At major NHL events there’s a man trying to make sure the entertainment element runs smoothly.
He’s in the press box. He’s near the ice. He’s around the locker rooms. He’s at the various festivals.
Hardly does he walk a step or two without someone stopping him to chat about all the different components going on at that moment.
This is Steve Mayer, the league’s executive vice president and executive producer for programming and creative development. It’s his job to blend the NHL with various types of entertainment – and do it in a way that makes sense to hockey fans.
The NHL announced the hiring of Mayer – who had a 20 year career with IMG and previously did some work with the NHL through IMG – for the new position in December.
So far Mayer has been hard at work trying to boost the league’s image and prepare for some of the major happenings in the coming year.
“My chief role is to look at and to get involved with some of the key initiatives we’re about to launch,” Mayer said. “Centennial is probably number one and then World Cup of Hockey is another, but looking at everything sort of outside of the game itself, meaning the ancillary and the content and the programming and the entertainment and the connection with pop culture and the interest to bring a new set of fans to the game and to build stars and all of the above.”
He’s also stepped up in the interim to take over the role of Don Renzulli the NHL's former executive vice president for events. Renzulli had been with the NHL since 2007 and recently stepped down to pursue other endeavors. Now it’s up to Mayer to continue to use Renzulli’s formula while adding his own signature.
“In a world of sports clutter, and I think this is important, and we’re all vying for eyeballs and for fans to buy a ticket, the outdoor games are our answer to that,” the 53-year-old Mayer said. “When those outdoor games play, people are talking about them, people in the local communities can’t get tickets fast enough. It’s so incredibly important to keep them going because we see how each team just wants these games and how the fans want these games.”
While Collins’ focus was a lot on business, Mayer’s is more on the creative side, specifically from a content perspective. With IMG he helped produce a lot of league events, such as the Winter Classic, All-Star Fantasy Draft and All-Star Skills Competition.
He's also been a producer at various Olympic Games and the New York City Marathon.
“My focus is much more entertainment, programming, creative where others are taking other (Collins’) responsibilities,” Mayer said. “It’s been divvied up. It’s a really strong team at the league at a lot of levels and everybody has just kind of kept it moving forward. The timing is interesting? Sure, of course, but it’s not John’s job. No.”
Said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, “He’s been working with us for a long time. He’s brought a lot of the same qualities he was always able to supply to the league from an outside position, but now he comes to the office every day. He’s a very accomplished, creative person who I think brings a lot of new thoughts, fresh thoughts and ideas of how to execute some of the events we put on.”
In the past the NHL has been mocked for their association with some celebrities and musical acts at their big events. The “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” botched Martin St. Louis’ name at the 2011 NHL Awards. Chaka Khan’s performance at the 2009 awards didn’t seem to strike a note with hockey fans.
Mayer is trying to hit the sweet spot in how to align the NHL with the right type entertainers and entertainment entities.
“They have to be a willing partner, and that’s one thing I’m trying to do right now is gauge who’s interested and who’s really interested,” Mayer said. “I do think the passion, which a lot of these guys and girls have for the sport has to be one, real. And two, they have to engage. I mean, and again – there’s a series of folks I’m talking to and some will be just tied to our league as a presenter on NHL Awards or the host or they’re going to be voicing over this great documentary we want to do or there will be a campaign … then others, they bring something that’s business related that will make sense.”
He’s also listening to the fans, players and people around the league to try to get a better sense of what works.
For example, the musical entertainment at the 2016 NHL All-Star Game that featured A-List country stars was a hit for all involved. Mayer noted he heard positive reviews for “Cheap Trick” when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band performed at the Minnesota Wild’s Stadium Series game against the Chicago Blackhawks.
“For me when I hear criticism and I hear the applause for a certain act I’m taking note because I don’t think anybody really knows what’s right for our league. I’m really trying to figure it out. It’s a tough question because there’s a faction of folks who want classic rock and a faction that wants heavy metal and there’s some that want pop and something current,” Mayer said. “Part of my job is to know what’s our tone? What’s our music? What’s our soundtrack? And I’m curious. With every single event I’m learning more and more.”
Currently the awards are on Mayer’s docket. And while he’s not planning big changes to the event, he understands past critiques of the format.
“We’re looking at what we can do differently but at the end of the day the core has to be that we’re handing out our awards,” Mayer said. “We cannot and we won’t shy away from that. And that’s the thing with everything that I’m doing and we cannot overlook the core and that’s the great game. So how do you add or enhance? We’re still going to hand out the awards to all the players. So how do we do it in a cool, creative way that makes the show more compelling and more interesting for our fans? So do I have the answer yet? No. Are we talking to folks about it? Of course.”
People who have worked with Mayer in the past believe he’s the right person for this job. This is because they’ve seen him successfully blend performance and sport in the past in a way that hits a nerve with an audience.
“He is just totally turned on by the process and I think it’s contagious and I think he’s a really good leader,” said Hillary Mandel, IMG's senior vice president for media distribution. “He has the leadership to produce these programs and get musicians and in the entertainment business to take a chance and he can sell it. And it’s genuine.”
Part of that is because Mayer, who is often on the go in a different spot each week, is constantly listening. He’s hearing from fans, media entities and teams themselves and trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
Said Mayer, “I want to get to know everybody. I want to hear what they’re doing. I want to clearly understand what we can do to help.”
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