Promoting Grassroots Participation while Building the Brand: To What Extent are NHL Teams Community Institutions?

Yesterday’s Globe and Mail ran an interesting article by James Mirtle about the Pittsburgh Penguins’ contributions to grassroots hockey in Western Pennsylvania. For the past four years, the Penguins, and in particular captain Sidney Crosby, have been extremely active in promoting hockey amongst Pittsburgh youth by providing free equipment and on-ice instruction. The initiative, while obviously having a major commercial motivation in terms of growing the Penguins’ business in the long-term, is an interesting example of how professional sport franchises can be more than simply entertainment spectacles and commercial enterprises, and actually invest socially in their local communities.

Here is Mirtle’s description of the Penguins’ grassroots hockey initiative:

One thousand kids, aged 4 to 8, who every year for the past four years have received full hockey equipment paid for by the Pittsburgh Penguins, their 25-year-old captain and several sponsors. . . . The combined effect of Crosby and Co. providing free gear and instruction has brought a quick and dramatic change that landscape in this football-crazed city, to the point that there are now 120-per-cent more children aged 10 and under playing in Western Pennsylvania than even five years earlier. . . .

The Penguins have hired four full-time staffers, including one high-level exec in Rick Hixon – chosen executive director of strategic planning in 2010 – dedicated mainly to minor-hockey growth.

The team also supplies free sticks to every elementary school in the region and has begun constructing ball hockey facilities as it tries to compete with football and baseball for young athletes’ attention.

The Penguins are not alone amongst American NHL teams in trying to promote hockey in the local community. In May, Chris Peters posted an excellent overview of hockey participation rates in the United States and examined a few case studies to try to determine possible causes for increased registration. Alongside the possible impact of Alexander Ovechkin’s superstardom and the Boston Bruins’ 2011 Stanley Cup victory on hockey participation in Washington, DC and Boston respectively, Peters looked at growth in non-traditional hockey states such as Tennessee, Arizona, North Carolina, Florida, and California. Each of these states has an NHL team and each has seen significant growth in hockey participation over the past few years.

I had read previously that the Dallas Stars contributed significantly to the development of high school and youth hockey in Texas after moving to the Lone Star State in 1993, and I was curious as to whether this had been a part of the higher rates of registration in other Sunbelt states. While not having hard data to make this case, Peters did offer the following comment in regards to my question:

I’ll have to look into this a bit more, as I’m not entirely familiar with what has happened in every market, but no one has come close to doing what Dallas did in terms of making an investment. Building multiple rinks was key to growth in Texas.

Phoenix has been very engaged with youth hockey, though I don’t believe there has been much in terms of monetary investment. Not sure about Nashville.

Tampa Bay has gotten a lot more involved with local youth hockey under [new owner] Jeff Vinik.

So it certainly seems as though at least some NHL clubs see investment in youth hockey as a local responsibility, a way to increase profits, a feel-good PR exercise, or a combination of the three. I am certainly not going to deny that there is the possibility that such investments may be motivated mainly by financial motives. Mirtle’s article suggests as much, as the Penguins look to increase their fanbase in Steelers Country:

[Penguins president David] Morehouse has pushed for the Penguins to build their brand and the game of hockey even more while they’re [successful]. . . . One of his first undertakings as team president was to do market research to find out how fans felt about the franchise, something that helped point the organization toward getting more kids playing the game.

But I would also like to suggest that, if done in an inclusive and socially responsible way, investing in local hockey participation can help a hockey team move from being a local business franchise to becoming a cultural institution in its local community. Previously on this blog, Ted Nolan wrote about the idea of an NHL team being a public institution in reference to the Maple Leafs’ significance in Toronto. He suggests that teams like the Maple Leafs are simultaneously “owned” by the fans who invest emotionally and financially in the team’s fortunes at the same time that they are literally owned by wealthy owners or powerful corporations.

I think Ted’s conceptualization of sport team ownership is helpful in understanding how community investments by a team like the Pittsburgh Penguins, while being part of a conscious marketing strategy by the owners of the franchise, are also facilitating community “ownership” of the team in terms of social development and emotional attachment to the team and the sport of hockey. Investments in grassroots hockey participation, as well as the countless other local charity initiatives in which NHL teams participate, create a more reciprocal relationship (albeit one still markedly tilted in favour of the franchise and its owners) between teams and the communities in which they play.

While NHL Sunbelt teams, and even 1967 expansion franchises like the Penguins or Philadelphia Flyers, do not have the same local histories and cultural resonances as teams like the Maple Leafs or Montreal Canadiens, they are nonetheless building roots in their communities, winning new fans (and consumers), and investing in various ways in the regions in which they play. The possibility exists, therefore, for hockey teams to be greater than the sum of their on-ice accomplishments and to be cultural institutions over which the public has a degree of ownership. If a team reaches this level of local institutionalization it has the potential to take bold and influential stands on social issues. Consider the status and influence of the Vancouver Canucks in British Columbia and, as a result, the significance of the team’s participation in the Vancouver Pride Parade last summer. Or the efforts by the seven Canadian NHL teams to start conversations around mental illness through the Hockey Talks initiative.

I recognize that I am taking an overly rosy view of the significance of NHL teams in their communities and that, ultimately, multinational economic imperatives will trump local investment in hockey franchises. If that was not the case, the Jets, Nordiques and North Stars would have never left Winnipeg, Quebec and Minnesota in the 1990s. Returning to the Penguins’ investment in grassroots hockey, I am also well aware that participation in and of itself is not an inherently positive phenomenon. There are major problems in many hockey subcultures, and it is important to explore the experience of children and youth being introduced to the sport. Are they socialized into violent, hierarchical, and ultra-competitive ways of playing the sport? Or are they allowed to explore and develop their skills, learn teamwork and social skills, and take intrinsic pleasure in playing hockey in a supportive environment? It is also worth consider, as Courtney Szto has done on this blog, who really has the opportunity to experience hockey and who is excluded based on socioeconomic status, gender, or cultural identity? My argument here is not unproblematic and the significance of NHL teams’ charity and outreach efforts needs to be researched and scrutinized in far more depth.

Nonetheless, it would seem that, for all the problems that plague NHL hockey, that many teams are making an effort to culturally embed themselves within and contribute to the local communities in which they are located. And it would seem that there are some potentially positive social opportunities that may emerge from this investment.

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