeds will be handled in the United States by NBC, and in Canada by CBC (English) and Radio-Canada (French). Additionally, will also offer bonus video coverage via broadband video. The radio feed will be broadcast by NHL Radio on Westwood One throughout North America, and will also be carried by Sirius XM Radio. In addition, the US and Canadian versions of the NHL Network will carry programming book-ending the event starting with the practice sessions one day earlier, as well as the pre-game and post-game events, and offer replays that weekend using both NBC and CBC's feeds. Bethany of Kukla's Corner and Bethany's Hockey Rants is already in Chicago, and Teebz has kept open lines of communication with her, so any breaking news will be brought to you as quickly as possible.

In one of the better corporate branding stories, Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane is working in conjunction with Nike Bauer to design a pair of skates and stick for the upcoming Winter Classic at Wrigley Field. Only 88 skates and 88 sticks (Kane wears #88) were created for this special event and Kane will personally sign and auction off a portion of the limited edition product to raise money for breast Cancer research in Chicago and his home town of Buffalo. The Nike Bauer Vapor XXXX skates designed by Kane feature the traditional black, white and red colors of the retro Blackhawks uniforms that will be worn during the game. A fabulous auction with money going to a very good cause. Well done, Mr. Kane!

One note that anyone who is traveling to the game should know: there is absolutely no tailgating like there was in Buffalo last year. The Chicago Police Department strictly enforces open alcohol container laws, and we don't want anyone missing the game to get their drink on. Also, outside food or drink is not permitted inside Wrigley Field, so you can't bring stuff in with you either. It's better to be aware, fans.

I'm looking forward to a phenomenal game tomorrow in spite of all the corporate overkill. Both teams have excellent skill, and that should be on display for three hours tomorrow. If this game is anything like last season's Winter Classic, we're in for a real treat.

My thanks to Phil Hecken for his contributions, and you can check out a condensed Winter Classic update on the Uni Watch Blog today as well.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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