Connor McDavid is eager to shrug off personal stats, awards and achievements and put the focus on his
team in Edmonton.
Yet there he is on the cover of a video game or in a commercial for a bank.
Auston Matthews is the face of the franchise in Toronto. But he also got razzed by his Maple Leafs
teammates for doing a stylish fashion photo shoot for GQ magazine.
"It was a lot of fun," Matthews said. "Kind of something that definitely got you out of
your comfort zone."
The rink for long decades has been the comfort zone for so many hockey players who put their full energy
into the sport and are indoctrinated from a young age that the logo on the front of the jersey matters
more than the name on the back.
That team-oriented part of hockey culture remains entrenched, but the NHL is finally beginning to market
its stars as the NFL and NBA have done with great success.
As dynamic players like McDavid, Matthews and Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau settled in Canadian markets and
star power spread to smaller cities without much hockey tradition, marketing players and not just teams
is essential to growing the NHL’s fan base. For a sport that generally sees its TV ratings drawn from
fans of the two teams playing — and where the Stanley Cup Final doesn’t pull in nearly as much as the
Super Bowl or NBA Finals — it’s a concerted effort to build up personalities and players’ brands to
become more popular.
"It is a changing landscape," said Judd Moldaver, Matthews’ agent and senior vice president of
Wasserman Orr Hockey. "Hockey players are such fantastic athletes and fantastic people that I
believe the hybrid of playing for the logo on the front but also being able to optimize your individual
situation. I think the two can coexist."
Matthews, McDavid, Nashville’s P.K. Subban and other stars are sharing more personality than players of
previous eras like Mario Lemieux and even Wayne Gretzky. No longer is it seen as selfish for Subban to
host a late-night talk show or for Matthews to shoot a cellphone commercial.
"Why not try? Just because the person next to me doesn’t think that they can host their own show
doesn’t mean that I can’t," Subban said. "What people have to understand is we’re at the rink
three hours a day. We have a lot of time. We have days off, we have travel days and obviously there’s
certain points in the schedule where you can’t do anything but hockey because of the way the schedule’s
set up and the travel. But outside of hockey, a lot of times I don’t go home. I have meetings, I have
different things that I’m doing. I have all these other interests."
Showcasing those interests is part of the NHL’s shift. The league this season debuted a "Skates
Off" series of vignettes with a player from all 31 teams to show what they are like off the ice,
including Jack Eichel being a guest DJ at a Buffalo classic rock radio station, Victor Hedman sharing
his love of flying planes and Seth Jones showing his cooking talent.
"It’s nice to see those personalities come out," said Nick Foligno, a teammate of Jones’ in
Columbus. "That’s how you grow the game. You look in other sports and the personalities come out,
and that’s what fans are drawn to."
NHL chief content officer and executive vice president Steve Mayer knows this. Since joining the league
in late 2015 after 20 years at talent and sports giant IMG, he has helped lead the charge to put more
focus on star players whose abilities and personalities could play a role in attracting younger fans who
are attached to social media in the digital age.
"Other leagues do this, and we really don’t do it as well — we want to get better at it," Mayer
said. "Other leagues it doesn’t really matter sometimes: You just tune in to watch the guy play.
And we need to do that even more. … I want to be able to have fans even in (another) town (who) cannot
wait to see Connor McDavid come to town because we have marketed him as one of our greatest players. I
don’t know whether that happens enough."
The NHL, Mayer said, has no interest in abandoning the team culture of hockey. But after a 2016 Magna
Global study showed the average age of NHL fans rose 16 years over a span of 16 years — essentially
stagnant — experts praised the league for trying to create more buzz among millennials and Generation Z.
"They recognize this, and they’re in a cultural shift, a cultural transformation within
hockey," said Stephanie Tryce, assistant professor of sports marketing at Saint Joseph’s University
in Philadelphia. "Generation Z is about a lifestyle. They’re interested in things like social
responsibility and they celebrate more of their identities than in the past, so that’s going to force
hockey to continue to make inroads into other markets like the Hispanic/Latino market. It’s a market
that you can’t ignore, but it’s also a market that historically hasn’t been in hockey. So you have to
Matthews is at the center of that. His father is from California, his mother is from Mexico and he grew
up in a nontraditional American hockey market in Arizona. Moldaver works closely with Matthews’ parents
to chart a course for off-ice endeavors, from commercials and endorsement deals to philanthropic
efforts, all of which continue to grow for the 21-year-old.
McDavid’s star began at an even earlier age, and the 2017 NHL MVP who has arguably surpassed Sidney
Crosby as the greatest player in the world is finding his voice off the ice, too. When NFL Canada asked
Rams and Patriots players at the Super Bowl who McDavid was, several thought maybe the prime minister or
an actor. Work is ongoing to make him more recognizable outside hockey.
Hockey is such a team sport that individualism has for decades been frowned upon. Adidas senior director
Dan Near said it’s a delicate balance to try to sell personalities but not stray too far from the team.
"I think there’s a fine line between doing it to promote yourself a little bit and being cocky, and
I think we’ve got a lot of guys that do a great job of treading that line," Ottawa’s Bobby Ryan
said. "You’re starting to see guys be promoted a little more, and it’s nice because then you get to
see some individual personalities come out, and in a sport where you’re so often wearing helmets and
gear, people don’t get to relate to you face-to-face."
Teams have been reluctant to some of the league’s efforts sometimes until they see the final product.
Mayer recalls showing owners and general managers clips of potential ideas and seeing the hesitancy for
propping one player up before they understand the wide-ranging plan to give the NHL more exposure.
Initiatives like "Stanley Cup Confidential" where a player from each of the league’s 16 playoff
teams shoots a daily cellphone video is another baby step.
"We are not here to break the culture. We’re just here to show that certain players are dynamic and
have personality," Mayer said. "Players are starting gradually to see, you know what, it’s OK.
I’m not disrupting the locker room and it’s OK to show personality and have some fun and smile."
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports