The town in upstate New York where I grew up is known for its long, snowy, icy winters. It’s also less than a two-hour drive from the Canadian border. In fact, our cable system used to carry several Canadian TV stations and it was rare to receive change anywhere in the area without someone passing you at least a few coins with a beaver, maple leaf, caribou and/or Queen Elizabeth II on them. When I was 11 years old, the U.S. Olympic hockey team defeated the Soviets in the famous “Miracle on Ice” game in Lake Placid, just three counties away from my home. Based on that information, one might surmise that I would have grown up as a hockey fan. But I didn’t. And neither did most of my childhood friends who liked sports.
I share these biographical notes because I believe my personal situation is very representative of a problem that has faced the National Hockey League for a long time. As wildly popular as hockey is in Canada, it is really just a niche sport in most of the United States, even in areas where climate and geography would seem to make it a natural fit. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the single biggest marketing challenge that the NHL has faced over the past four decades has been trying to create new fans in American markets. They’ve attacked that problem from a lot of angles over the years. In the 1970s, the NHL rested its hope for the future on an animated disk named Peter Puck.
The strategy behind Peter Puck is readily-evident after watching just one of the animated shorts. The character was designed to teach kids (and probably adults) the rules of hockey so they would understand what they were seeing on TV and hopefully become NHL fans forever after. In addition to the cartoons, the NHL also distributed Peter Puck toys, Peter Puck books, and of course Peter Puck pucks.
It was a sound strategy on paper. Many businesses attempt to expose consumers to their offerings at an early age in order to create customers for life. It’s the same reason McDonald’s created Ronald McDonald and all of the associated McDonaldland characters. It’s the secret to Disney’s success across multiple generations. And it’s the reason that R.J. Reynolds ran into trouble with its Joe Camel ad campaign back in the 1990s.
Even with the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard to assess how successful Peter Puck was as a youth ambassador/entry point to NHL hockey. I’m sure there are adult hockey fans today who could and would credit the character with sparking their interest in the sport. Yet hockey’s continued lag in U.S. popularity behind football, baseball and basketball suggests that a major shift toward hockey did not take hold with the Gen Xers who were the target audience for the promotion. Of course, that kind transformation in a nation’s entrenched sports culture is a lot to ask of an animated character, or any single marketing campaign for that matter. After all, not even even Michael Jordan’s transcendent NBA career and ubiquitous marketing presence could make basketball more popular than football in America. What chance did a talking chunk of vulcanized rubber have in pushing hockey to the forefront of the crowded U.S. sports landscape?
Regardless of Peter Puck’s strategic success in the 1970s, the character does appear to have genuine nostalgic appeal among hockey fans. In 2007, the NHL reintroduced the character and the animated shorts have been shown in Canada and made available on DVD in the 21st Century. If nothing else, Peter deserves credit for being nowhere near as annoying as Major League Baseball’s widely-maligned
ripoff version of the same concept — Scooter the talking baseball. And don’t even get me started on that goddamned FOX football robot…