How the NHL is striving to entertain fans with no hockey in sight

New Jersey Devils defenceman P.K. Subban celebrates with teammates. (Adam Hunger/AP)

The bigger, the better.

The better, the grander.

More fans, the merrier.

Under the leadership of Steve Mayer, executive vice-president and chief content officer, that has been the NHL’s mantra: Let’s make the next one bigger than the last one!

Now, quarantined inside his New Jersey home office, Mayer is faced with the realization bigger might not be smart or safe, let alone possible.

This is the man who lured 85,630 people to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas to watch a hockey game in mild weather and helped flood the streets of Nashville for Stanley Cup parties. A nine-time Emmy winner who has made it his mission to inject a showtime splash of music and celebrity to hockey’s major events.

Now all of the league’s splashiest moments are stuck in a state of TBD. The last thing we should do is congregate.

“So, we’re gonna have to put our thinking caps on and say: ‘We’re a new world. How will we still make our product look and be unique?’” Mayer says.

“Everybody’s trying new things. You have to. And that’s what, I think, will be memorable from this period of time — how people had to really start thinking again and get super creative in order to keep the fans engaged.”

During his 8 a.m.-to-8 p.m. workdays at home, Mayer and his group have been tirelessly creating and executing content ideas to keep hockey in the conversation when there is no hockey being played.

The executive’s excitement never wavers over our 50-minute chat about the distinct challenges and opportunities these suddenly silent rinks have presented.

The new episode of Stuck with the Tkachuks, a fan-interactive stunt show, just dropped. An eSports event is about to be announced. There’s a “Hockey at Home” series that showcases NHL brothers and couples. Classic games, like the upcoming Mark Messier guarantee reboot, are being re-watched in conversation with the stars themselves.

“We’re having fun. This sounds terrible to say, given how crazy it is,” Mayer says. “Every day we’re doing a different show, and it’s so different than it used to be. It’s almost going back to when I started in the business, where you had to kind of figure out how to do this and you’re taping strings together.”

Mayer misses hockey. You miss hockey. We all do, of course.

Yet it’s fascinating to see how sports leagues reacts to the absence of sport. And here Mayer lets us peek behind the curtain to see how the NHL never left the entertainment business.

Sportsnet: How quickly did you wrap your brain around this new reality and say, “OK, we’ve got to create something to keep people thinking about hockey when there is no hockey?” Did your team see this coming?

Steve Mayer: I think we saw it coming. We have an amazing staff of people who’ve just technically blown me away. We said, “We may have to work from home.” And I’m telling you: we were really ahead of it. Kudos to them, we set everybody up with personal computers or our own computers. We made sure all our editors and producers could work from home. We made our server accessible. We gave them all the highest-speed Internet connections you could possibly get, so every one of them could access servers and download and upload video. We looked at all the latest technology that could essentially put a TV show together that looks like a Zoom call. We really did think ahead.

SN: Was there a period of shock when the season hit pause?

SM: When it actually happened, there was a moment of: “Wow. What are we doing? This is really serious stuff.” The first few days, especially after we announced our pause and other sports are all, one by one, suspending the seasons, we took a step back. In some ways, it helped us formulate a plan. We sort of took it easy, was respective what was going on. We were really sympathetic, and we only amplified our players’ messages that were positive, reassuring. We felt the players’ voice was important, especially. Remember, those first few days, not everybody was listening (to social distancing advice). You have kids on the beach in Florida, and it felt like people still weren’t taking it seriously. But we felt our players could speak to those people. Connor McDavid gave an early message that was really powerful: “Hey, be smart, this is going on. Social distance. Wash your hands.” Mitch Marner did the same. So, we just respected that.

SN: When was the time right to start trying to entertain?

SM: It was the 23rd of March when we said, “OK, now it’s time to start producing our own content. Let’s see what the what the appetite would be.” We started putting things out little by little, showing hockey highlights again. The thing we did was Season Snapshots over all of our platforms, where we’d look back at the season so far for each team. Little by little, we saw that our fans were responding in a real positive manner to this new content. So, we had a plan. We started looking at our first TV shows we were producing. We immediately were engaged with our broadcast partners — with Sportsnet, with NBC, with NHL Network — and realized they were yearning for new programming as well. They had put together programming groups and plans that had a lot of classic games, but not a lot of new programming. We raised our hand to say, “We’ll help you here.” So, everything we’re producing is now ending up everywhere. This has been an amazing period of time for us to put a program out that goes live on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, NHL.com, Sportsnet, NBC, and NHL Network all at the same time. (In the past) it was spotty. Now we’re organizing ourselves to maximize audience, getting to as many people as possible. It’s been quite interesting as a learning experience for us. And we think we’re producing really good stuff. We’re having fun. No idea is a bad idea. We’re going crazy.

SN: Regarding those initial player responses to the pandemic, how involved was the league in that messaging? Did those players volunteer to speak up and say something?

SM: From Day One, we’re all working together. There were conversations generated from the league outward to PR directors, to agents, to team personnel about the tone we were hoping for and how much we would welcome our players to be out there. We felt that the fans were in need to hear from them. But so much of what you saw was so organic, so real, was from the heart. And we at the league have the opportunity to amplify something that might’ve been sent locally by a particular player to make it go global, to let everybody see it.

That’s another thing that’s been really unique in this period of time: the co-operation between the NHLPA, the teams, the players and the league. Aside from one or two players who actually had conflicts because we were doing something else, we haven’t got a “no” on anything (we’ve requested). It’s been unbelievable. There’s a willingness — and, of course, it’s unique to having time and being home — and an interest to step out of what would normally be the box players are in, to get out there and want to be engaging and want to talk to fans, and want to entertain a little, or message a little.

SN: I’ve been blown away in the Zoom calls and phone calls I’ve been on with players. Their tone is much more conversational than it is during the game-to-game grind. It’s been refreshing.

SM: We all know there’s a measure of being slightly guarded during the regular season. Now, you’re at home. It’s a more relaxed situation. The kids are running around. We relax. We were laughing at one (Zoom) we did, kids are running into the shot — but it doesn’t matter. In fact, it’s enjoyable and fun to see. With P.K., Lindsey Vonn is like running around with lamps from their house trying to get more light on his face. Things that would never happen under regular circumstances are happening now, and it’s great.

With the editing of the P.K. show, our team was trying to make it look really slick. I actually said, “Guys and girls, stop. This is a period of time where there’s no expectation other than the content and to be entertained. We don’t need to throw out all these bells and whistles.” The rawer, the better. People just want to hear from people. When Ryan Getzlaf gets up and walks through his house and goes to his chicken coop, that’s something you’d never see. But that’s a moment people remember.

SN: You’re so involved in running the NHL’s big tentpole events and making a splash. All of those shows involve huge crowds. How have you been forced to consider a potential 2020 Stanley Cup Final differently?

SM: We’re looking at every potential option and putting it all out there, with fans and without fans. Right now, it’s so unpredictable and uncertain. We’ve postponed the draft lottery and draft. We’ve postponed the awards and the combine. Stanley Cup? Your guess is as good as mine. We have plans, not specific in terms of where we’re going — by the way, you’re not going to get that out of me — but plans like, if we were to do it without fans, what would it look like. All the arenas and everybody is looking at a world without fans and how different that might be.

Now, I hope it goes back to normal. I personally think it’ll be a little while before it does. We’re putting together plans that are going to be ready for anything. We’re gathering all the facts. And we know every city and every arena, and we’re really investigating all the possibilities where we might be able to come back.

SN: You’re taping a one-hour conversation with Alexander Ovechkin and Wayne Gretzky.

SM: This is a period of time where you can get Alexander Ovechkin and Wayne Gretzky together because people don’t expect anything more than seeing them from their own homes. Two months ago, people would have been like, “Oh, they got them. They’re on satellite. No big deal.” Now it’s super cool. These combinations of people, because of where they’re at and how easy it is for them to log into their computer, they happen. In the new few weeks, we’ve got some of the coolest combinations you’re probably ever going to see when it comes to the NHL, because it’s so easy to do this now.

SN: How did the weekly trivia show with P.K. Subban materialize? (NHL Hat Trick Trivia airs Saturdays at 12 p.m. ET on Sportsnet.)

SM: I created a (sports trivia) show in my past life called Beer Money (for NBC Sports). And I’m not kidding, for the last three years, we’ve been trying to develop a trivia show at NHL. This was the perfect opportunity to dust everything off, throw it out there and see what everybody thinks. It is fun. We learned a lot from the first show. There will be celebrities and players, but it’s really about the fans. It’s a simple show: people come on, they talk to P.K. and they answer some questions. It’s got a great energy to it. People just have a huge smile on their face from the beginning to the end. You can play along with the game at home, which makes it always fun.

SN: P.K.’s enthusiasm makes him a natural fit. Did he approach you to get involved, or did you reach out to him?

We always are talking to P.K.’s camp. He’s obviously very anxious for things like this. When the break happened, there was an inquiry to us saying, “Hey, you got anything for P.K.?” And when we started developing the show, and the lightbulb went off. Man, he would be perfect. We reached back out, and within 24 hours he said, ‘I want to do it.’ He’s got that great energy. You’d think he was a game show host before. You know, you work with a lot of on-camera talent, but his ability to get a little direction and then make it his own is really a gift. He’s has such an ease talking to anybody, whether it’s a paramedic from New Jersey, a fellow player, or a celebrity. He’s super engaging and thrilled that he’s doing this. I think this’ll be a big hit.

SN: How difficult was it to pull off the virtual St. Louis Blues reunion?

SM: That one’s crazy Steve Mayer who had an idea. And everybody was like, “Really?” A couple people who’ve been on Zoom calls with more than 10 people said, “That sounds really cumbersome. Is everybody gonna participate?” The cooperation from the Blues was awesome. Once we started talking about it internally, more and more people realized, “Man, if we could pull this off, that would be really cool.” My thought was: We’re all about team. We could be the first league anywhere in the world that brings the whole team together. And just to say that alone would be a win-win. The Blues were incredible. At first, the players weren’t really understanding what this was, and (GM) Doug Armstrong really was the guy who believed it was a good idea and got behind it. One by one, the players signed in. Before we went live, when the players were calling in, a couple players didn’t have their video turned on, or didn’t have audio, or we couldn’t find the player. And it was cool to hear other players like, “I’ll give him a call! I’ll text him!” They were all trying to work together. And I thought the best part was 15 minutes before we started, just organizing it all and watching them come in one by one. I have to admit, I was pretty emotional when I got to see the actual shot of them all there. You have an idea, but when it actually gets executed, you take a lot of pride in it.

SN: Any other ideas in the works that fans can expect over the summer?

SM: I’m actually working with a few bands. I’d love to pair an NHL player playing the guitar, the piano, or the drums with a musician. They’d actually play a few songs live on Instagram. That’s one on the shortlist that would be really cool. So many bands are ready to do it, so right now we’re looking for the person who could accompany the artist. I’m sure we’ll find a few.

Another thing is 10-minute NHL meals. We’ll take a celebrity chef and pair them with our players, and they’ll cook 10-minute meals together. We’ll put a few of those out.

We’re also playing a series called Who Wore It Best? — a debate show. Like, who wore the No. 2 best in NHL history?

We’ve got a lot on the docket. We’re just having some fun. But at the end of the day, we just want to get everybody healthy and get everybody out there watching games again. What (content ideas) survive past this period and continues after we come back to play is really going to be based on the response and us listening to our fans about what they’re looking for. But I hope we can continue with a lot of these series we’re starting.

SN: How difficult has it been to keep your team’s morale up during the pause?

We have an amazing group of people. I’m the one that runs this, but it’s crazy how much work people are putting in. (Employees) are blown away. I think people thought, “Oh, man, we’re gonna get a little break.” They’re working their asses off. Listen, everybody has their personal lives. I think this has helped. If you ask them, it’s been a nice distraction from the craziness. Not to downplay anybody and where they’re at, but many (NHL employees) are in the heart of the worst area — New York, New Jersey, Connecticut. Many of them have children, and we’ve been very respectful of that. Many of them, including myself, know people who have the virus. That’s No. 1. We’ve been respectful of people’s time. But what we’re doing has kept people really busy and has made the days go fast. It just doesn’t stop. And in some ways, it’s helped us all get through what is a terrible period in our lives. Many times, it’s given us a laugh. We all love what we do. We really enjoy creating and getting the response that we’re getting. And that’s been a little bit of a bright moment in what is terrible, crazy times. Morale is OK, because this group loves to create, and every day that’s what we’re doing.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

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