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THE NHL'S YOUNG STARS: WHO WILL BREAK OUT OF THE PACK?
Published February 15, 1995
With its labor troubles put to rest, the NHL has returned its focus to building on the success of the '93-94 season and establishing a stronger fan base. In addition to selling the game, a key element of the league's strategy appears to be the marketing of its young stars. And as THE SPORTS BUSINESS DAILY found in an exclusive survey, the field is wide open to find the heir to Wayne Gretzky -- a star that not only dominates the sport, but transcends it. "YOUNG AND FRESH" FACES: Bernadette Mansur, NHL VP of Corporate Communications, said that in talking to NHL marketing partners and sponsors, the league is hearing that "one of the strengths of this league is the fact that we have many young players that represent the teamwork of this game. ... Sponsors have come to us and want people who are young and fresh -- people who are new to the scene." Our panel of 25 top sports industry professionals with a knowledge of hockey was asked for its short list of young players to keep an eye on -- vehicles for the league and sponsors to sell the game and its products. The question: "With the exception of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, who are the top, young, marketable athletes in the NHL?" Our panel included members of the media, top agents and others in athlete management, and officials of sponsor companies and equipment manufacturers. THE TOP TEN: 1. Pavel Bure, Vancouver Canucks 2. Eric Lindros, Philadelphia Flyers 3. Paul Kariya, Anaheim Mighty Ducks (rookie) tie- 4. Sergei Fedorov, Detroit Red Wings Jaromir Jagr, Pittsburgh Penguins Jeremy Roenick, Chicago Blackhawks tie- 5. Adam Graves, New York Rangers Brian Leetch, New York Rangers tie- 6. Teemu Selanne, Winnipeg Jets Radek Bonk, Ottawa Senators PAVEL BURE: The 23-year old Russian was mentioned by 17 of the 25 surveyed and was the top choice of five. Bure, a right- wing who has been selected to play in two All-Star games in his three years in the NHL, gained great exposure during last year's Stanley Cup Final. Peter Davis, Dir of Promotions/PR at Canstar Sports, said Bure's "playing style is from another planet. He has brought a lot of talent to the game." One hurdle in Bure's marketability is his difficulty with the English language. Veteran hockey writer Red Fisher of the Montreal GAZETTE said Bure is "good looking but has a problem with the language." Bure has recently been the focus of trade talks and wants to play in a large U.S. city, preferably New York -- which could increase his drawing power dramatically. ERIC LINDROS: The Flyers' 6'4" center has been tapped by many in the industry to assume the mantle as league superstar after Wayne Gretzky retires. The No. 1 entry draft pick in '91, Lindros was mentioned by 13 of the respondents, and picked No. 1 by five. One agent called Lindros a "marketing volcano just waiting to erupt." Kevin Paul Dupont, hockey writer for the BOSTON GLOBE, believes Lindros is "finally poised to be THE player of the '90's." PAUL KARIYA: In what may be the biggest surprise of the survey, the Anaheim rookie was selected by nine of the industry's leaders, with four votes for No. 1. Steve Dryden, Editor-in-Chief of THE HOCKEY NEWS, said Kariya "is one to watch. He is something special. He is going to be elite for years to come. He is bright, intellectual, a perfect spokesperson, he is a natural." The relationship between the Mighty Ducks and the Disney organization is also seen as a big plus for the young rookie. As the GLOBE's Dupont says, "Disney built him. The following will come." INTERNATIONAL FACTOR: Although some believe the NHL faces a challenge in selling its foreign players, David Grant, Management Supervisor at Clarion Performance Properties, disagrees noting that the new TV contract with Fox will help the NHL market its foreign stars. Grant: "You can bet that when Fox and the NHL look at what games to air, they are going to be looking at where the players are popular. If Bure is the big guy, you can bet Vancouver is going to find themselves on network TV." Mansur also cited the "global outreach" that comes with the foreign players as a positive: "We are an international game." REGIONAL STARS: As Ron Cohen at Herman's Sporting Goods notes, NHL stars historically have had strong appeal on a regional basis. The three players tied at No. 4 are good examples, and their fate as national icons could be a bellwether for the league's overall performance. The Penguins' JAROMIR JAGR, the 22-year old Czech, was seen as "rock n' roll on ice," according to one agent. Melanie Hicks, Marketing Coordinator for Karhu, a hockey equipment maker, believes Jagr could step forward with teammate Mario Lemieux out for the season. The Red Wings' SERGEI FEDOROV is a hit in the big, fan-friendly market in Detroit. David Shoalts of the Toronto GLOBE & MAIL called him "a flashy player, and number one in Detroit." The DETROIT FREE PRESS' Cynthia Lambert calls Fedorov an "untapped resource." The Blackhawks' JEREMY ROENICK "has it all" according to one management exec, "He just needs a better team." OTHERS TO KEEP AN EYE ON: Karhu's Hicks said "this could be the year" for the Jets' TEEMU SELANNE, although playing in small- market Winnipeg is seen as a disadvantage. Ottawa's RADEK BONK was mentioned by the GLOBE's Dupont: "He has the hair. He has the name." The Bruins' CAM NEELY, recently signed by Nike, was only mentioned by one respondent. That did not surprise Mansur who said the Cam Neely story isn't about the "superstar hockey player, it is about the superior athlete." As Clarion's Grant notes, "Nike does things a little differently."