National hockey tournament seeks revival
When street hockey tournament Play On! began in Halifax in 2003, its 27-year-old creator slept in his car to save on hotel costs during the event. Little did Scott Hill know it would soon become a national phenomenon with the backing of CBC’s Hockey Night In Canada. He was even less aware that in 2014—at the height of its success and expansion to 22 cities—he’d have to abruptly call the game. This is the story of what happened… and how Hill hopes to rebuild.
Clearing the ice
Hill says to understand why it all ended, we must first look at how it began. He had been playing ice hockey all his life, but when he was 12, a hit behind the boards left him unable to continue. “The hit happened during a Saturday game and I didn’t wake up until Tuesday. The head and shoulder injury left me banged up so bad I still can’t sleep on my left side to this day,” says Hill.
“I never lost the passion, though I lost the ability to play, and I always had this desire to create something for others.”
As an adult with a business background, a new wife and a growing family to provide for, he decided to take a chance on what he called his “Field of Dreams” moment. “I figured if I built this tournament, people would come. My wife and I have seven kids, and I always wanted to have a program focused on making kids happy. That’s when I began trying to make Play On! a reality,” he says.
Hill describes his first year as a grueling experience. “The first ever event, held in Halifax, was a difficult process. …I thought sponsors would come on board right away, and had no idea how hard it’d be to market,” he said.
“The companies I thought would be interested just weren’t. I slept in my truck for 10 days, and it was killing me emotionally, physically and financially.” Then, he got a lucky break.
The Trailer Park Boys television series were becoming big around the time the event was beginning, and Q104, a radio partner, helped bring some of the characters in for a celebrity game. The first Play On! ended up with 120 teams, built largely on the TV stars’ prolific brand on the East Coast Action photo from a Hockey Night in Canada’s Play On! event. Photo credit Ryan Tir The CBC provided approximately $3M in media support annually to make the Play On! program possible in 34 Canadian communities between 2007 – 2017. Photo credit Ryan Tir
Building the team
For year two, Hill went after the NHL and Hockey Canada as potential sponsors. “Hockey Canada didn’t see how ball hockey could transition new Canadians or non-ice hockey players into ones who skate. They thought it was too big a bridge,” he said. The NHL, meanwhile, said they were more interested in growing their brand in the southern U.S. than building a fan base in eastern Canada. Still, the NHL agreed to approve a license for the use of their logo, though no money was involved in the transaction.
“In fall 2003, we had a one-year licensing deal with the NHL, and we did a five-city tour for the 2004 season. We found corporate support as a result of our loose affiliation with the NHL.” Hill’s idea gained momentum—then the lockout began.
NHL’s first major lockout, which resulted in a discontinuation of all marketing, shut down Play On! for a year. When the NHL reached an agreement with players, they didn’t bring another deal with Play On! to fruition. “When they came back, they rebranded everything. That orange-and-black logo we had been using was gone. Our first big break led to our first big setback,” Hill says.
The setback led to a new game plan: finally, in 2007, after five years of grinding in the corners, Hill met with CBC in 2007 and obtained the rights to use Hockey Night in Canada to promote Play On! This led to an eight-market tour in 2008; between 2008 and 2014, they expanded to 22 cities nationwide. While Play On! became increasingly popular across the country, its brand approached phenom status in Halifax.
Home town fans
“We had 648 teams in 2014, and the estimate by the HRM was 35,000 people were on-site at the Halifax Commons watching,” Hill says today.
Karla Nicholson, general manager of the Quinpool Road Mainstreet District Association, says one of their members said traffic from the event, held on the Halifax Commons up the street, allowed their restaurant to double their daily sales during the tournament. It was just one of the many local businesses that were fans of the program.
Nicholson provided letter correspondence between herself and Scott Hill, in which she reveals the Quinpool Association board had unanimously voted in 2016 for Play On! to continue at the Commons in 2017 and beyond. “(We) strongly feel that any temporary parking restrictions for our members and/or customers are far outweighed by the many positive spin-offs of having such an esteemed and valued Canadian event in our neighbourhood,” said the letter.
In 2013, after Hill’s most financially successful year ever for Play On!, the CBC lost the media rights to the NHL. Rogers bought them under a 12-year, $5.2-billion exclusive agreement. Included in the deal was a sub-licensing agreement allowing English broadcasts of Hockey Night in Canada and the Stanley Cup Playoffs on CBC, but the Canadian broadcasters no longer owned rights for sponsorships.
“CBC has continued to let Scott Hill use the HNIC mark and brand for free. We have also tried to find alternate ways to support the program that was not about on-air promos,” wrote Chuck Thompson, head of Public Affairs for the CBC, in an email.
Hill himself thanks CBC for their help and understands the predicament. “CBC continues to own the logo, brand and trademark, but they can no longer promote. They deliver Hockey Night in Canada, but when it came to our affiliation… we no longer had a media partner who wanted to promote and maintain the business model. We were allowed to utilize the HNIC logo at no charge or contract for a while, but promotion and advertising were no longer part of it.”
For three years, Play On! did this, but promotional support had dried up, and they wanted to reach a larger audience. So they went to Rogers for help. However, Rogers’ $250,000-a-year contribution was about a twelfth of what the CBC had provided. “They needed a return on that $5-billion investment,” Hill contends.
Then Rogers launched their Hometown Hockey program, which was a national community program. “With that in place, they wanted to focus their dollars on getting people to watch hockey on Sundays, and Play On! lost support,” says Hill.
Emails to Rogers’ Public Affairs office about Play On! received no response.
In the years between 2014 and 2018, Hill cut back from 21 cities to 10, including in Moncton, Montreal, Kingston, Regina and Victoria. “When Rogers said they couldn’t support us in 2017, we knew we couldn’t run an event without a national media sponsor,” he said.
In February 2018, Scott Hill announced that Play On! was cancelled. “The Play On! program will not operate in 2018,” a statement on their Facebook page said. “There is certainly a possibility that it may return in the future.”
Hill estimates the program costs $3-million to run yearly, and due to lack of sponsors, he couldn’t continue. But despite Play On! walking away this year, the desire to play street hockey in cities across the country, including in Halifax, remained.
Sports Entertainment Atlantic, a Halifax-based event production company, began their HFC Summer Classic ball hockey tournament when Play On! did not return. With a significant number of proceeds going to Jumpstart, the June 2018 event took place on Horseshoe Lake Drive in Bayer’s Lake.
“It was a good opportunity to slide in where the market was still there, and it was an opportunity to do it how we thought it should be done. We thought it should be more affordable and give back,” says Jamie McGinnis, manager of operations at SEA. “We wanted to do it for less. Canadian Tire was great, and Jumpstart was our perfect charity. The money went right back to the players.”
Among their sponsors for the Halifax-only event were Boston Pizza, East Coast Lifestyle, Halifax Water, Subway, Booster Juice, Goodlife Fitness and more. McGinnis says he was a fan of Play On!, and they did a good job. But he says SEA’s focus was on giving back,
“I don’t know why they didn’t come back, but when they didn’t, our president Derek Martin saw an opportunity,” he said. “We weren’t trying to get rich off it. Our numbers were 150 teams, and we did our best to keep costs low and drove registration up.”
McGinnis was also keen on getting out of the downtown and going to Bayers Lake, unlike Play On! “We wanted a carnival or festival atmosphere. Play On! had heavy costs for shutting down streets, and we secured rights for the RONA parking lot, had a drop-off zone, and our design worked,” he says.
“We brought GLOW and other companies on board who set up bouncy castles, had food on-site, a tailgating zone, and it was a cool experience. If we did it downtown we couldn’t keep costs low.”
That’s not all: they have plans to keep going next year as well. “We hope we have a location and date next year, and we want to bring registration numbers up while keeping that smaller feel. We had half of what Play On! had, and we don’t want to grow too much,” he said.
While SEA’s event catered well to Halifax, Hill says it’s different dealing with a national movement like Play On!. “This started in Halifax, but it’s all over the place now. You know what they say about imitation and flattery. I just see other events that came up for the year as a reflection of the market,” Hill says.
He also says he understands SEA president Derek Martin’s idea to fill the void Play On! left in the marketplace. “We both understood demand, and there’s a power in delivering. But Play On! put in the time and ran 170 events. Derek would have to catch up,” he says. “Historically, there’s room for one hockey event in each market, and many events like ours last a while. But when they get too big, support is more difficult to get.”
Hill says if Play On! comes back, he’s pushing nationally and back into the markets he lost.
“I recognize that in order to revitalize, we need a new business model. Mass participation team sports as a model is hard operationally and financially.”
“I have a new proposed business model submitted to the CBC and other key partners, and we’re in the early stages of getting it back. We need it back for kids and teams who love it. It’s been my own labour of love for 15 years, and I’d love it back.”