THE NHL / HELENE ELLIOTT : Hockey's New Operating Plan Sounds a Lot Like NBA's

Its teams are grouped in divisions with geographical names for easy reference and its playoff system seeds teams on the basis of points, from one to eight in each of the league's two conferences.

Its annual all-star game, televised nationally, is a weekend event complete with skills contests.

Energetic executives with impressive credentials are educating potential fans about its virtues and selling the league's players to corporate America as commercial spokesmen.

The NBA's operating plan? Right. But the subject here is hockey.

As the season begins, so too does the NBA-ization of the NHL, the transforming of a hidebound league content with a narrow audience into an entertainment and marketing machine that hopes fans will want to be like Wayne and Mario as much as like Mike.

"You look at what they're doing and you say, are they efforts to mimic the NBA or long overdue changes?" said Alan Friedman of Team Market Report, which tracks sports marketing and promotions. "There's a patterning going on in same of these changes, like the conference names. Even purists got confused, Smith (sic) and Wales, Smith and Wesson, those changes were long overdue.

"I view the NHL as a store that's never had anyone pay attention to it and its potential has never been realized. Now they have a good storekeeper."

That storekeeper is Commissioner Gary Bettman, formerly senior vice president and general counsel of the NBA. Although he chafes at comparisons of the leagues, the parallels are there, from the NHL's realignment and playoff changes to growing sentiment for a draft lottery and a salary cap.

"I get sensitive on the subject because I don't think you can take what was done in the NBA and use a cookie-cutter approach in the NHL," Bettman said. "I think we've put an infrastructure in place to better serve our constituent group, whether that's through the media, broadcasting, licensing, legal (department), or hockey operations. The fact is that there are issues all sports have to deal with and are not peculiar to basketball.

"I think of it as the application of sound business principles. That's a function of being well run. I had the best teacher that a budding commissioner could have, in David Stern. I spent 12 years with him and from him I learned the value of hard work, execution in detail and giving service at the best possible level to everyone you interface with."

Service with a smile and showcasing the players are standard procedures in the NBA. They are revolutionary ideas in the NHL, for decades a string of family fiefdoms run on secrecy and territorialism. Under former president John Ziegler, for instance, the NHL chose short-term financial gain over long-term fan gain when it signed with SportsChannel America, a premium cable TV service, instead of plumbing the vast audiences of basic cable.

Amid the legion of NBA players selling shoes, beverages and underwear on national TV commercials, there's only one hockey player. The Kings' Wayne Gretzky sells Sharp View Cams and has also promoted Diet Coke and Thrifty rental cars, but other players are relegated to local products or ads for hockey equipment. Its players are unknown because the NHL isn't on national TV--or is it that the NHL doesn't have a network TV deal because its players are so little known?

Its TV situation is better now, but it lags far behind the NBA's comprehensive network-cable deal. ABC will televise three regular-season games and three playoff games and ESPN will show 26 games plus up to 37 playoff games, and the new ESPN2 will show 75 games plus playoff games.

"You want to promote the product and the product is the talent," said Bob Goodenow, executive director of the NHL Players Assn. "Our owners were not focused on that. We've got great personalities and stories out there. The way the NBA has done it is by focusing on personalities. It's not the Lakers vs. the Bulls, it's Magic vs. Michael, or Patrick (Ewing) vs. Magic. That gives it a special spin. We can do it, too. You have Wayne against Pat (LaFontaine), (Chris) Chelios against (Steve) Yzerman. We've got some catch-up to do in that regard."

There is so much catching up to do, though, it's like starting over.

"From a league point of view, we're looking at marketing, broadcast and an outreach of exposure as a clean slate," said Bernadette Mansur, the NHL's new vice president for corporate communications. "It's marketing the game of hockey for the first time. It's a great product that has never been looked at with marketing eyes before.

"One thing we say around here if someone asks how something was done before is, 'There is no last year.' This is a new NHL, not in its devotion to the game, but in its devotion to bringing people out to see it."

The new NHL has no Ziegler, who was rarely visible during his 15-year tenure, and no Gil Stein, who succeeded Ziegler. Stein stayed on after Bettman was hired but left in September, after an inquiry found that he had improperly engineered his own election to hockey's Hall of Fame.

The new order has advertising experts like Mansur, who worked on the "Dan and Dave" campaign as Reebok's corporate communications director, but it also features a respected hockey mind in Brian Burke, a former player and Harvard Law graduate who held front-office positions in Vancouver and Hartford. Burke will be Bettman's chief hockey deputy.

"Gary brought together a team of people whose backgrounds are in very different areas with the attitude, 'Take this jewel and expose it,' " Mansur said.

Bettman is the only one with the NBA on his resume, but all of his recruits are familiar with basketball's path to prominence and prosperity.

"We want our star players, Gretzky and Mario, out there with other star players," Mansur said. "When we get them there, it's not following the NBA, it's just basic principles.

"You highlight your players. You expand your audience by getting people to understand these players have a heart and soul. But before we get where we need to be, we have to take some basic steps. It's basic Marketing 101. That's what Coca-Cola does, that's what Reebok does."

That's what the NHL never did. When Bettman arrived last December, he discovered "the infrastructure needed a lot of work. . . . In terms of essential areas, either nobody existed or a change needed to be made."

With his decisive, hands-on style, Bettman has already elevated the NHL's profile. By handling disciplinary procedures swiftly--before the player's next game, if possible--he has instilled credibility where dithering used to spark derision. By ordering players to serve suspensions on game days instead of on practice days, as Stein did, his intolerance for misbehavior is clearly stated. And by ensuring labor peace, he has created an air of harmony.

"It's not likely that it will be as big a force as far as the volume of licensed merchandise the NBA sells or the type of personalities the NBA generates as corporate sponsors, but the good news is the NHL has put its house in order and has started to implement plans that are going to be effective," said Brian Murphy, editor and publisher of Sports Marketing Letter, another publication that tracks sports marketing and promotion.

"Hockey will find its niche. Every sport shouldn't measure itself against what the NBA has done, but against the effort the NBA expends. Is it trying hard to get itself out there? Is it being creative? Is it keeping sponsors happy? Is it trying to forge good links with the players?

"I see the pace picking up. I think the NHL has some very good years ahead of it, and this year and next year will be the start of it. I think you'll see the NHL rise as it gets established in California and Florida."

Said Bettman: "To me, a turnaround is not like throwing a light switch. We finished with a great flurry at the end of last year and this year we're going to take another few steps forward. There's no artificial deadline. This year, we want to do better than last, and next season a little better than this season. Each day is a new challenge."

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