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League has a little fun with iconic Stanley Cup

League has a little fun with iconic Stanley Cup

By Terry Lefton, Staff Writer

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Behold, pro sports’ most famous trophy. That’s the Los Angeles Kings’ Dustin Brown doing the honors in 2014.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES


Surely, there are Pro Football Hall of Famers whose celebrity outshines the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Michael Jordan is infinitely more famous than the NBA’s Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy. But it’s impossible to name any NHL player more renowned than the Stanley Cup.

As pro sports’ most famous trophy, the symbol of NHL excellence is recognized everywhere it goes, sometimes even in its travel case — and the Stanley Cup is on the road more than 300 days annually.

While winning players have infamously taken the Cup everywhere, from the bottoms of swimming pools to the tops of mountains, it was not until the past 20 years or so that the NHL allowed business partners to commercially exploit its holy grail.

Now the Stanley Cup is a TV star in its own right, having appeared in ads on behalf of league sponsors including MasterCard, Discover and Honda. Licensed uses for consumer products opened enough to where you’ll find miniature Hershey’s chocolate Stanley Cups, Stanley Cup-embossed Oreos, and Pangea’s Stanley Cup popcorn poppers.

Over the most recent holiday season, some of the more ardent hockey fans in North America could have finished off their Christmas tree with an electric Stanley Cup tree topper from The Memory Co., which also sells Stanley Cup tree ornaments.

By no means is the league now open to any and all uses of the most revered icon.

“From a brand perspective, you want to keep it centered on excellence and what the Cup represents,” said Brian Jennings, NHL executive vice president of marketing, a 26-year veteran of the league’s front office, “but you also don’t want to be shutting it off from market demand.”

That wasn’t always the thinking at the league office.

“It was all we could do to get a trophy tour out during the Finals,” recalled Steve Ryan, the former Pittsburgh Penguins president, who headed NHL Enterprises from 1981-1995. “And there wasn’t any sponsor involvement.”

The Hockey Hall of Fame’s “Cup Keepers” are well-known as the trophy’s constant companions.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES


When it comes to commercial use of the Cup, things have loosened up over the past several decades for a number of reasons. The NHL itself began placing its championship trophy at the center of campaigns like “Cup Crazy” and “Because It’s the Cup” after research showed league officials that in terms of appeal across a wide swath of fans, the Stanley Cup was the league’s best and most underused asset. At focus groups across America, even casual fans knew that every winning player gets a day with the Cup, and about the Hockey Hall of Fame “Cup Keepers,” who accompany the trophy on its worldwide schedule and famously handle the 123-year-old silver chalice with white gloves.

“There was a bit of an ‘aha’ moment where we said, ‘OK, maybe we’re underplaying the Cup itself as an ambassador for our sport,’” Jennings said.

A Super Bowl breakthrough

Many point to FedEx’s memorable 1999 Super Bowl ad as the beginning of things easing up as far as NHL corporate sponsors’ link to the Cup. BBDO, New York, dreamed up the story, in which a bag of seed was mistakenly shipped by a FedEx competitor to Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena, where the Red Wings and a frenzied crowd are waiting to celebrate their Stanley Cup championship. Meanwhile, the Stanley Cup was inadvertently shipped to Jose Louis Arena — in Bolivia.

“We were trying to show what happens when you don’t use FedEx, and the Stanley Cup really supplied the relevance,” said John Osborn, the ad agency’s president and CEO.

Highlighting BBDO’s credo that nothing matters more than “the work, the work, the work,” the ad was on story boards and sold to FedEx long before it was realized that NHL rights would be required. The spot was planned as a Super Bowl ad even before it was filmed, which, as much as anything, helped convince the NHL of the ad’s merits.

“It was a great exposure opportunity with the Super Bowl, and the message that you would never use anything but the best with the Cup was one we’d always support,” Jennings said.

The Cup, which is on the road more than 300 days a year, is often the center of attention.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES


“When I got there, it was taboo to do anything with the Cup,” recalled Andrew Judelson, WME-IMG executive vice president of sales and marketing. As NHL senior vice president of sales and marketing, Judelson cut the deal allowing FedEx to use the Cup in that ad, although a replica was actually used.

“I wouldn’t say that opened floodgates, but it opened doors and the league started to have some of those conversations more routinely,” Judelson said.

Stanley Cup rule book

The NHL’s Stanley Cup Brand Guide cautions NHL business partners that the league’s most valuable icon should be used only when the Cup “serves as a necessary element in the communication” and should never be used for price or promotion marketing. Additionally, the Cup “cannot be filled with material or substances of any kind, including but not limited to beverages, food, sweepstakes tickets, sponsor merchandise, trinkets, etc.”

That’s in sharp contrast to what winning players fill the Cup with, starting with champagne and ending with delicacies, ranging from “stomach of cow soup” in Slovakia, to Brad Richards’ placement of a live lobster in the Cup to honor his father, a lifelong lobsterman on Prince Edward Island.

“There’s always a special moment for a player when he does something unique with the Cup in tribute to his hometown,” said Phil Pritchard, the Hockey Hall of Fame curator, who has been traveling with the Cup for 28 years. “That moment for that guy when he brings it to his hometown — that makes it special for him. Teemu Selanne took it into a sauna when we went to Finland.”

The Cup has spawned an array of licensed goods like popcorn poppers and tree ornaments, but the league has said no to drinking accessories.
Pritchard and the Cup have become inseparable enough that he has appeared in TV ads with the Cup for MasterCard, Honda and Discover.

Use of the Cup “in good taste” by commercial partners is often cited in the NHL’s Brand Guide, but Jennings said those decisions are meant to be rendered case by case. As the Supreme Court once ruled about pornography, the assumption is that they’ll “know it when they see it.”

“We always want to ensure there’s an authenticity to it and that’s it’s handled in a dignified manner,” Jennings said.

Greater latitude as far as using the Cup for licensed consumer products is a more recent phenomenon. UPI Marketing President and CEO Gene Smith tried to sell a replica Stanley Cup for three years before he was able
to take it to retail in 2007 — and he was told “no” by the league four times before hearing yes. Those Cup replicas originally were limited in size and they don’t bear the names of the winning players, like the genuine Cup.

These days, Smith and UPI have requests from retailers as big as Bed, Bath & Beyond to make a Stanley Cup wine opener. So far, that has not been approved. In an era where drinkware and barware licensees have proliferated, the league has thus far resisted licensing Stanley Cup-shaped glasses and drinking accessories.

“We want to protect the Cup’s integrity, yet at the same time, there’s this very powerful emotional connection that winning market has,” Jennings said. “Having a tight assortment of [licensed] products can speak to that, as long as it’s in good taste and done with care and dignity.”

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