I’ll be the first to tell you that, until recently, I never really looked to the National Hockey League with any curiosity as to what they were doing in the music business.
While the NFL and NBA have created entire brand identities around halftime performances at marquee games, the NHL has often felt significantly less focused on how it fits into the industry. music – but that attitude is changing fast.
“It’s a process. It doesn’t happen overnight,” league content manager Steve Mayer told me in a phone call a few weeks ago. “The gateway to fans and to growth, in many ways, is through content. You want to attract that casual fan and attract them.
The nine-time Emmy-winning producer joined the league in 2015 after two decades with powerhouse sports and entertainment company IMG and has been dedicated to bolstering the league’s pop culture relevance ever since.
“Music is the best way to attract new fans,” he said. “How can we start to become much more diverse in our musical choices? If you walk past one of our locker rooms, heavy metal and classic rock – which everyone thought was the only music in the NHL – they don’t play in those locker rooms.
“I have cultured music that captivates him… who listens”
The first sign of this change that caught my eye was Lil Nas X’s performance in Boston on the opening night of the 2019 Stanley Cup Finals.
The rapper turned pop star to get on stage in a personalized Bruins jersey and sang his No. 1 hit “Old Town Road” to a raucous crowd of thousands who knew the lyrics verbatim.
Tom Brady, looking to create a similar moment for the NFL, tweeted, “Opening of the season in September? to Lil Nas X when a clip of the NHL performance hit social media.
When I was young, the association of the NHL 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 fucking ***** on the ice like the Maple Leafs” in one of his freestyles.
Nearly three decades later, Snoop Dogg was officially waived by the Penguins when they reissued the throwback he 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 arose in Billboard in a Tampa Bay Lightning jersey a few years ago. Lil Yachty’s ‘Minnesota’ video co-opted hockey footage with wide shots of him rap on a zamboni moving on ice, among other references.
But there is a chasm between metaphors and a proper embrace of the league itself, and Mayer is working to bridge that gap.
Last summer, 24kGoldn and Iann Dior performed their #1 hit “Mood” in the 2021 Stanley Cup Finals. Just before that, the NHL commissioned Bia to remix his “Skate” record into a hockey themed version to start the playoffs.
Around the same time, the league announced a partnership with Timbaland’s music platform Beatclub for the soundtrack of its broadcasts, arena events, and digital content.
“Then you showed up and I can’t get enough”
“There are so many avenues now to break artists,” says David Nieman, head of sports and games at Interscope Records. “It’s like now more than ever the athletes are really leaning in and there’s more camaraderie between the musicians and the athletes.”
Nieman is working with Machine Gun Kelly, the headliner of the 2022 NHL All-Star Game in Las Vegas.
MGK, who scored a No. 1 album with their pop punk crossover “Tickets to My Downfall,” dragged with Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid before the game, then took the stage in a shiny silver jumpsuit to perform his hits “My Bloody Valentine” and “My Ex’s Best Friend.”
His fiancée, actress Megan Fox, was waiting forbringing some of that mainstream celebrity appeal the NHL isn’t known for compared to the star-studded NBA courts.
The performance received mixed reviews on Twitter, and the reception wasn’t helped by a post earlier in the day in which he wrote “at halftime” – hockey has intermissions. He defended the gaffe in a video a few days later, saying, “I don’t know anything 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 accompany risk-taking in an effort to broaden league horizons.
Shortly after the All-Star Game, the NHL introduced an extensive lineup of country music stars, including Miranda Lambert and Dierks Bentley, for the Stadium Series in Nashville.
This Sunday, Willow, who has scored 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 not to take me, I like to finish games”
The league’s alignment on music goes deeper than performance.
The New Jersey Devils, for example, collaborated with Razu, a black-owned networking service for musicians, as part of their “Devils Buy Black” program. The service was also advertised on the team’s helmets.
“They have a great history and their platform is awesome – a forward-thinking platform for the entertainment space,” says Jillian Frechette, the team’s senior vice president of marketing.
The songs players listen to are perhaps the most telling of the evolution of the NHL soundtrack.
I got my hands on a list of their song picks for All-Star Game goals and the selections ranged from A$AP Rocky and Led Zeppelin to The Killers and Outkast.
On media day during All-Star Weekend, I stood just feet from Toronto Maple Leafs superstar Auston Matthews as he spoke about how “a lot has changed” in the culture of the league in recent years.
His song choice when he scored for the Atlantic Division in the second semi-final? “Knife Talk” by Drake, 21 Savage and Project Pat.