A feature-length documentary about Canadians’ passion for hockey—much of it shot by the fans themselves over a single day—has become one of the biggest sports events in the country since live hockey came to a halt and the Stanley Cup playoffs were postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Hockey 24, in the works since November, got a fortuitously timed debut recently on national TV, where sports-starved audiences turned up in droves to watch it. That’s not the surprising part, given Canadians’ near slavish devotion to hockey.
The unique twist? It’s a piece of branded content from Scotiabank, a financial institution that dates back to the 19th Century. The marketer didn’t set out to make Canada’s version of the ESPN documentary The Last Dance, but it did take a risk on an entertainment project of unparalleled scope for the brand. And it paid off–the country’s hockey-loving populace embraced it with Michael Jordan-sized fervor.
Hockey 24 would have premiered at the Hot Docs film festival this spring, but the event was postponed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. So producers instead launched it on Sportsnet on a Sunday night in May “to help bring hockey back to television screens and to highlight how the bonds developed through sport help Canadians, no matter what challenges we are faced with,” Scotiabank CMOClinton Braganza told Adweek.
Hockey 24, billed as “a film by Canada,” was developed in 2019 under markedly different circumstances, but it couldn’t be more of-the-moment, according to Hayes Steinberg, chief creative officer at The Mark, Scotiabank’s agency, and the film’s executive producer.
“The bonding we desperately need during the Covid-19 crisis, we always get in hockey,” he said.
The time capsule-style project features peeks into hockey life across cultures and geographies, from the frozen tundra of Churchill, Manitoba to Indigenous lands in British Columbia’s Williams Lake to the ethnically-rich Vancouver.
A few highlights from the 90-minute film, as noted by Braganza: “a face-off pig, a penalty box dog, a goalie grandma, parents with 18 children in hockey, trading pajamas for pads, a one-in-a-million prospect.”
Here’s the story behind how Hockey 24, produced with partners Hot Docs, Rogers Communications and the NHL, came together:
Hitting the ice
Scotiabank, with roots that stretch back to the 1830s, has been deeply embedded in Canada’s favorite pastime for decades.
The brand has naming rights to Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, where the NHL’s Maple Leafs (and the NBA Raptors) play, and its sponsorships range from marquee athletes and retired legends to children’s teams. It also produces a reality-style hockey series about junior players for television, and Scotiabank’s events calendar is packed with sponsored hockey clinics and club games.
But the brand aimed to “level up” its exposure to hockey aficionados, who are inundated with official and unofficial sponsor messages, according to Steinberg. “We wanted to cover hockey stories from coast to coast to coast, with stories never told before, and really get people’s attention,” he said.
He and his team presented a number of concepts to the client, and Hockey 24 rose to the top as a way to provide a “big tentpole moment,” Steinberg added. The idea was to gather user-generated content filmed in a single day and supplement it with video from 25 professional crews and decorated Canadian filmmakers.
“Admittedly, we knew it was ambitious and we didn’t know how much content would be submitted,” Braganza said. “But [we] felt confident that the content we would receive and curate would offer us special stories focused on the values and lessons hockey teaches.”
Steinberg said the 24-hour time frame was “deeply meaningful to the storytelling” because it shows that Canadians’ love of the sport never sleeps. “We’ll play at 2 a.m. on a frozen lake with only the moonlight to guide us,” he said.
The brand’s logo—which in Canada appears everywhere from hockey jerseys to community rinks— was to be “thoughtfully and intelligently” used in the content to avoid criticism of inorganic product placement. “We didn’t want to jam it in your face so you think you’re watching a 90-minute ad,” Steinberg added.
Submission flood, war room
The agency put out the call for content and gave consumers a two-week deadline. Within 24 hours, there were nearly 2,000 submissions, which kept climbing by the thousands, according to Steinberg.
Some of the user-generated videos were slick and professional, he said, while others were rough around the edges but “charming.” They ranged from TikTok-sized 6-second clips to more than two continuous hours of footage.
The Mark executives set up a war room so they could plot out the film’s chronology and arcs. Eight full-time staffers worked for four weeks to vet the footage and sort it into categories. While doing so, they noticed that some patterns quickly emerged, like shots of people dragging their bulky gear to their cars and making breakfast in the pre-dawn hours. Many of those shots were compiled into montages.
The finished product contains a number of heart-tugging stories, including an indigenous boy whose hockey training rescued him from a family battling addiction and a determined 9-year-old who doesn’t let his cystic fibrosis stop him from playing. There are appearances in the film from LGBTQ players, as well as NHL legends and Olympians including Darcy Tucker, Lanny McDonald, Natalie Spooner and Cassie Campbell-Pascall.
More stories, big response
Though there was inevitably a cutting-room floor, some of the content will be edited and used in other marketing-specific ways, Steinberg said. There’s already been a 30-second ad from that footage, called “Positivity,” that launched in January, and there are pieces of video that could carry the bank through any number of holidays, seasons and campaigns, he added.
Producers always planned to distribute the film on digital platforms, such as the Hot Docs website, where it’s now available. But the canceled film festival premiere gave the brand a different opportunity. Via Rogers Communications, Scotiabank negotiated a TV launch and ran promotional trailers ahead of the broadcast. The documentary aired commercial-free on Rogers’ Sportsnet during primetime.
Hockey 24 drew healthy crowds, though the night’s sports lineup also included two live soccer games from Europe and a special called “The Season” about the champion Toronto Raptors. (The film placed fourth against that stiff competition). Also, #Hockey24 spent part of the weekend as the top trending hashtag in Canada on Twitter, with mentions of the film garnering the same kind of numbers as hot-button political topics.
The film may air again on TV, with ongoing discussions about expanded digital streaming, VOD and a potential run in Cineplex theaters.
From a strategic perspective, branded entertainment like Hockey 24 “provides flexibility and the opportunity to storytell and humanize a brand in an authentic way,” Braganza said. But that’s only part of its value.
“We tried to capture the spirit of hockey—things like hard work, selflessness, dedication, taking care of one another—that’s what the film is all about,” Steinberg said. “There are beautiful parallels in the content to what we’re going through in the world right now, and that makes us feel like we’re part of something greater than a brand itself.”
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