World of opportunity

RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:31 AM ET

To: Gary B. Bettman

NHL head office

1251 Avenue of the Americas

New York, NY 10020-1198

From: Randy Sportak, Calgary Sun

- - -

Dear Gary: Now that this distraction called a lockout is in its final days and you've managed to impose a salary cap -- oops, sorry, cost certainty -- on the players, the time has come to take a step forward for the Coolest Game on Earth.

Which means a new word in the National Hockey League's language: Marketing.

For some reason, the NHL has never been good at selling itself. Despite having the greatest sport in the world (hey, some of us are biased) and the most approachable group of pro athletes, they are not household names.

But here's the beauty of this brave new world. If there's ever been an era when the players themselves realize the importance of selling the game, this is it.

Their salaries are tied to the Benjamins, meaning the more brought in, the more that goes in their pockets.

Now, we all know you'll likely grab a costly Starbucks coffee, head down to Wall Street to meet some guru with the hopes he'll push our game to a whole new level. (Actually, for a year or two it'll be to get it back to its previous level before you all decided to waste a full season but you get the gist.)

However, let this be an invitation to try another tactic. Hop a plane for the beautiful town of Canmore and knock on Andrew Ference's door.

No, it's not a ruse with someone awaiting to take you to find a grizzly bear to pet, it's a serious suggestion.

Because if you want ideas from somebody who is actually in the trenches, he's your man.

Don't think so? Listen to this.

"The opportunity we have for our game right now is awesome," Ference said the other day. "Players will have to be involved in how the game is developed and marketed. They will have an investment.

"New rules will help but, beyond that, there's so many things we can do."

We all know the repackaging -- 'It's a whole new game' being the new slogan -- will mean some twists on an old brand.

Rules will be changed and, finally, enforced, goalies will be smaller, maybe shootouts and even bigger nets.

But the NHL needs much more to grow.

Think of the options with TV. Why not cameras on helmets and masks to show viewers just how fast the game is? Or how hard those punches come?

Why not mikes everywhere possible? Fans would love to hear what players are saying to each other during scrums or when they're sniping in the penalty boxes.

Why not interviews with players during the two-minute commercial breaks like they do in lacrosse.

As Ference said: "Why not try everything you can think of. Some things may not work but why not try them. I don't want fans to just see the sport. Bring them in to see the characters of of the sport."

Which brings us to the real failure of the league in its past, the unwillingness to sell the players as individuals.

Yeah, yeah, hockey is a team sport -- all for one and one for all ... nobody's bigger than the team. We've heard all the cliches.

But if the NHL is going to pull itself from the abyss in which it sits today, that 18th century thinking must be eradicated.

"If people can love Allen Iverson, the gangster, why can't they fall in love with Jarome Iginla? He's a great athlete, great person. He's the man," Ference said.

"People all over the U.S. should learn who Sidney Crosby is. Let them know, just like LeBron James, he's going to be that good."

We say that's just the tip of the iceberg.

With more than 700 players, the potential for ad campaigns is enormous.

Tell anybody and everybody about goofball Jeremy Roenick. He may be willing to kiss some fans' butts.

Get chatterbox Craig Conroy to talk through a 30-second commercial without taking a breath, maybe even alongside his antithesis Quoteless Joe Sakic. Show Todd Bertuzzi for the WWE villain he is and Martin Brodeur as the brick wall he appears to be in front of a net.

That's just the beginning.

It would take 30 seconds for a camera to pan up the body of monstrous Zdeno Chara, to detail each and every scar on Chris Chelios' face, to witness the talent possessed by the Goal Dust twins -- Atlanta's Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk.

Show Paul Kariya's juggling skills, have Jordin Tootoo provide cooking lessons, Roberto Luongo itemizing all his bruises from the multitude of pucks that hit his body on a nightly basis.

Guaranteed, you'd enjoy some time with the straight-shooting Flames defenceman. If for no other reason, you'll have something in common, since Bob Goodenow isn't Ference's biggest fan. (Something about the fact he has a mind for himself and questions authority but that's another issue.)

However, with your league needing legitimate ideas to make it bigger than ever before, a brainstorming session in the shadows of the Rocky Mountains would be well worth it.

Thanks for your time.

-- Randy Sportak


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