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The national Hockey League takes brand marketing into a new arena with its first official NHL-branded entertainment center/ice rink.

After years of brainstorming and negotiations, the NHL and Signature Sports opened the doors of the first NHL rink in Birch Run, Mich., last month. Another facility is being developed in Danbury, Conn., and more could follow.

The league sees its rink building initiative as a critical tactic to boost the sport of hockey in the U.S., as well as extending its brand to new markets outside this country.

The plan builds on the NHL's grass-roots growth strategy of graduating youths from street hockey to roller hockey to ice hockey. But to reach the ice hockey level, players need ice, which can be scarce and pricey (there are only 2,200 ice rinks in the U.S., compared with 5,500 in Canada).


The league's solution: NHL Skate, a brand concept applied to the rink. At Birch Run, the 115,000-square-foot complex contains regulation-size NHL and Olympic ice sheets, with eight NHL-theme dressing rooms, multipurpose conference rooms and an NHL Center Ice retail store.

"This isn't a cold and musty old ice rink where Mom and Dad can drop off a kid for a day," said Steve Solomon, the NHL's chief operating officer.

A team of NHL executives is charged with promoting and programming the facility. While hockey-inspired, the experience is designed to appeal to the winter sports fan and lifestyle. So the facility will offer free skate time and host figure-skating competitions.

A video arcade will offer more than just hockey games. The retail store will be stocked with product from Rival, a hockey-inspired apparel line created by a joint venture between the NHL and Texfi Industries.

NHL sponsors are being enlisted, as well. Chrysler Corp.'s Dodge division is providing a shuttle service between the facility and an adjacent outlet mall. Coca-Cola Co. products are being served. The league is also discussing synergies

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