SBJ/20080922/This Week's News

Hockeyville scores big for Kraft Canada

During the dark days of the NHL lockout in 2004-05, Jack Hewitt began to question Kraft Canada’s long-term partnership with the league. Was the company’s 28-year relationship still worth it?

He pored over research in search of an answer and came upon a surprising statistic: 92 percent of Canadian households went to an ice rink for hockey or ice skating. It convinced him that Kraft should stick with the NHL but shift its strategy. Rather than having fans watch the league and see Kraft, he wanted Kraft to bring the league to fans.

Canadiens legends signed autographs
in conjunction with 2006’s Canadiens-
Senators game.

The idea became the cornerstone of Kraft Hockeyville, a program that annually selects one Canadian community through a national vote and awards it an NHL exhibition game. Now in its third year, Kraft Hockeyville has become one of the most successful grassroots marketing programs in Canada, winning two Sponsorship Marketing Awards from the Association of Canadian Advertisers.

Last year, 7.3 million votes poured in to select the 2008 Kraft Hockeyville, which was 78 percent more than the 4.1 million votes drawn by the season finale of “Canadian Idol.” The winner, Roberval, Quebec, a town of 11,000, will host an exhibition game between the Montreal Canadiens and Buffalo Sabres this Tuesday.

“It’s like winning an Olympic bid for these communities,” Hewitt said. “It’s practically an unattainable prize.”

The program has rewarded Kraft Canada as well as the communities. The company has seen its business grow every year since it created the program. It has increased display activity from 1,500 displays at Canadian grocery stores to 3,200 in three years, and seen a 4 percent increase in business at stores with Hockeyville displays, compared with stores without them.

But for all its success, the NHL and NHLPA didn’t embrace the program immediately. When Hewitt first brought the idea to NHL and NHLPA executives (who are now no longer with the league or union), their reaction was lukewarm.

The town of Salmon River, Nova Scotia, was
the first to win the title of Hockeyville, in 2006.

“They said, ‘You want what?’” Hewitt recalls. “This was like asking the Dallas Cowboys to play the Houston Texans in Waco, Texas.”

Eventually, the league and union brought Canadian broadcast partner CBC into the fold and worked out a four-party agreement with Kraft. In January 2006, the first Hockeyville competition launched, encouraging consumers across Canada to nominate their communities for the chance to win $10,000 in hockey equipment, a $50,000 gift card from Home Depot to upgrade their local ice-skating rink and the opportunity to host an NHL exhibition game. In total, more than 450 communities applied.

Starting that March, select communities were featured on seven one-hour shows on CBC. Canadians watched and voted online and by phone for their favorite community. A town of 2,000 — Salmon River, Nova Scotia — won. It hosted a game between the Canadiens and Ottawa Senators at a local ice hockey rink that seated 1,600 people.

Chris Dawson, the committee leader from North Bay, which won Kraft Hockeyville 2007, compared the thrill of winning Hockeyville to a Stanley Cup victory for his community.

“When we won, I almost blew the earpiece out of [CBC host] Ron MacLean’s ear,” Dawson said. “It was a proud day this community probably won’t ever repeat.”

Kraft Canada’s Hockeyville displays at
grocery stores have helped boost sales.

The program continues to grow. This year’s competition received nominations from 1,138 communities, and CBC, which hosts the Hockeyville Web site, attracted 5.8 million visitors last year who spent an average of 14.5 minutes on the site.

Those numbers have inspired the NHL to begin talking with Kraft about creating a similar program in the U.S.

“We see Hockeyville becoming, not the craziness you get in Canada from the entire country, but big in thousands of communities across the U.S.,” said NHL sponsorship chief Keith Wachtel. “It’s a very viable property here.”

Kraft hasn’t committed to a U.S. Hockeyville yet. Such a program could work but only “on a regional basis, not a national one,” Hewitt said. “The door’s not closed.”

For now, he’s content to enjoy the program’s success north of the border. This week, he will travel to Roberval for the 2008 Kraft Hockeyville game. He’ll join 900 other people inside the local ice rink to watch what will be the first — and probably last — NHL game played in the community.

“For some of those kids and adults, they’ll never see it again in their lifetime,” Hewitt said. “That’s the magic of Hockeyville.”

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