Nick Kroll stole the Stanley Cup and the NHL hopes you care that he did


NEW YORK, NY – When the Stanley Cup Playoffs arrive, so do the expected ad campaigns from the National Hockey League.

Those commercials that have us reliving legendary moments from playoffs’ past (“ONE GOAL”) or accentuate the pressure that the current stars feel in the clutch (“BECAUSE IT’S THE CUP”). Those commercials that make hockey fans feel that the postseason is a moment of communal gathering in local bars.

We’ll see variations of those ads this spring for the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, along with some unexpectedly innovative ones from the NHL.

Assuming there are Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2014. Because, as you might have heard, the Stanley Cup was stolen.

“Cup-nappers. Someone taking the Stanley Cup for ransom, and making some outlandish demands, like playing in the NHL,” said Brian Jennings, Executive VP Marketing at the NHL.

That was the breaking news from NBC released earlier this week, as celebrity puckhead David Gregory and chronic over-actor Jim Cramer helped sell the idea that the Cup had been lifted, in a bad way.

Then, on Monday, the revelation of the Cupnappers’ identity:

And it was comedian Nick Kroll from “Kroll Show” and his cronies the whole time!

This combination of sketch comedy and digital media – the videos have gained over 100,000 views on YouTube and more on – is uncharted territory for the NHL when it comes to pushing the playoffs. It has NBC Sports to thank for that.

NBC suggested bringing The Brooklyn Brothers, creators of the ads, to the table when the NHL was working on a marketing plan for the postseason. That agency created the rather hilarious spots for Premier League soccer on NBC, as former ‘SNL’ star Jason Sudeikis played an American football coach hired to take over Tottenham Hotspur.

“They did a really clever thing, using the comedian as a star,” said Jennings, “and in a world where a lot of this shorter-form [media] gets passed around and shared, it was our way of wading into those waters.”

So the NHL, NBC and the agency decided on Kroll as the face of new hockey campaign. Kroll’s familiar from his work on FX’s “The League” and for “Kroll Show” on Comedy Central. Like Sudeikis, he was given creative input and a chance to improv during scenes. “We wanted to make sure he had a level of buy-in, but could riff,” said Jennings.

This naturally led to a collision of comedic tastes between the NHL, The Brooklyn Brothers and Kroll.

“We wanted to be respectful of the Cup. And that’s one of the most difficult things about doing this. One of guys will want to toss a salad in the Cup or eat fondue out of it,” said Jennings.

“But when you’re in a medium of comedy, we wanted to strike that chord with it.”

So the NHL went with it, and went big: The “Cupnappers” video was shown in movie theaters around the U.S. last weekend, and NBC has been pushing the campaign on the air and on social media. There’s a Twitter hashtag for it: #Cupnappers.

“A big charge over the last couple of years has been to socialize the Stanley Cup Playoffs,” said Jennings.

In doing so, the NHL has attempted to find an entry point for casual sports fans into the postseason. Not only does “Cupnappers” use comedy, it uses the most recognizable thing the NHL has going for it: The Stanley Cup itself.

Two years ago, the NHL had focus groups in New York and Los Angeles, for sports fans who didn’t watch hockey but didn’t outright loathe it. The Stanley Cup wasn’t only the most recognizable thing to these fans, more than any player or team; they knew details about it, from the white-gloved handlers to drinking out of the top.

The trick for the NHL, as usual, was to create a campaign that gained the attention of non-hockey fans while entertaining its core audience.

“What can we do to reach out to the casual sports fan without alienating the avids?” pondered Jennings.

And make no mistake: Things like “Cupnappers” are geared to die-hard fans too. Because part of the NHL’s marketing challenge is breaking what it calls “tribal behavior”; i.e. when fans stop watching the playoffs because their team either didn’t make it or gets eliminated.

“We want to create the ‘surround sound’ when all 30 teams are in play,” said Jennings. “There are good, loyal hockey fans in important hockey markets. Although you’re disappointed that your club’s not there, it’s the best hockey you’re going to see.”

Assuming there's a Cup to win, of course. Oh that Nick Kroll...