What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Toronto Maple Leafs? It might be Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark, or more than four decades of Stanley Cup futility. How about a gigantic tree-man wearing blue tights that has the power to fire sticky sap bombs out of his fingertips to destroy his enemies?
“The Maple Leaf” is one of 30 National Hockey League-inspired superheroes created by comic book legend Stan Lee, co-creator of Spider-Man, Iron Man and almost every other Marvel hero of note, in a new entertainment partnership with the league called the Guardian Project. The venture includes a graphic novel, gaming, sponsorship, merchandise and more, to give kids a different way to connect with the league and sport. Far from Pro Stars redux, this codpieced collection is Peter Puck-meets-X-Men on amphetamines and has almost nothing to do with the game of hockey. Is this a new crossroads in sports culture and branded content, or simply the latest example of a misguided marketing ploy?
Targeted at tween boys and girls, the Guardian Project made its official debut at last month’s NHL All-Star Game and will roll out to individual cities throughout March and April. The league and its partner, Guardian Media Entertainment (GME) introduced each hero on a daily basis in January via Facebook fan voting. And while most 20- and 30-something bloggers were scratching their heads over the sanity of it all, more than 1.2 million votes were tallied.
“The Guardian segment on NHL.com was the second-most-viewed part of the site in January,” said Brian Jennings, NHL vice-president of marketing. “That’s great content, fans are taking a deeper dive. We’ve spent a lot of time and resources [on this project] and have very ambitious goals. All the business units have recognized the potential here.”
The creative team at GME originally pitched the idea to the NFL, but it wanted to use existing players and revolve around — surprise! — football. “They didn’t want to do it in a way we thought creatively made sense,” says GME creative director Adam Barratta. “We met with the NHL and struck an unprecedented deal, where we are partners in an entertainment endeavour that they have an ownership stake in.”
Jennings said the deal represents the league’s desire to be more creative. “We want to get away from being risk-averse and have a bigger appetite for calculated risk that can help change the business,” he said. “This project is important in its potential to start a dialogue with fans that may not be playing hockey as active participants, to help build and engage with the next generation of NHL fans.”
It remains to be seen if the Guardian Project will strike a chord with audiences and reach its creators’ expectations or suffer a costly but quick death, mocked into obscurity. Until then, it’s already provided a new level of trash talk for hockey fans. As one online commenter sniped, “Funny thing about the Leaf Guardian, if you cut him in half you’ll see no new rings since 1967.”