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It could be said that hockey is a very Canadian sport. It embodies the Canadian values of humility, camaraderie, sportsmanship, egalitarianism, subtlety, respect for tradition, and conservatism. Inside the confines of the rink, hockey players are larger-than-life: aggressive, assertive, and spectacular. Outside the rink? Not so much.

This is one of the overriding problems that plague the NHL. The personalities of the players, still mostly Canadian, make the sport hard to market because the culture of hockey players eschews taking the spotlight, grandstanding, or boasting. Players tend to walk softly when not carrying their big sticks, and this League of Unextraordinary Gentlemen makes for a lack of players with true celebrity potential.

It is an understatement to suggest that the NHL has a marketing problem. And while this blog is awfully hard on Gary Bettman (justifiably so) it’s not all his fault. Consider the story of David Beckham vs. Wayne Gretzky.

When David Beckham was imported to Los Angeles he brought more than just a bendy shot to Major League Soccer. He and Victoria Becks were soon spotted among the elite, embraced by the celebrity culture that dominates Los Angeles. This made it much easier to market the LA Galaxy and Major League Soccer in general, as each appearance in People magazine, on Entertainment Tonight, or gracing the red carpet at premieres served as a stealth advertisement for the game. This drew fans from unlikely sources. Beckham built his fame in front of the global futbol audience, transcended sport and celebrity by marrying one of the Spice Girls, and managed to remain dignified while making himself into a global brand.

Canadians still love Wayne Gretzky. Arguably the greatest player to ever grace the arenas of the NHL, his jersey number is so hallowed it is verboten to wear it — officially retired throughout the league. No player bears comparison, and his infamous move from Edmonton to Los Angeles was heralded as a break-through for the game. In fact, it was. The Kings, a basement-dwelling team before his arrival, began building a dynasty which, though it never returned a cup to LA, remained competitive and entertaining throughout his stay there. They drew in new fans, and the spillover helped the league to add teams in San Jose and Anaheim.

But Wayne is as much an admirable personality as he is a uniquely modest, humble guy. He shuns the limelight. He doesn’t want to attend glitzy parties, isn’t a trendy dresser, avoids controversy. He married a modestly successful actress, not a megastar. And as Canada’s favoured son, he carries the hopes and limitations of a nation wherever he travels. It’s an enormous burden, one he clearly feels, and one which has ultimately kept him from becoming a global transcendent brand. In many ways this is an opportunity lost. Both for Wayne and for the game he so clearly loves.

What the league needs is a cadre of players that can move the puck like Wayne — casually chucking in 50 or 60 goals a year, let’s say — while simultaneously engaging the popular media.

Sean Avery is no Wayne Gretzky. His style of play is better suited to the beer leagues than the beautiful game. But Sean has engaged the popular media and celebrity culture in a way that no player in recent memory has — and he is poised to drive interest in the NHL because of it. Within the league he’s a constant source of news and controversy, both for on-ice antics and off the ice. Within the game a great source of controversy and intrigue, and a pattern that sees shades of Brett Hull, Claude Lemieux, Shanahan, and Roenick.

But outside the arena he’s raised his game to a whole other level. Avery has had relationships or been linked romantically to a growing list of celebutantes including an Olsen twin, Elisha Cuthbert and Rachel Hunter; has made People Magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” list; has appeared on MTV Cribs (bragging about your bling is very non-Canadian!); was weirdly an intern at Vogue Magazine this summer; is poised to star in a fashion reality TV show; can frequently be seen amongst the glitterati at fashion shows and premieres; and is even the subject of a movie presently under development at New Line. He’s even been profiled in the New Yorker. This among a growing list of exploits studiously documented in fan magazines like People and Us, and on TV on shows like TRL and Entertainment Tonight.

Avery recently arrived to a Hollywood party and asked a reporter if The Hills’ resident prick Spencer Pratt was there yet, because he wanted to “kick his ass.” All of this behaviour is very-much outside the norm for your cookie-cutter Canadian hockey player. And in many respects it’s preserving interest in his career as a grinder long after the pace of the game in the NHL has moved past players of his ilk. It’s even conceivable that (female) fans in Dallas this season, where he recently signed another one-year contract, might turn up just to see a glamourous NHL star — not Mike Modano, mind you, but Sean Avery.

In any event, if you believe that half of good marketing is just being seen, he engages the popular media with the NHL in a way that is hugely constructive to its image as a major sport with dynamic, cool, exciting players. The revelation here is that what makes a hockey player exciting in this multimedia world is not limited to what he does on the ice. What the die-hards among us will need to accept if we expect the league to grow and flourish is a lot more guys like Sean Avery.

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