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Thursday, February 29, 2024

The NHL Cares About Music More Than Ever

  • The world’s premier hockey league is working with some of today's most popular musicians.
  • The league sees music as a major gateway to growing and diversifying its audience.
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports/Design: Alex Brooks

I’ll be the first to tell you that, up until recently, I never really looked toward the National Hockey League with any curiosity about what they were doing in the music space.

Whereas the NFL and NBA have crafted entire brand identities around halftime performances at marquee games, the NHL has often felt decidedly less focused on how it integrates with the music industry — but that attitude is quickly changing.

“It’s a process. It doesn’t just happen overnight,” the league’s Chief Content Officer Steve Mayer told me on a call a few weeks back. “The gateway to fans and to growth, in many ways, is through content. You want to attract that casual fan and pull them in.”

The nine-time Emmy-winning producer joined the league in 2015 after two decades at powerhouse sports and entertainment firm IMG and has made a point to ramp up the league’s pop culture relevance ever since.

“Music is the best avenue to bring in new fans,” he said. “How do we start becoming way more diverse in our music choices? If you go past one of our locker rooms, heavy metal and classic rock — which was what everybody thought was the only music for the NHL — they’re not playing in those locker rooms.” 

“I Got The Cultivating Music That Be Captivating He…Who Listens”

The first sign of this shift that caught my eye was Lil Nas X’s performance in Boston on opening night of the Stanley Cup Final in 2019.

The rapper-turned-pop star hit the stage in a custom Bruins jersey and sang his No. 1 hit  “Old Town Road” to a raucous crowd of thousands who knew the lyrics word for word.

Tom Brady, looking to create a similar moment for the NFL, tweeted, “Season opener in September?” at Lil Nas X when a clip of the NHL performance reached social media.

When I was growing up, the NHL’s association with hip-hop was more abstract. Snoop Dogg wore a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey in the “Gin and Juice” video. Lil Wayne threatened to “put a motherf***** on ice like the Maple Leafs” in one of his freestyles.

Nearly three decades later, Snoop Dogg was formally name-dropped by the Penguins when they re-released the throwback he famously wore — and Snoop even hosted his own “Hockey 101” series on the NHL’s YouTube channel.

What was an anomaly with Snoop Dogg in the 1990s is becoming commonplace. J. Cole popped up in Billboard in a Tampa Bay Lightning jersey a few years ago. Lil Yachty’s “Minnesota” video co-opted hockey imagery with wide shots of him rapping atop a zamboni moving across the ice, among other references.

But there’s a gulf between metaphors and a proper embrace from the league itself, and Mayer is working to bridge that gap.

Last summer, 24kGoldn and Iann Dior performed their No. 1 hit “Mood” at the 2021 Stanley Cup Final. Just before that, the NHL commissioned Bia to remix her record “Skate” into a hockey-themed version to launch the playoffs.

Around the same time, the league announced a partnership with Timbaland’s music platform Beatclub to soundtrack its broadcasts, in-arena events, and digital content.

“Then You Showed Up and I Can’t Get Enough of It”

“There are so many avenues now to break artists,” says David Nieman, Head of Sports & Gaming at Interscope Records. “It feels like now more than ever the athletes are really leaning in and there’s more of a camaraderie between the musicians and athletes.”

Nieman works with Machine Gun Kelly — the headline performer at the 2022 NHL All-Star Game in Las Vegas.

MGK, who scored a No. 1 album with his pop punk crossover “Tickets to My Downfall,” hung out with Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid before the game, then took the stage in a bright silver jumpsuit to play his hits “My Bloody Valentine” and “My Ex’s Best Friend.”

His fiancée, the actress Megan Fox, was in attendance, bringing some of that mainstream celebrity row appeal that the NHL isn’t known for compared to star-studded NBA courtsides.

The performance received mixed reviews on Twitter, and the reception wasn’t helped by a post earlier in the day in which he wrote “see you at halftime” — hockey has intermissions. He defended the gaffe in a video a couple of days later, stating, “I know nothing about sports! But you know what I mean!”

For what it’s worth, I enjoyed the performance in person. It’s only fair that growing pains come along with taking risks for the sake of broadening the league’s horizons.

Shortly after the All-Star Game, the NHL brought out a massive lineup of country music stars, including Miranda Lambert and Dierks Bentley, for the Stadium Series in Nashville.

This Sunday, Willow, who’s caught some huge viral hits with her pop punk jams (she even has a record with MGK) over the past year, will perform at the Heritage Classic outdoor game in Canada.

“Tell The Coach Don’t Take Me Out, I Like to Finish Games”

The league aligning with music goes deeper than performances.

The New Jersey Devils, for example, have collaborated with Razu, a Black-owned networking service for musicians, as part of their “Devils Buy Black” program. The service has also been advertised on the team’s helmets.

“They have a great story and their platform is great — a forward-thinking platform for the entertainment space,” says Jillian Frechette, the team’s Senior Vice President of Marketing.

Perhaps most telling of how the NHL’s soundtrack is evolving are the songs the players are listening to.

I got my hands on a list of their song choices for goals at the All-Star Game and selections ranged from A$AP Rocky and Led Zeppelin to The Killers and Outkast.

At media day during All-Star Weekend, I stood a few feet away from Toronto Maple Leafs superstar Auston Matthews as he talked about how “a lot has changed” with the league’s culture in recent years.

His song choice when he scored for the Atlantic Division in the second semifinal game? “Knife Talk” by Drake, 21 Savage, and Project Pat.

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