If you're not an ice hockey fan already, Heidi Browning of the NHL aims to make you one.
Heidi Browning likes the hand she’s been dealt: A high-speed game with about 60 minutes of action per contest and an international audience of hard-core fans.
“The game sells itself,” she said of pro ice hockey, “especially when you experience it live.”
Browning’s (IntlAf’90) new bosses at the National Hockey League want ever more people to tune in to the live sport, of course — in the flesh, on television, on the Web, on their phones. As the NHL’s new chief marketing officer, it’s Browning’s job to help make it happen.
“My mission at the League is to grow our fan base beyond the avids, to inspire casual sports fans to watch more hockey,” she said.
Browning makes an apt ambassador to casual hockey fans: Growing up in Mon - tana, she was one. She loved winter sports, especially skiing. But there wasn’t much hockey in her life and no pro team nearby. Denver itself lacked an NHL team until 1995. So she tuned in for the Stanley Cup and the Olympics and that was about it.
Browning — who came to the NHL in October from the digital music service Pandora — knows that exposure matters.
“We’re looking at interesting ways to bring the live game experience to more people, through access across connected devices, experiments with virtual reality and advancements in puck tracking,” she said. “Social media is also critical to our growth. Fans want to get to know the players behind the masks.”
This will involve encouraging individual players to interact directly with the public and advising them on how to do it. P.K. Subban of the NHL’s Nashville Predators — an enthusiastic Tweeter with nearly a million followers — is an example other players could emulate, Browning said.
The plan might require a cultural shift in pro hockey, given a historical emphasis on teams over individuals. But the fact is, Browning said, today “people expect to have personal relationships with athletes.”
A parallel digital initiative is “Future Goals,” an online learning program that uses hockey as a way of teaching science, technology and math (STEM) skills to students in grades 4-7. The program links hockey to school sub - jects like geometry (plotting the path of the puck) and environmental science (the study of ice).
The 30-team NHL is also expanding chances for kids to play the game itself.
Each team sponsors a local “Learn to Play” program, providing equipment, lessons and ice time for youth hockey. Where there’s limited access to rinks, teams facilitate street hockey.
The league also helps support 36 youth hockey organizations involving more than 100,000 kids annually across North America, with specific programs for players in inner cities and players with physical and developmental disabilities.
Browning, who lives in San Francisco and works both there and at NHL head - quarters in New York, had planned to go to law school after CU. She had a job at the Kaplan Test Prep office on Pearl Street to pay for her own LSAT fees.
One sunny afternoon, her life changed.
“Everyone was outside enjoying the nice weather except me,” she said. “I decided to leave the office and hand out Kaplan brochures. I ended up generating more leads in one afternoon than everyone did in a month. I won the marketing award for creativity and ingenuity.”
So she went into business instead of law, making a career in marketing, with notable roles at MySpace, Universal Mc - Cann and Pandora, where, as she’s put it, she fostered “meaningful connections between bands, brands and fans.”
In 2016, Browning impressed NHL executives at an industry networking event. Before the year was out they’d hired her.
“Digital marketing,” she said, “is the future of marketing.”
Ben Gleisser lives in Ontario.
Illustration by William Rieser