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Q&A With NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins

The NHL is moving towards the close of another landmark year of forward progress. From their ever evolving deal with NBC to record fan engagement in the digital and social areas and new brand partnerships, most things NHL are buzzing.

We caught up with NHL COO John Collins to talk growth and the business of hockey.

• After another landmark season the NHL ends up at least in theory with a NY area vs. LA matchup in the Finals. How does that help the business of hockey?

Sure, it is great when you have two large markets like New Jersey and Los Angeles still in it, but we have dispelled the notion that we need certain markets in it in order to generate interest. Last year we had a Canadian team in the Final and it did not hurt the U.S. ratings. In fact, game 7 was the most-watched NHL game in the U.S. in 38 years.

• The Devils and Kings are easily two of the most forward-thinking teams in terms of digital engagement with fans. How important is that for the league as the Final plays out?

It’s very important and a huge opportunity, especially since the NHL fan demo ranks as the most tech savvy out of the top four major professional sports. Our fans’ appetite for great content is insatiable. We use digital media to provide a deeper experience that complements the live game, or as a supplement for those who aren’t able to attend or tune in. Regardless of the time of day, fans can stay engaged with the game through the platform of their choice – from Twitter and Facebook, to NHL.com and mobile phones – we’re there.

• The relationship with NBC continues to grow across all platforms. What was the biggest advancement in the relationship during the playoffs?

Having every playoff game nationally televised in the U.S. is the biggest advancement. We really wanted to elevate the Stanley Cup playoffs and with every game on national TV from the very beginning on either NBC, NBC Sports Network, CNBC or NHL Network, there was a bit of a March Madness-type feel to the playoffs this year. Fans were able to watch every team’s storyline from the beginning. NBC, as always, has done a great job with the storytelling. This approach allows hockey fans to stay engaged longer, even after their favorite team has been eliminated.

• The Kings have done a good job in embracing the Hollywood insiders community, has the League been able to take advantage of that relationship during their run?

We love all of our fans, and have a large number of celebrities who are die-hards. We do as much as we can, whether it is having celebs guest on the NHL Network, featuring them on NHL.com, having them take part in our annual Awards show in Las Vegas, or have them take over our Twitter account – like Alyssa Milano did during the Conference Final. It’s about having fun.

• Is there any concern that neither of these teams really has an individual star that the casual fan knows?

I believe these teams do have individual stars. With three Stanley Cups and being the current record holder in shut outs and wins, Martin Brodeur of the Devils is a star. Anze Kopitar, thanks in part to the Kings success this season, is a star on the rise. And in a city like Los Angeles that is full of stars, that is not an easy task. We believe there are stars on every team, and they emerge when given the platform and opportunity to have a light shined on them and their stories. A great of example of this is through our “24/7: Road to the Winter Classic” show on HBO, which we have done the past two years leading up to the Winter Classic. It attracts non-sports fans as much as it does the most avid hockey fan out there, because it’s storytelling at its best, which is one way we our players turn into stars. This past year, we saw Philly goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov emerge as the breakout star thanks in part to his philosophical musings on the universe. The year before, everyone expected Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin to be the focus of the series, but the juxtaposition of two very different coaches in Penguins’ Dan Bylsma of the Capitals’ former coach Bruce Boudreau, became one of the storylines that stood out the most. It’s exciting to see these stars emerge.

• The marketing of the “Cup Experience” has gone to a new level this year. Now that you have NY area and LA are there other offshoots fans will see in the Finals, especially in NY and LA?

We’ve really focused on the Stanley Cup in our marketing this year. Our research shows that when it comes to premiere sports properties and brands, the Stanley Cup has as much equity as the Super Bowl, Olympics and World Series. It’s the most recognizable trophy in all of sports. So we wanted to focus on our iconic trophy, which speaks to all sports fans. We’ve done that in our “Because it’s the Cup” spots and through more fun things such as placing a 22 ft tall Stanley Cup in the middle of Times Square for the first three days of the Playoffs and creating a Stanley Cup sand castle in the middle of LA Live where the Kings play. It’s something everyone can rally around and participate in, even if they aren’t fans of one particular team. Everyone is a fan of the Cup.

• What has been the reaction amongst your Canadian business partners to see a playoff run without a solid presence by any of their franchises? Did it matter much?

It’s not about whether or not a Canadian team is still in it, or vice versa, if having a Canadian team in the Final would affect popularity in the States. Seventy million fans have tuned in so far through the first three rounds of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. More than 26 million have logged on to NHL.com in the post season. There is a demand here, and we believe it is just the beginning. The best is yet to come.

• What is the biggest thing that can be done in the short term to get casual fans to know more about the players and personalities of the Devils and the Kings?

We need to tell the stories behind these two teams and shine a light on our players. One great example of how we are doing this is through our new NHL Original Productions feature “Inside the Cup,” which premiered this week on NHL Network and CBC in Canada. Using the access we have as a League, we have been capturing footage and audio beginning on day one of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. “Inside the Cup” weaves that unique footage to tell how the Kings and the Devils beat the odds and earned their spot in the Stanley Cup Final. It slows down the game and deepens a fan’s relationship with playoffs.

• Going into the offseason how much from a business standpoint will it help to have the Cup in one of the two biggest marketplaces in North America?

Having it in either LA or the New York area is an advantage just by their proximity to national media outlets alone. That said, if you saw the parades in Boston last year or Chicago the year before, you realize how the Stanley Cup can unite a city and become the biggest story in town. In places like Los Angeles or New York, it’s hard to be the biggest story in town. Whatever championship city emerges, the intensity of our efforts to grow the game doesn’t change.