Every team in sports needs fans to survive. While fans will come with wins and championship seasons, sometimes teams and even the league will reach out and try to scoop up new viewers. Whether its some promotional giveaways or All Star games, teams and leagues have tried may different gimmicks to increase viewership. You’ll see more wacky promotions in the minor leagues such as the American Hockey League (AHL) and the ECHL. Sometimes even the big leagues comes up with some crazy ideas. While mascots are great interaction for fans in the stadium and out, they are pretty average compared to what some teams and leagues have tried.
Giving it away
At every level of hockey there is always going to be a giveaway night. Generally a season calendar or t-shirt, maybe even a magnet or poster. Bobble heads and rally towels are among the standard fare for the promotional night. Sometimes a fan favorite has a special item given away to help put people in the seats. In 2009 Philadelphia Flyers gave wigs to the first 5000 attendees. Why wigs you ask, well it’s because of fan favorite Scott Hartnell. Hartnell had some beautifully curly red locks that the Flyer fans absolutely adored. Hartnell’s hair became somewhat of a symbol for him during his time with the team. While most fans would expect a hat or a mini helmet, Philadelphia went the odd route and engaged the Flyers faithful in a unique way.
Once in a while the giveaway items end up on the ice. It’s a mix bag of good times and bad times. Many of giveaway items make it to the ice after a hat trick. Some make it because a fan is displeased with the performance of team. Weird things have always made it onto the ice from octopus to bras, but during giveaway night things seem to make it there easier. During the 1996 season Florida Panthers fans threw plastic rats on the ice after goals. Why plastic rats, well former player Scott Mellanby allegedly killed a rat in the locker room with his stick before a game then went on to score two goals that night. Panthers fans got wind of the story and took it to a new level. Nicknamed the Rat Trick, the little rubber rodents found the ice surface after goals. Reaching its peak during the 1996 Stanley Cup run, thousands of the vinyl vermin rained down. Fans began pelting the opposing teams players and officials. So many rats were thrown after goals that the referees issued delay of game penalties to help control the problem. The NHL promptly moved to amend the rule book to prevent this from becoming a further trend.
It’s not all bad though, teams have even encouraged throwing items on the ice in the name of charity. The Teddy Bear Toss is common occurrence among the minor and junior leagues. The bears are thrown during a designated break in play. The teddies are collected and donated to local charities or hospitals. What started out as a cute and fun way to engage fans and the community has turned into a phenomenon. What started with a few hundred teddy bears being thrown has grown to tens of thousands. In 2015 the Calgary Hitmen set an unofficial record of sorts with over 28,000 bears thrown and collected.
You always need a theme
Theme nights are usually seen at the junior and minor league levels. If there’s a hit movie during the season expect to see a theme night at your local minor team’s games. Star Wars nights, comic book movie night are among the most common. Holidays also make their way in during that time of year. Santa or Christmas nights have gone well except for a few odd instances.For the New York Islanders what started as a great idea in December of 2003 ended a little weird. Any fan dressed as Santa would be admitted into the game for free. The fans were even allowed to parade around the ice after the first period. Then things started to go sour, one of the santas removed their outfit to unveil a New York Rangers Jersey. Obviously fans that night were a little upset. Other santas began to push and grab at the Rangers fan, trying to remove the jersey. Thankfully Islanders crew members quickly took hold of the situation and calmed things down.
Ugly sweaters have become more popular on and off the ice. From the lower leagues to the premier leagues, it seems like every team has had an ugly or wacky sweater night. Teams have given away ugly sweaters and encouraged fans to wear them into the game for a free thank you item at the entry gate. The junior leagues tend take it to a whole new level by changing the regular jerseys to an ugly sweater version. Most are comical to see but some are down right ugly. Fans have come to expect the ugly sweater jersey during the holidays. Game worn ugly jerseys are even auctioned off after games to the benefit of local charities.
Not all promotions are a hit with the audience, the NHL teamed with comic book legend Stan Lee to bring fans The Guardian Project. All 30 teams had a guardian designed after the team’s name. Each guardian had it’s own bio with their powers and a small little quip about them. The Guardians were promoted in January 2011 during the build up to the NHL All-Star game in North Carolina. Each day a new member of the squad was revealed on the NHL’s Facebook page after fans voted on who the wanted to see next. Costing millions to produce and promote the Guardian Project failed miserably. After the All-Star weekend the idea was quickly and quietly dropped. The hope was to bring in people, mostly younger viewers, who could only name a few teams and over time convert them to hockey fans. Using various media formats the Guardian project missed it’s mark and were erased from the page officially in December of 2011. We did get this wonderful video package showing off the Guardians during an intermission of the All-Star Game though.
Improving the view
During the late 90’s the NHL teamed up with Fox to create FoxTrax. It was a visual aid to help people unfamiliar with the sport of hockey to better follow the game. Nicknamed the “glow puck” or “comet puck” it was a welcome sight to new fans. Unfortunately it was met with mixed reviews among established fans. Long time fans saw the puck as a distraction and made the broadcasts look too much like a video game.
The glow was used to show the speed at which the puck traveled and made it easier to track for newer fans. A light blue glow was used for a slow moving puck with a red comet trail for harder shots. The blue glow did not show well against the white of the ice and looked blurry on television. Special pucks were also used for the FoxTrax system, custom made with sensors inside. Some players reported more rebounds and an overall bouncier puck. The pucks were also not available for the teams to practice with as they were too expensive. Using infrared technology the sensor along the top of the glass were not only distracting but required it’s own dedicated production. After two years the FoxTrax system was abandoned for use with hockey. It’s debatable if the technology was useful or just ahead of its time. I remember watching games with the glow puck and thought the idea was neat and exciting, but it became a nuisance the more I witnessed it. FoxTrax technology has moved on to other sports to show things like strike zones in baseball and the lines for football. It has crept back into hockey as its the decendant of the technology used to place virtual ads on the glass during broadcasts. The technology has grown over the 20 years since the glow puck and now I wonder what sports visuals would be like if the NHL didn’t take a shot on this idea.
Hockey is not the only sport to try some weird promotions to bring fans in. Every sport has that one idea that sounded great on paper but maybe it should have stayed there. Wacky ideas and one off attempts will always be around. Whether it’s bring something to the game or bring the family dog, these promotions and gimmicks are here to stay. As a fan of these crazy thoughts that sometimes should not have seen the light of day, I can’t wait to see what the sports world comes up with next.
Jim McBride is the “Beyond the Ice” columnist for Good Night, Good Hockey. You can contact him at email@example.com.