Puck Daddy - NHL

In the NHL, humility is paramount. No player is supposed to be bigger than his team, no team bigger than the League. It's the logo on the front, not the name on the back, right? Except, of course, when your name is a brand name -- on a global scale.

IMG Worldwide, one of the most powerful sports and entertainment marketing agencies on the planet, believes its newest client Alex Ovechkin's(notes) celebrity has transcended the sport of hockey.

"Correct," said David Abrutyn, IMG's senior vice president and managing director of global consulting. "We believe that given the performance on the ice, and given his personality and general demeanor, that he's really broken through. There are going to be some significant opportunities from a marketing standpoint to raise his profile to that of other superstars in other sports."

So if there's a commercial with Kobe and Tiger promoting a car or an energy drink or an iPod, does Alex Ovechkin get to join them on the Mount Rushmore of sports celebrity?

"That's a great aspirational standpoint," said Abrutyn.

"We'd like to see him in more national advertising campaigns and national promotion -- from Canadian perspective because of the passion for hockey in that country; from a U.S. perspective, because of his ability to [break] through; and when you get into the global hockey markets, we'd like to see Alex marketed in the same way that other global superstars are."

To some, the news that Ovechkin has signed with IMG will be a blip on the radar, a brief note in the business section. To hockey fans, it should mean something much, much more significant: It's a premier marketing company indicating that the NHL has potentially produced its first global crossover superstar since former IMG client Wayne Gretzky.

IMG Hockey was a division of the company that used to have a presence in both marketing and player representation, including Gretzky. The hockey division is now CAA's hockey division, and Ovechkin is the first hockey client for IMG in the last three years.

"This is really about signing a major global superstar as much as it is about hockey, but clearly Alex is a hockey player, so it's a return to hockey in some respects," said Abrutyn.

Why Ovechkin? His success on the ice, insofar as records and scoring titles, has made him a star. The MVP trophies and other hardware have made him a star. His highlight-reel moments have made him star, according to IMG.

"Alex is without question the most exciting player in the game today. The frequency with which he appears not only on SportsCenter but on YouTube and other media distribution points for his spectacular goals and hits has established him," said Abrutyn.

But there are other NHL players that have won awards and posted significant stats -- Sidney Crosby(notes) and Evgeni Malkin(notes) of the Pittsburgh Penguins, forever in this conversation with Ovechkin, are the two most prominent.

The difference, at least in part to IMG? Ovechkin is a bigger goofball.

"I think the personality is a great asset that he brings to the equation from a brand-building standpoint," said Abrutyn. "You're touching on something that not only hockey fans but other people recognize as something unique about Alex -- that natural personality that he brings helps him break through that other hockey players haven't."

Who knew this was a harbinger of things to come?

From a "global superstar" perspective, Ovechkin is positioned uniquely as an athlete whose celebrity in Eastern Europe and North America is growing by the season.

"If you look at other sports ... if you look at Yao Ming and where he's from, and what other NBA players from other countries have accomplished as well as golfers and tennis players, Alex is positioned to have success in North America and in other hockey countries," said Abrutyn.

Ovechkin's current sponsorship deals are with CCM, his own apparel company, Energizer Canada and a hockey memorabilia deal. The Energizer sponsorship was through the NHL, and IMG intends to both develop deals independent from the League for Alex and to work with League sponsors for opportunities.

"Alex has an ability to do things on his, but one of the starting points is going to be 'what are the companies that are invested in hockey as a sport?' Whether that's at a team level in Washington or at a League level," said Abrutyn.

Terms of Ovechkin's IMG deal weren't disclosed, but Abrutyn said the Ovechkin camp liked "the fact that some IMG clients like Tiger and Arnold Palmer have been with us a long time." (So when Ovechkin hits the hockey senior tour ...)

How big can Ovechkin's celebrity grow globally? Put it this way: Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, Peyton Manning, Derek Jeter ... these athletes are icons, but have done something Ovechkin has not yet accomplished.

"Everyone knows his one remaining goal, at least as it relates to an NHL perspective, is to bring the Stanley Cup to Washington," said Abrutyn.

"That would create even more opportunities for him."

So now Ovechkin isn't just pushing to make the Washington Capitals Stanley Cup champions for the first time; he's trying to go from local Hair Cuttery spokesman to being inside a Happy Meal in China.

No pressure.

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